Graffiti colors a wall in Penang, Malaysia. (VOA News)
Graffiti colors a wall in Penang, Malaysia. (VOA News)

For Malaysia it is almost as if the last two years did not happen. In 2018 a new party came to power for the first time in more than half a century, an ex-premier was arrested in one of the world’s biggest graft scandals, and the state stood up to China over debt risks of its Belt and Road diplomacy program. 

Today, almost exactly two years after the historic election: the party ousted from office has regained power; the ex-premier, Najib Razak, became a parliamentarian even as he awaits trial over the 1MDB scandal; and the canceled Malay-China infrastructure projects in the Belt and Road are back on.  

As Malaysia strives to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, human rights campaigners say it is using the crisis as an excuse for draconian state controls, a trend seen around the world from Turkey to Peru. Journalists and other citizens have been arrested for criticizing the state’s handling of the crisis. Malaysia also arrested thousands of people for violating a lockdown order, the highest rate of such arrests in Southeast Asia aside from the Philippines.  

“Like flicking a light switch, Malaysian authorities have returned to rights-abusing practices of the past,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said. 

'Democracy is dead'

The bleak assessment is in contrast to the hope for democratic consolidation inspired by the 2018 vote, which shocked observers as the former British colony’s first really competitive election. The hopes were that much more pronounced because at the time, the world faced what Freedom House called a “retreat” in democracy, citing cases like the U.S. separation of migrant children and parents, and the Saudi state murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That year Freedom House even held up Malaysia as a shining contrast to the global erosion of democracy.  

Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister again in the 2018 vote, a role he then proceeded to lose again in a power struggle in March. Ever since, he has been critical of the young government that ousted him.  

“Democracy is dead,” he declaimed last month on his blog.  

“The whole world is laughing at Malaysia. The world labeled Malaysia as a kleptocracy (government of thieves) when Najib was the prime minister,” he wrote, adding, “But now the kleptocrats are back.” 

One-day parliament 

Mahathir complained that “Parliament is being silenced.” 

Parliament has convened for a total of one day in 2020. In May the new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, crushed attempts to subject his new government to a vote of confidence. Instead, citing the Covid-19 health crisis, he assembled Parliament on May 18 only for a speech by the king and then adjourned it until July, fueling questions about the legitimacy of the administration. 

Although Muhyiddin’s ascension to the nation’s highest office in March marked a return of the old ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), observers at the time held out hope and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote him a letter in April asking that he not bring back UMNO’s decades of “antagonistic relations with the media.” 

“Additionally, we strongly urge your government to refrain from re-enacting the ‘fake news’ law,” Simon wrote. 

The law was supposed to curb misinformation but risked silencing critics in newspapers and on social media. Malaysia has proceeded to abuse laws to detain or interrogate critics on social media, opposition politicians, and members of civil society, said Human Rights Watch.