After a year in power, Malaysia’s Madani government falters on reform agenda

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at a political rally. Photo from the Twitter post of Anwar Ibrahim

The government of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim marked its first year in power with various stakeholders pushing for the urgent implementation of political reforms.

During its inauguration, the Anwar-led coalition government unveiled the theme of Madani Malaysia (Civil Malaysia) to signal its intention of pursuing reforms after years of instability. For human rights groups, they welcomed the rise to power of a new government as an opportunity to repeal repressive laws since Anwar himself was detained on questionable charges when he was leader of the opposition.

How did the Madani government perform over the past year? Various groups and analysts recognized the reforms enacted by the government such as the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, decriminalization of attempted suicide, bolder commitments to address the impact of climate change, and the increase in foreign investments including the decision of tech billionaire Elon Musk to establish an office in Malaysia.

However, observers also noted that the Anwar government has been slow in rolling out reforms that would strengthen democratic mechanisms and media protection. Anwar is also accused of pandering to the conservative Islamic forces to bolster support from this segment of the population.

Malaysia has a predominantly Malay Muslim population. Under the previous government, Islamic hardliners have been aggressive in demanding the stricter implementation of religious laws which affected religious minorities and the LGBTQ+ community.

Academic Bridget Welsh from the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia sums up the legacy of Anwar.

Anwar’s performance is mixed; he has succeeded in staying in power but at serious costs to his credibility and at the expense of the expectations and hopes of his political base.

A report released by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) on December 10 highlights the slow progress in realizing the reforms promised by the Anwar government. It lauded the government’s decision to establish a Media Council, the passage of the Right to Information Act, and the enactment of measures to protect whistleblowers. But it also pointed out that authorities have continued to rely on colonial-era laws to harass critics, journalists, and members of the opposition. For instance, CIJ monitored the filing of 29 sedition cases in 2023 compared to 15 in 2022.

Nabila Khairuddin, campaign coordinator of Lawyers for Liberty, reminded officials of the Anwar government about the tyranny they endured when the previous government weaponized the Sedition Act against members of the opposition.

It is all the more disappointing that many of the then opposition leaders who are now in power, have failed to act against the use of the Sedition Act when they themselves are aware, and some have experienced first-hand, how easily the oppressive piece of legislation can be misused to target dissidents and political opponents in under the previous administration.

This year, Global Voices featured stories that reflected the disturbing trend related to the restriction of free speech which included the confiscation of pride-themed watches, the police harassment of women's march organizers, the blocking of critical websites ahead of state elections, and sedition investigations involving writers and artists.

CIJ lamented the state of freedom of expression under the Anwar government.

We find that the media continues to be restricted. CIJ notes that despite the change in government initially signalling a change in mindset regarding dissenting opinion, the current government still attempts to restrict alternate views and the independence of media through the use of law and arbitrary practices.

CIJ and other human rights groups are urging the Anwar government to focus on its pledge of promoting democracy by repealing repressive laws like the Sedition Act and guaranteeing the right of media to report without fear of persecution.

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