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New Malaysia PM yet to show reform credentials
KUALA LUMPUR |
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - When Malaysia's new prime minister took office this month, he freed two political detainees and signalled a willingness to accept wider media freedoms. Since then, however, critics say it has been business as usual.
The courts are hearing three separate sedition trials this week and next, and early promises to review legislation that allows imprisonment without trial appear to have evaporated.
The cases involve a leading opposition member of parliament, a prominent blogger and an activist who led street protests by the country's ethnic Indians in 2007.
For the media, especially the vibrant political blogs in this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people, the emphasis is on what the government calls "responsible" reporting, a message some say amounts to a call for self-censorship or face prosecution.
This stands in sharp contrast to neighbouring Indonesia, which has a vibrant democracy and a free press after decades of autocratic rule, and Thailand, scene of violent protests this month, where the mainstream press is largely unfettered.
"You are in Burma here, but with a more sophisticated economy," Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister who quit government last year in protest at the lack of legal reform, told Reuters, likening Malaysia to one of Asia's most repressive regimes.
Malaysia has been ruled by the same coalition for the past 51 years and change this month at the top of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the National Front, propelled 55-year-old, British-educated Najib Razak to the premiership.
While Najib has sketched out policies to liberalise the economy, which is facing its worst recession since the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago, many social issues remain firmly off-limits for the media.
Opposition MP Karpal Singh was charged with sedition for threatening to sue one of Malaysia's sultans, while blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, himself a minor royal, is in court for linking Najib to the gory death of a Mongolian model.
Najib has denied involvement and called the reports "malicious lies" spread by the opposition. No evidence has been produced linking him to the killing.
Two policemen on his security detail were recently sentenced to hang for the murder and a close aide of Najib was acquitted in the same trial.
The issue of race in a country where there are substantial ethnic-Chinese and Indian populations living alongside the majority Malays is also off-limits for discussion as the government says it could trigger unrest.
Malaysia's political, social and economic system is built along racial lines. Voter dissatisfaction with the system saw the ruling National Front coalition fall to its worst results in national and state elections last year.
UMNO then forced Abdullah Ahmad Badawi out of office and brought in Najib in the hope of rebuilding, although a third successive parliamentary by-election loss this month has wiped any early gloss off his administration.
That has raised questions as to whether Najib will enact the economic reforms to win back foreign investment that has increasingly gone to Malaysia's neighbours.
"The government will not act like a single integrated unit unless Najib acts the strongman, not against society, but against the system that he is the leader of," said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"That is what a reformist does. He cleans house."
Zaid, the former minister in charge of legal reform, is not convinced Najib has what it takes to reform the system.
The mainstream Malaysian media, he argues, is as much a part of the system of ethnically-based patronage as the rest of the economy and Najib cannot afford to open that up.
The New Straits Times, the main English language daily that supports the government, is owned by Media Prima, a company with links to UMNO, as is TV3, the biggest private television station.
The Malaysian Chinese Association, UMNO's partner in the ruling coalition, directly owns the Star newspaper, the biggest circulation daily, through Star Publications.
"So long as this government is in power, they are not going to get a free press. There would be competition between UMNO and MCA papers... This is big business, they do not want competition in the name of freedom," Zaid said.
(Additional reporting by Razak Ahmad)
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