Political Malaise-ia(?)

If you think we’ve got a crisis here, have a look at what’s happening in Malaysia, where a second blogger has been arrested this week as the embattled government seeks to clamp down on its critics. The government appears to be at risk of losing its majority, there are fuel protests, economic worries and ethnic tensions between Malays and large minorities of Indians and Chinese people.

Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, also known as Kickdefella, was arrested for displaying the country’s flag upside-down and urging others to do the same as a (clearly very peaceful) protest against the government. This follows the arrest of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, a blogger popularly known as RPK, under the draconian Internal Security Act. RPK had been highly critical of senior government figures on his Malaysia Today website and was charged with sedition and defamation.

I’m no Malaysia expert – I’ve been there once and really enjoyed it but a brief stopover between Indonesia and Thailand doesn’t really count for much (Sarah Palin please note). But according to this blogger, the country is awash with political and sexual scandals. The opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been accused (twice) ofsodomy ; the deputy PM has been accused of sleeping with a Mongolian model. And if that wasn't scandal enough, the model was brutally murdered in 2006 (allegedly shot in the head and her body blown up with plastic explosives, to be precise).

My brief research reveals a healthy blogosphere in Malaysia, with opposition and incumbent politicians alike all blogging away and criticism in the blogosphere having a real offline impact – which perhaps explains why the government has decided to clamp down on free speech so publicly.

It’s not just bloggers. A recent Amnesty mission to Malaysia found that the sole reason for the detention of five members of Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), a group dedicated to defending the rights of Malaysia’s ethnic South Asians, was for expressing concerns about the marginalisation of ethnic South Asians and for organising rallies.

Like RPK, they were arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) which gives the government huge, unchecked powers. Police can arrest people who they think have acted or may be likely to act in a way that would threaten Malaysian security, essential services of economic life. They can be held for two months for investigation, after which the Home Minister can order them to be detained for up to two years without them ever being charged or tried. And the two year period can be renewed, indefinitely. So technically, someone could be locked up for ever, because at some point the police thought they might be likely to do something. Amazing.

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