The word “historic” trips off politicians’ tongues with easy regularity, but Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Najib Tun Razak surprised his country recently by claiming to be doing something historic – and which genuinely was.
Najib’s big news was that he plans to scrap the Internal Security Act (ISA), a notorious piece of law that for the last half century has given the Malaysian government carte blanche to arrest pretty much anyone who got in its way. Armed with the draconian ISA, one political party, Najib’s, has ruled Malaysia for decades without interruption.
“The ISA has mythological power among the Malays,” says Greg Lopez, a commentator on Malaysian politics from the Australian National University. “It has created a culture of fear, so that ordinary citizens are afraid to participate in democracy.”
As Najib’s decision acknowledges, the one-party system, which the ISA has always bolstered, is beginning to break down. Inspired in part by the Arab Spring, but also by a sense of frustration that long predated it, Malaysians took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur over the summer to rally for free and fair elections, and against the cronyism of Malaysian politics. Though the “Hibiscus Spring”, as it has been called, never quite blossomed like its Arab equivalents, the Malaysian prime minister has apparently realised that his initial response – to crack down hard on the demonstrators under legal cover of the ISA – must now give way to something more subtle.
Widely regarded as an ineffectual leader with little time left on the political clock, Najib is now “going for broke”, Lopez suggests, repealing the ISA and several other repressive laws as part of a dramatic bid for survival. The PM’s detractors point out that he has broken promises before, but “if he falters on this, he’s finished”, says Lopez. “He’ll lose all credibility if he doesn’t follow through.”
The ISA’s demise is not about to open the democratic floodgates. For one thing, Najib has suggested replacing the old law with something else – and he has not yet explained what that might be. Moreover, the scrapping of the ISA, for all its symbolic power, is just one of many reforms that Malaysia badly needs. Even so, an important obstacle to political normality looks set to be removed, enabling Lopez to predict that “within the next two elections” – and one is due in 2012 – the country’s political monopoly will be broken.
Developments in Malaysia will not have gone unnoticed across the strait in Singapore, which also has an Internal Security Act that performs the same repressive function as the one in Malaysia. But change there will come much more slowly, Lopez reckons. “The national model of Malaysia doesn’t work anymore,” he says, “whereas people in Singapore actually think quite highly of their government.” There were nevertheless some flickers of a democratic awakening in the most recent Singaporean elections, and if their nearest neighbours can ditch their ISA and call time on one-party rule, more Singaporeans will start asking why they can’t do the same.