Now that Malaysia is celebrating its peaceful transition of power it is easy to forget how grim political situation looked only a week ago. It is true that the end of 40 years long governing of Barisan Nasional and freeing political prisoners are definitely reasons to celebrate, but nevertheless it is crucial to note how much the newly initiated process of reforms has to achieve in order to meet fully democratic standards.
This phenomenon associated most commonly with the United States is even more prevalent in Malaysia. In the United States problem of gerrymandering, although significant, has a far less deteriorating impact on the legitimacy of the democratic process, due to a constant rotation on high profile positions across party lines. Although unfair, bending the rules by both major parties preserves some sense of equilibrium. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the practice of gerrymandering has been carried out by the same political party: Barisan Nasional, since the year 1973 in which bill that prevented drastic changes of electoral lines was torn apart. Since then, ruling party has been gradually introducing reforms to electoral system that ultimately led to absurd situation in which 14 from 15 electoral areas inhabited by more than 100 000 people are represented by candidates affiliated with opposition, while members of Barisan Nasional were elected in 29 of 30 smallest electoral areas (the tiniest one consists of less than 18 000 voters). Additionally, former prime minister of Malaysia; Najib Razak, recently announced subsequent changes of electoral boundaries, sparking up the controversy that caused a contestation of the whole democratic process by the opposition before the upcoming election. Indeed, concerns voiced by the prominent members of opposition camp were legitimate, as the electoral map, indeed, significantly favored Barisan Nasional. The fact that opposition managed to win, despite such a profound bias against it gives it a strong mandate to establish a new electoral map that would be more just and democratic. It can be hoped that the new government would resist the temptation of adjusting current system to their political needs, instead of reforming it.
Anti-fake news bill
The recent introduction of the bill that gives a legal basis to convict people for spreading fake news on the territory of Malaysia was heavily criticised by members of the opposition. They consider it to be a tool that enables the government to punish individuals for expressing opinions, which are critical towards the ruling elite. The opposition became even more fearful of the ruling party after Mahathir Mohamad (leader of the opposition) was investigated, because of his claims that his plane was sabotaged with a purpose of making him late for registration of his candidacy. Police claimed that it treated Mohamad’s remarks, as (potentially) intentionally misinformative, due to their discrepancy with conclusions of the report created by governmental aviation agency. It seems to be impossible to decisively conclude which side of the conflict is truthful, nevertheless, it undoubtedly creates a dangerous precedent, as state authorities exercise their power to decide if statements made by political opponents are factually correct. Nowadays, it is not hard to imagine a government using excessively such an effective tool, which empowers rulers to not only punish dissidents but also to dismiss their critical opinions. Also, the framing of the law (“spreading information that are wholly or partly fake”) makes it worryingly easy for any government to use this bill as a tool of oppression.
Rule of law
There are many different issues that substantially differentiate Malaysia from the typical Western liberal democracy. In 1999 the main figure of opposition Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to 5 years in prison for sodomy, which is a criminal offense in strictly Muslim Malaysia. The imprisonment of Ibrahim is considered to be politically motivated, as then prime minister Mohamad (the same that won recent election as the candidate of opposition) accused him of engaging in homosexual acts, during the public conference, and only then judiciary duly formulated a legal case against Mr Ibrahim. Tainted history of relations between those politicians is precisely what makes recent royal pardon of Mr Ibrahim inspired by Mr Mohamad such a profound event for Malaysian democracy.
Religious freedom and LGBT community rights
Likewise, things are not looking bright for the freedom of religion either. Ethnic Malays are defined as Muslims in the constitution and it is impossible for them to officially change their faith. It is also worth noting that practicing any other version of Islam than Sunni is strictly prohibited. This approach to the religion also affects many other realms of the functioning of the state. The inglorious example can be “widespread discrimination and harassment” against LGBT community, as described by American democracy watchdog Freedom House. Same-sex sexual relations are considered to be a crime that is punishable by up to 20 years in jail. Moreover, some states apply additional, cruel punishments in accordance with Sharia statutes. A depiction of gay characters in the media is also prohibited, as a part of a wider campaign, which is supposed to “prevent, overcome and correct” homosexual “symptoms” in children. In addition to all of that measures, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department runs a system of camps in order to “rehabilitate” transgender Muslims.
Freedom of the press
The freedom of the press is theoretically guaranteed by the constitution, but the Printing Presses and Publications Act allows a home minister to suspend certain publications on opinion basis (subjects of a ban are entitled to ask for a judicial review of given decision). Not only public media reflect views of the government, but also most of the private media outlets, which are usually run by businessmen associated with the ruling party. The most notorious case of a fight with independent press took place in 2016 when the online newspaper Malaysia Insider was closed. Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commision officially stated that newspaper was shut down due to purely administrative reasons. The official version is believed to be counterfactual, as the closure of the outlet happened just after Malaysia Insider reported that local anti-corruption agency gathered enough evidence to charge Mr Razak in connection with a major corruption scandal. That said, a few independent media outlets are still operating online.
Although recent political developments are raising hope for implementation of more democratic measures, it is worth remembering that it will take years of reforms to dissolve institutional and cultural mechanisms, which are oppressive towards Malaysians. The recent victory of opposition should be treated as a first step towards a truly open society, not as a sign that current system is working. Malaysia proved itself to follow the democratic election process, but it still has a lot of work to do, when it comes to other aspects of democracy.