Protests, arbitrary arrests and dire warnings of foreign interference is the new norm in Malaysia and is part of the alarming direction the country is taking under the leadership of scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak.
"Worse things are going to happen," says Dr. Jeffrey Kitingan, politician from the Sabah state in Malaysian Borneo and a former political prisoner.
Kitingan says he empathizes with the social and political activists reportedly detained over the last several months for raising questions to do with the 1Malaysia Development (1MDB) fund that is missing billions of dollars.
Kitingan, a Harvard University graduate with a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, was detained for two years and seven months in 1991 allegedly for plotting the secession of Sabah from Malaysia.
"They [the people in power] do things that are wrong. When ordinary people want change they enact laws to curb what can be said," he says in reference to the scandal surrounding the 1MDB fund that hit in 2009, shortly after Najib took office.
'Intent to annoy'
The media is also being targeted.
The editor and publisher of an independent news organization are currently facing prison time under a rule that forbids publishing content with the "intent to annoy." The authorities blocked the Malaysian Insider website in March and then closed it down after it ran stories that were critical of the current administration.
Another alleged tactic to stifle dissent is stirring up religious tensions to distract attention from the government's shortcomings.
While investigations of the 1MDB scandal by foreign governments continue, Najib denied any wrongdoing. No one has been prosecuted in connection with the scandal. Instead, a local court on Nov. 14 sentenced opposition politician, Rafizi Ramli to prison for leaking a 1MDB audit report to the media.
Protests have also been suppressed. On the eve of a rally organized by a coalition of human rights groups on Nov. 18, their leader, Maria Chin Abdullah, was placed in solitary confinement. She was released on Nov. 28.
For Kitingan, the recent spate of arrests and raise unpleasant memories.
"It struck me that things are going that way. But now it's going to be in broad daylight," he says, referring to an anti-terrorism law that the government had promised would never be used against political opponents.
When Kitingan was detained in 1991, the government acted with a measure of secrecy as though it knew that its actions were wrong.
"Before, they would kidnap you. You would go out to eat and you just disappear. Now they don't have to do that. They can just take you publicly. This government is so desperate to stay in power that they are willing to do anything," he says.
"The United Malay National Organization (UMNO) will use all the laws. They have to use everything at the moment [to stay in power]," adds the Sabah opposition politician.
He is not concerned that he may again be targeted and detained.
"This time I'm not going to be alone. Almost everybody will join me," he says, confident that he has the support of the vast majority of the people of his state.
Najib's UMNO party has helped widen Malaysia's ethnic and religious splits. Hoping to bolster support among conservative Malay Muslims, it has taken up a proposal to grant further powers to Sharia courts.
Pro-government gangs have been allowed to run loose without censure in a country where politics is still defined by the racial violence of the 1960s.
"Basically they [UMNO] operate on the basis of ketuanan Malayu, ketuanan Islam [Malay and Islamic supremacy]," says Kitingan.
"They want you to become like them and be a Muslim. If you cannot convert then they recruit from outside," he says, in reference to the million or so migrants and refugees who have been rounded up to vote for the ruling party.
"There is still hope. I don't give up hope but it is going to be more difficult if we allow things to go the way they have planned. The numbers will keep growing and they will eventually sweep into all the machineries of government until one day they control all the institutions of government," he says.
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