By: Wei Lit Yew – wlyew2-c [at] my.cityu.edu.hk
Where does Malaysia stand in the face of rising activism?
2013 marked the point at which the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) coalition government of Malaysia began constricting political space, after experiencing its worst electoral performance in its history. In 2015, the number of people investigated, charged, and convicted under the draconian Sedition Act totalled 220 – a quintuple rise from the previous year. The repressive trend continued in 2016, as opposition leaders and political activists endured thus far the worst of state intimidation.
The Penang Chief Minister and prominent opposition leader Lim Guan Eng has been accused of graft, with the possibility of imprisonment depending on the High Court’s decision. The BN had already used this tactic to imprison another opposition party leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Just as several foreign political activists were denied entry into Malaysia, the chairperson of Bersih (Malaysia’s electoral reform movement) was barred from travelling overseas. The state similarly views student activism as particularly menacing. A university student convicted of sedition was originally sentenced to one year in prison, before successfully appealing for a reduced sentence of a RM5,000 (USD$1,237) fine.
However, the repressive patterns remain contingent on activist categories. For example, although environmental activists have suffered from police intimidation and arrests, it has been less systematic. Rather, they tend to confront subtler tools of state control, including being surveilled by the police intelligence unit. The activists who resisted a rare earth refinery plant, for example, experienced multiple arbitrary delays in their lawsuit against the government and application for public event permits. But because the mobilizational cause is not unambiguously political, activists can largely operate within a confined space, and occasionally pressure for government concessions. For instance, the five-year struggle against a dam project in Sarawak state paid off, when the government cancelled it earlier this year.
Evidently, though the BN government has weakened and suffered internal squabbles since 2013, it remains atop a robust state apparatus that enables the use of both harsh and subtle tactics against oppositionists and activists. The sophisticated deployment of the law and its bureaucratic apparatus has allowed the government to appear “urbane,” even while state oppression has ramped up.
About the Authors:
Wei Lit Yew is a PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.
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- Wei Lit Yew, “Constraint without Coercion: Indirect Repression of Environmental Protest in Malaysia,” Pacific Affairs 89, no. 3 (2016): 543-565.
- “Lim Guan Eng claims trial to 2 corruption charges”, The Borneo Post, June 30, 2016.
- Human Rights Watch, “Creating a Culture of Fear: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia,” 27 October 2015.
- International Rivers, “Baram Dam Stopped! A Victory for Indigenous Rights,” 22 March 2016.
- SUARAM, “SUARAM Human Rights Report Overview 2015,” 9 December 2015.
- Jothie Rajah, “Punishing Bodies, Securing the Nation: How Rule of Law Can Legitimate the Urbane Authoritarian State,” Law & Social Inquiry 36(4), 2011.
- Meredith L. Weiss, Student activism in Malaysia: Crucible, mirror, sideshow, Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications; NUS Press, 2011.
See our other memos on Malaysia.