08 May, 2009

A return to authoritarian ways in Malaysia?

The latest political crisis is unfolding in Perak, where more than 60 people, including five opposition members of Parliament and five state assembly representatives, were detained by police yesterday during peaceful protests. It's a test for the country's new Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who took office last month after campaigning on a pledge of more political openness.

The demonstration outside the state assembly in Ipoh was to protest the Sultan's appointment of a new state mentri besar — a move the opposition says was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, inside the assembly building, the legislature voted to replace the opposition-party speaker with a new speaker. After hours of shouting and tussling, the old speaker was forcibly removed.

The government says the arrests in Perak were necessary to maintain public order, and the International Trade Minister is quoted by the Associated Press as saying "If any country is seen to be unstable, that would not be so good." As we went to press, many of the protestors had already been released. On Monday, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur is expected to rule on whether the appointment of the mentri besar is constitutional.

Was anything achieved yesterday?

The assemblymen spent barely any time in their seats as members from the opposing parties wrested microphones away from one another, shoved one another around and generally behaved boorishly.

In the end, Barisan Nasional (BN) prevailed. It managed to get an Assembly Speaker of its choice installed, and the one appointed by opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) removed. The coalition has refused to recognise the new Speaker, but it might not try to force the issue again at the assembly's next sitting.

Having a Speaker on its side will help BN conduct the business of the House smoothly, but has it won the battle only to lose the war?

Many analysts seem to feel that this might well be the case. Although both sides played a role in triggering the fracas and were equally unruly, BN could be the bigger loser in terms of public perception.

This is because the police were used to secure control of the assembly.

The Bar Council,condemned the police intervention, and called it a bleak day for democracy.

However, Perak Mentri Besar Zambry Abdul Kadir, a BN man, defended the decision to call in the police, saying that the situation had become unruly.

“They (PR assemblymen) left their seats and rudely attacked BN and independent representatives, and created a chaotic and uncontrolled situation,” he said.


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