Analysts: Govt Crackdown on Dissent Due to Insecurity

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The Perikatan Nasional government’s crackdown on dissent is due to its precarious hold on power, which reveals the coalition’s insecurities, said political analysts.

In going after its critics from Pakatan Harapan and civil society, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration is also trying to cover up its use of plum positions in government-linked companies and statutory bodies to buy support from MPs.

The campaign against dissent, said analysts, is a return to the Barisan Nasional era, as the politics of patronage appear to be the only method of governance that Muhyiddin is familiar with.

This is despite PN’s pledge to continue reforming institutions and combating corruption and kleptocracy.

“The crackdown is only one side of the picture with this government,” said political scientist Prof James Chin.

“The bigger picture is that PN is trying to erase all the practices of the previous 22 months of PH rule and take the country back to the BN era.”

The director of University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute said the GLC appointments signal a return to power of BN’s old guard, as they comprise veteran MPs who were ministers and deputy ministers in the previous era.

PH took Putrajaya after defeating BN in the May 2018 general election, but after less than two years into its five-year term, it was betrayed by more than 30 MPs from Bersatu and PKR.

These lawmakers – led by Muhyiddin and former PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali – formed PN with the help of Umno, PAS, and a clutch of Sabah and Sarawak parties.

Umno is the BN lynchpin, while Muhyiddin was BN deputy chairman until 2016, when he left to form Bersatu.

An audio recording recently surfaced of a man saying he will cement Umno support for PN through appointments in GLCs. It is alleged that the voice in question is that of Muhyiddin.

Chilling effect on speech

According to the Centre for Independent Journalism, 21 people and organizations have been investigated under either the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), Sedition Act or Penal Code for criticizing PN.

They include civil society activists, journalists and PH politicians, such as Hannah Yeoh, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Xavier Jayakumar.

The criticisms include PN’s parliamentary majority, its policies during the Covid-19 crisis, and its takeover of Putrajaya through defections and the alleged buying over of MPs from PH.

Mohd Azlan Zainal of think-tank Ilham Centre said the GLC appointments are related to PN’s slim majority in Parliament, and questioning such practices discredits the administration.

“The support for Muhyiddin has no clear direction, but just so that he can become prime minister,” he said, referring to PN’s majority of 115 of the 222 seats in Parliament.

“So, as Muhyiddin has not proven the actual support he has in Parliament, these appointments will continue.”

The authorities’ investigations into PH and civil groups for criticizing PN reveal that they are motivated by politics, he said.

“This is going to take us back to the BN era as the application of the law is not based on the constitution. To cement the government’s position, these types of politically motivated actions will continue.”

Associate Prof Awang Azman Awang Pawi of Universiti Malaya said the investigations into PN’s critics reveal its ideology, despite Muhyiddin’s earlier promise of institutional reform.

NST

“If the criticism looks like it does not benefit the government or makes it uncomfortable, they will take action.”

But he believes the current crackdown will not suppress PH or the government’s other detractors.

Chin, however, said it will create a chilling effect for PN’s social media critics.

He pointed to the attempt by Attorney-General Idris Harun to cite Malaysiakini for contempt of court for allowing certain comments on the news portal.

The comments were by readers, he said, and this will have an impact on other blogs and sites.

“It is a particularly authoritarian way of controlling the media and freedom of expression because the authorities are going after platforms and not just users.

“These same users, who are usually private individuals, are also vocal on social media, and the idea is to force everyone to be careful about what they write.

“The result is that people will go quiet on social media, and criticism of the government may fade.”

Meanwhile, Perikatan critics are more careful, but not cowed.

After being charged in court for criticizing the Perikatan Nasional administration, political activist Mustapa Mansor is now more careful about what he posts online.

“I have to be more careful as I don’t want to fall into their trap and have to fight multiple cases,” said the deputy president of Otai Reformasi ’98, a group allied with Pakatan Harapan.

Mustapa was forced to come up with RM6,000 for bail when he was charged on June 5 under Section 505b of the Penal Code for publishing a statement “conducing to public mischief”.

If found guilty, he faces up to two years in prison, or a fine, or both.

He was also questioned by police on June 1 over a YouTube video he made questioning if PN actually has the majority in Parliament.

“I will continue to post my YouTube videos because I have about 15,000 subscribers who appreciate my take on politics, especially on PN’s takeover of the government,” said Mustapa, a 53-year-old religious teacher.

“If I go silent, it will be a loss to freedom of speech and our democracy.”

Mustapa is one of a dozen activists, journalists and PH politicians who have been either questioned by police or charged in court in the first 3½ months of PN rule.

The criticisms include the pact’s parliamentary majority, its policies during the Covid-19 crisis, and its takeover of Putrajaya through defections and the alleged buying over of MPs from PH.

According to the Centre for Independent Journalism, the charges are under the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), Sedition Act or Penal Code.

Activists told The Malaysian Insight that the crackdown on dissent is taking Malaysia back to the Barisan Nasional era before the May 2018 general election, when government critics would be hauled up by police and tied down by expensive trials.

Some said PN’s suppression of civil society and opposition voices is actually worse than in the BN era, as the reasons for hauling them up have, at times, been petty.

“I think it’s worse because some of the reasons are so trivial,” said human rights activist Marina Mahathir.

Seth Akmal/TMI

“For example, Hannah Yeoh was merely asking what’s going to happen to the child marriage roadmap,” she said, referring to the Segambut MP, who is set to give a statement to police on Tuesday.

Yeoh, who was deputy women, family and community development minister in the PH government, will be questioned over a Facebook post linked to her that she has said is fake.

She said she is also being questioned by police over a tweet on whether PN will continue PH’s plan to end child marriage.

Marina said PN’s campaign against dissent is galling, considering that some of its leaders were sanctioned for speaking out against BN.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, as well as his ministers, Mohamed Azmin Ali and Saifuddin Abdullah, were all once PH members who campaigned in the 14th general election against BN.

But in a dramatic U-turn in February, the trio abandoned PH and formed PN with their former rivals in BN and PAS.

“I have already been questioned by police for speaking out on the third day of this government. But, I will continue to speak out when I feel it’s necessary,” said Marina.

“If they go after me, it only confirms our assertion that they are more repressive than before. And only insecure governments resort to such repression.”

Anti-graft activist Cynthia Gabriel, meanwhile, is being investigated under the Sedition Act and CMA for claiming that the government has been buying support.

“The prime minister promised a clean, accountable government, but it is disturbing to note that word has not met with deed,” said the executive director of the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4).

FMT

“What we see transpiring through political appointments is a backsliding on checks and balances, including on parliamentary scrutiny.”

She said C4 will remain steadfast in highlighting incidences of malpractice in PN, despite the “dark clouds ahead”.

Human rights activist and lawyer Siti Kasim said a recent Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission investigation into one of her Facebook posts will not deter her from speaking out.

Kamal Ariffin/TMI

“The world is looking at Malaysia, and we cannot live in our shells. Malaysians are not stupid, and the majority of them know that what the government is doing is an attempt to silence us.”

– TMI