KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 19 — The deportation of Australian Senator Nick Xenophon last weekend shows that the Najib administration is “frightened” that Malaysians may have finally reached racial maturity and are for true democratic freedom, the Sydney Morning Herald said today.
The paper’s international editor Peter Hartcher said the Barisan Nasional-led (BN) government, despite its over half a century rule, has yet to turn the country into a mature democracy, fearing that a truly free and fair election would threaten its grip on power.
He noted Xenophon’s role as an international observer of Malaysia’s polls system in a wider campaign for fair elections, saying this was likely what sparked the independent senator’s expulsion from the country on Saturday.
“The reason is that he is an international observer campaigning in favour of a free and fair election,” Hartcher wrote in a commentary today.
“This is not a threat to Malaysia’s national security, but it is a threat to the ruling party’s grip on power,” he observed, repeating Opposition Leader Datuk Anwar Ibrahim’s claim to him before that “in a fair and free election, I am absolutely sure we will win.’’
Xenophon (picture) has been openly critical of the BN government’s handling of the mass rally for free and fair elections here in April by electoral reforms group Bersih 2.0, having claimed in his observation that the police had arbitrarily used unnecessary force to clamp down on what had largely been a peaceful protest.
Hartcher cited communal politics as one of the key reasons behind BN’s 56-year grasp on power over multiracial Malaysia, but said Malaysians may now be ready to discard a rule founded on race-based policies.
He quoted from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 1970 book “The Malay Dilemma”, pointing to the former prime minister’s observation that the country’s most dominant ethnic group needed affirmative action to help them compete with the other races.
“It should not be wrong for the Malays to cling to a system which can elevate them to the status of other races, thus creating a more equitable society,” Hartcher wrote, quoting from Dr Mahathir’s book.
But the editor said that although this system had kept the peace for many years in Malaysia, the one-sided effect was that the BN government’s monopoly on power had allowed it a near-absolute control over all arms of the government, including the judiciary.
Hartcher referred to Anwar’s first sodomy conviction, which saw the country’s former deputy prime minister — Dr Mahathir’s former number two — dragged from power and thrown into prison for a whopping six years.
But he pointed out that much has changed since Anwar’s freedom, leading to BN’s colossal electoral losses in Election 2008 where the ruling pact saw its chokehold over Parliament slackened significantly.
He said Dr Mahathir may have anticipated in “The Malay Dilemma” that Malaysia’s race-based construct would one day be obsolete, but the country’s longest-serving prime minister may not be ready that this moment could have arrived.
“He is not ready for the possibility that today could be the day, or that the people are the ones who have to make that decision,” he said.
This in mind, Hartcher said there could be real fear among those in the ruling BN pact that the coming 13th general election could see it lose federal power completely.
Malaysia’s people deserve a free vote, and Australia should stand with them in calling for one. — Sydney Morning Herald international editor Peter Hartcher
He noted that BN secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor had once stressed the importance of “avoiding racial strife” in Malaysia to the international observer group that had monitored the Bersih rally, of which Xenophon was a member of.
Hartcher said that Tengku Adnan had posed this question to the group: “Are our people mature for freedom?’’
“The Malaysian government is afraid not of an Australian senator but of this question. In particular, the Najib government is frightened that the answer might be ‘yes’,” the editor wrote.
Xenophon, who was part of a bipartisan parliamentary delegation from Australia, was deported from Malaysia last Saturday for posing a “security risk” to the country.
He had travelled to Kuala Lumpur to call on Anwar, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz and Election Commission (EC) officials this week, but was detained at the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal in Sepang and subsequently deported late at night.
The senator’s deportation immediately placed Malaysia under the international spotlight again for its purportedly harsh approach in handling criticisms against its administration.
Several Australian politicians have already denounced Xenophon’s expulsion, joining a chorus of condemnation from Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
But Hartcher said Carr’s reaction that Xenophon’s detention was “sad” and “disappointing” was a display of Australia’s usual “limpness” in defending its citizens abroad.
“But, above all, Malaysia’s overreaction to Xenophon simply validates his point that it is not a mature democracy.
“This has been Carr’s fig leaf to justify Australia’s silence at Malaysia’s lack of democratic freedom — that we have no place in criticising a mature democracy,” he said.
“The deportation of Xenophon is an implicit confession by the Najib government that Xenophon is right and Carr is wrong.
“Malaysia’s people deserve a free vote, and Australia should stand with them in calling for one.”