KUALA LUMPUR, June 17 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today voiced his doubts over the veracity of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s reformist credentials, warning the prime minister that his bid to increase civil liberties in Malaysia would only lead to extremism.
In his typical no-holds-barred fashion, the former prime minister told French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) in an interview here that Najib’s formula for racial unity was “not clearly defined”.
“What happens, of course, is that when you open up things — you become liberal — it is the extremists, the aggressive ones, who project their views,” he was quoted by the agency as saying.
Dr Mahathir, who has been seen as Najib’s most vocal critic in Umno, was speaking in reference to the latter’s decision to remove the federal government’s powers to jail an individual for his or her political beliefs.
Najib, the country’s sixth prime minister, made a historical promise on the eve of Malaysia Day celebrations last year to repeal the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA), a long sought-after demand of civil society groups and opposition leaders.
He delivered on his promise this year and scrapped the 1960 British-enacted legislation from the country’s statute books, tabling in its place a fresh security law — Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 — that removed the government’s power to detain a person without trial for his political leanings.
This was among the slew of notable reform measures taken by the Najib administration, which has been seen as the ruling Barisan Nasional’s (BN) attempt to widen its appeal in middle Malaysia.
But Dr Mahathir, who helmed the nation for 22 years until 2003, believes that too much freedom would result in ethnic tension, according to AFP.
“Now that we want to be liberal, what has happened is that now we are more race-conscious than before. Today, people are accusing each other of being racist.
“There is more antagonism between the races (now) than before there was this liberalisation,” he was quoted as saying during the interview.
“Where there was no problem, now there is a problem,” he added later.
Dr Mahathir has been widely criticised for employing hard-handed, almost authoritarian tactics to clamp down on the spread of dissent against his leadership during his tenure in government.
There is more antagonism between the races (now) than before there was this liberalisation. — Dr Mahathir
It was during his administration that Operasi Lalang occurred, when a whopping 106 individuals were arrested in Malaysia’s second largest ISA swoop in history.
But Dr Mahathir insisted today that Malaysia needs a government to be “firm” apart from being fair.
“We need a government that is firm. It should be fair, it should be firm,” he told the AFP interview.
Najib’s government had come under heavy condemnation from local and foreign critics for purportedly using excessive force to stifle the rising civil society movement calling for fair elections.
Bersih 2.0’s July 9 rally for free and fair polls last year had resulted in much chaos and a record over 1,000 arrests after riot police fired tear gas canisters and water cannons to disperse protesters who had gathered peacefully.
Following the negative backlash against his administration, Najib decided last year to enact a special law for the purpose of regulating public gatherings, in keeping with the constitutional right of Malaysians to assemble peacefully.
The government adopted a hands-off approach at first when Bersih 2.0 announced plans to hold another electoral reforms rally in the city centre, with government leaders saying the group could proceed provided it rallied within the confines of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011.
But chaos again broke out in the capital during the April 28 event after protesters breached a police barricade around Dataran Merdeka, which had been cordoned off as the government had deemed it an unsuitable location for the rally.