Yesterday’s outrageous and embarrassing detention in KL of the Malaysian academic and long time Sydney resident, Kean Wong, has highlighted a disconnect between a government elected to reform Malaysia’s problems and the challenges of implementation.
The politically motivated ‘sedition’ charge issued against Kean Wong in 2020 was fuelled by resentment in reactionary quarters over Malaysia’s progressive movement which his book addressed in a selection of essays.
The writer has been a recognised journalist and champion of reform for a number of decades.
By 2020 the elected PH government had been over-thrown by a backdoor coup comprising followers of the criminally indicted Najib Razak and the now radicalised PAS party of Hadi Awang.
They didn’t like the book and theirs was the sort of government that expects the forces of law and order to comply with their wishes, not necessarily the law.
The excuse drummed up to threaten the writer seemed bizarre. The chosen graphic for his cover was a depiction inspired by the Malaysian national emblem involving a visual play on the official crest.
It is a technique that has been adopted countless times by artists seeking to provoke thought. There were no obscenities nor insults just some added images to illustrate thematic points.
For example, those from the East Malaysian states would have recognised the downtrodden crocodile added under the feet of the Peninsular tigers and caught its meaning well.
However, the charge was that somehow the picture was inciteful, or perhaps disrespectful and therefore ‘seditious’.
Collective eyebrows raised and it was soon reported that the group Lawyers for Liberty had examined the penal code and concluded that the only offence related to the crest refers to any deceitful appropriation of the image to falsely imply an official approval.
Nonetheless, Kean Wong’s publishers apologised and the book was removed. He remained abroad.
Until this week when, under the recently re-elected PH coalition government he arrived in KL and went to renew his passport – at which point he was arrested under the discredited charge of an outdated regime.
It is an example of how the rule of law and democratic rights, whilst a top priority of the incoming administration, has yet to be properly restored. During the same PN backdoor regime the Sarawak Report editor was informed that similar charges of sedition, imposed in 2015 for exposing the 1MDB scandal and later discarded, had been renewed against her.
This was despite the fact that Najib Razak, the perpetrator of 1MDB who had originally brought those charges, has been jailed. These charges apparently remain available to police officers to make an arrest should she return to KL.
During the same period, a separate arrest warrant was drummed up on the spurious grounds that the journalist, who was based in the UK throughout this Covid pandemic period, had failed to turn up in Terengganu Magistrates Court to answer an alleged criminal libel complaint that dated from four years earlier. Originally, the complaint had been dismissed.
The fact that the journalist was given no notice of the charge nor the court hearing and happened to be on the other side of the world was not taken into account as the police circulated a ‘Wanted Notice’ and declared they would seek extradition through INTERPOL.
Even though the same charges were dismissed as non-defamatory by a civil court (where the threshold of proof is lower than in a criminal court) the previous Attorney General under this present government announced through newspapers that the charges and threat of arrest, owing to an alleged ‘flight from justice’ (which never took place) remain.
None of this reflects the reforming agenda of the present government, yet it illustrates the heavy lifting involved to accustom functionaries to stick to due process and the law as opposed to arbitrary power mongering.
The latest budget published just last week by this same reforming government is likewise packed with good intentions, aimed at redressing inequities and assisting the unfairly disadvantaged in prosperous Malaysia.
However, again, it is attention to the implementation that is paramount as grass roots activists and campaigners across the country are now anxiously pointing out.
In a series of items the online radio portal Radio Free Sarawak has repeatedly warned that potentially life-changing sums of money that have now been allocated to assist impoverished communities in areas such as rural East Malaysia will likely never reach their intended purpose unless strict monitoring and implementation are enforced.
This is because the sub-structure already exists to siphon off allocations of this kind, the activists say, and while the administration has changed at the top that sub-structure remains fully intact under the unreconstructed state apparatus of PH’s more questionable allies in East Malaysia.
There was no reason to detain Kean Wong and those who took the opportunity to incarcerate him overnight should answer for their actions.
Likewise, an eagle eye is needed to make sure the PMX budget does its work. Otherwise, valuable trust and reputation will start to ebb away despite the good intentions.