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#Brussels is Right: Malaysian PM Mahathir is Still Not a Champion of Democracy




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In the same week that India’s Supreme Court unanimously handed down a widely-applauded judgment decriminalizing gay sex, Malaysia made the headlines for moving in the opposite direction, publicly caning two women for attempting to have lesbian sex.

The punishment, believed to be the first of its kind in Malaysia, drew sharp criticism from human rights groups both inside Malaysia and overseas. The local chapter of Amnesty International commented that Malaysia had been sent back to the Dark Ages and suggested that the sentence might constitute torture, while Malaysian activist Thilaga Sulathireh dubbed it a shocking spectacle which betrayed a regression in the country’s human rights.

If not an outright regression, the case certainly suggests that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s (pictured) young government is not as progressive as some had hoped when he cruised to a shock election win in May. While Mahathir denounced the caning, he did not argue that gay sex should be decriminalized, but rather noted that the women should have received a lighter sentence, such as “counselling”, since they had no prior criminal record.

Mahathir’s victory—which saw the 93-year-old topple his own protégé, Najib Razak, and put an end to the Barisan National coalition’s six decades of power—drew little comment from the European Union, even as American media outlets hailed Mahathir’s unexpected triumph as “a win for democracy in Southeast Asia”. Having been badly burned by Aung San Suu Kyi, Brussels seems to have wisely learned to proceed with caution before showering praise on “democratic” leaders who have not yet earned the label.

In this case, Mahathir’s history gives European lawmakers little reason to believe that he would be a champion of democratic values. The head of the EU delegation to Malaysia, Maria Castillo Fernandez expressed hopes in July that a long-stalled free trade agreement with Kuala Lumpur would be restarted soon. Given the importance of human rights in recent EU FTAs – especially the European Parliament’s activism in the deal with Vietnam - such recent developments should give European decision makers pause.

Indeed, despite his rebranding as an anti-corruption crusader, Mahathir is after all the same man who ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 as a strongman who espoused vitriolic Malay nationalism, threw political opponents in prison on dubious charges, openly intimidated journalists, and unabashedly went on anti-Semitic tirades.


Since his re-election, Mahathir has insisted that he’s learned from mistakes he made during his previous stint as prime minister. Where he was once known for interfering with the independence of the judiciary and even sacked a number of Supreme Court judges in 1988, spawning a constitutional crisis which one Malaysian judge referred to as “a national tragedy that continues to haunt the judiciary”, Mahathir made honouring the separation of powers a key promise in his 2018 campaign.

The legal troubles of his predecessors have called this vow into question. Mahathir ensured that Anwar Ibrahim received a full pardon this spring—not because he objected on principle to the sodomy charges which had been levelled against the former prime minister, but because he was relying on his once-rival Anwar to support him in the 2018 election and to serve as his successor-in-waiting. In a bizarre turn of events, Mahathir admitted earlier this week that he personally asked Shafee to prosecute Anwar, pointing to the elder Prime Minister’s penchant for interfering in the judiciary.

Meanwhile, the unfolding of the trial of Mahathir’s immediate predecessor, Najib Razak, has been marred by allegations of political showmanship and score-settling. As Asian affairs analyst Hugo Brennan remarked, pressing charges against Najib for allegedly profiting from the 1MDB money laundering scandal is a low-hanging fruit that allows Mahathir to stave off enacting genuine reforms.

Najib has frequently questioned whether Mahathir’s government will give him a fair trial, concerns which have taken on particular poignancy after his defence lawyer Muhammad Shafee was arrested this week and himself charged with money laundering connected with the 1MDB probe. In a statement following Shafee’s arrest, Najib highlighted what he perceived as irregularities in the charges brought against his lawyer: “Charging Tan Sri Shafee for receiving payments for legal services rendered sets a very dangerous legal precedent for all lawyers, professionals and businesses. No one will be safe if the government choose to victimise or to politically persecute you.” Najib also noted that a swath of corruption charges against members of Mahathir’s party had been recently dropped by the attorney general, and insisted that the accusations against Shafee were solely intended to interfere with his legal defence.

It's unsurprising that Najib, who faces as long as 20 years in prison if he were to be convicted, would be sensitive to anything which could compromise his defence. The very fact that Mahathir has been forced to publicly deny that the prosecution of Najib is intended to get revenge against the former prime minister, however, casts a worrying shadow on the primacy of the independence of the judiciary in his programme.

If Mahathir’s pledge to maintain the autonomy of the judiciary is starting to look wobbly, the caning case shows that his vow to improve universal rights in Malaysia, including those of LGBT people, is on life support. To make matters worse, the draconian punishment doled out to the two women is not the first instance of reality not living up to Mahathir’s campaign commitment to enhance “diversity and inclusiveness at all levels of society”. In July, a ministerial aide was forced to step down over his involvement in gay rights activism, while the ruling coalition failed to defend him.

Mahathir may simply be off to a rocky start living up to his heady campaign promises, and he and his chosen successor may yet make progress in restoring the rule of law and promoting human rights in Malaysia, but recent events, from the caning incident to Shafee’s arrest, suggest that Brussels should continue holding its breath.


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