For 15 years, the people of Malaysia have been immersed in our own Arab Spring. After enduring a corrupt and authoritarian regime for more than five decades, an era has emerged in which we are standing up for our rights.
For the first time in our history, the voices of reform and democracy represent the majority. In last year’s general election, the popular vote in favor of the opposition would have swept from power the authoritarian regime of Najib Razak and the party that has ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957. In its place would have been the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance), poised to push the nation on the path to greater freedom and democracy. Alas, widespread fraud and devious gerrymandering perpetrated by the ruling party, a situation the White House noted, affected the outcome. A study conducted by Harvard ranked Malaysia as having one of the worst records on electoral integrity in the world.
Despite this setback, the Malaysian people have remained steadfast. Despite anger and frustration over our government’s continued corruption and abuse of power, we have pursued a peaceful approach to educating and engaging with the masses. Thousands have come to hear our message and embrace our cause.
President Obama’s visit to Malaysia this weekend comes at a pivotal time. It would be an opportune moment to live up to the ideals Obama espoused in his campaign and the early days of his administration. Then, there was hope that U.S. engagement with Muslim countries would be based on mutual respect and mutual interest. Yet as the Arab Spring came and went, hope was eclipsed by disappointment. It is baffling that the United States can talk about a democratic transition in Egypt today as hundreds of innocent people are sentenced to death while thousands languish in prison.
In Malaysia, there is an opportunity to take a different path.
Our agenda for Malaysia is straightforward. We envision a nation that enforces the rule of law; a country where judges are independent of executive influence, the media are free and the election commission conducts its affairs unfettered by the dictates of the ruling party. We would fight corruption by guaranteeing the independence of the Anticorruption Commission and removing the laws that make government procurements opaque.
In our Malaysia, all media would be independent and free to shine sunlight on excesses of power, be they in government or the private sector. Most certainly we would repeal draconian laws, such as the Sedition Act, so they cannot be used to muzzle political opponents. In our pursuit of a robust and dynamic economy, social justice principles would prevail over unfettered accumulation of wealth by the rich and powerful. Rent-seeking projects would no longer be allowed to be masqueraded as infrastructure spending, nor would the misappropriation of state funds be permitted under the guise of subsidy cuts while higher and higher taxes are foisted on the middle and lower classes to pay the bills.
In tending to the needs of all races, the Pakatan Rakyat envisions a pluralistic society in which moderate Islam coexists harmoniously with other faiths whose espousal is a fundamental liberty under the federal constitution. It would be a far cry from the diabolical politics of the ruling party, which purveys to the Western world its facade of moderation in religious and race relations while pursuing a policy of race baiting and incitement to religious hatred — abuses widely documented by groups including Suaram and Human Rights Watch. With the print and electronic media under the regime’s full control, rumors are spread about an imminent government takeover by Christians, threats of violence are hurled against non-Muslims, Bibles are seized and bishops get hauled in by the police for interrogation. My address to a congregation in a Catholic church one Sunday was condemned as an act of apostasy.
No doubt Malaysia’s media will shower praises on the regime in the wake of Obama’s visit. Malaysia has descended to 145th place on the Reporters Without Borders index of media freedom, so it takes some effort for Malaysians to get the truth. And the truth is that the U.S. pivot to Asia should not merely be about trade and investment or the creation of alliances of the world’s great powers, important as these goals may be. The values of freedom and democracy must remain paramount, and even if Wilsonian idealism appears to be on the wane, Jeffersonian ideals still resonate with the people in this part of the world.
Anwar Ibrahim leads Malaysia’s Justice Party, known as PKR. He served as deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998.