Op-Ed by Azmin Ali on Cameron’s visit to Malaysia

28th July, 2015

While it is not for us to decide what UK Prime Minster David Cameron should hope to achieve from his visit to Southeast Asia, we would imagine that the improvement and enhancement of trade ties cannot be the be all and end all of a visit by the leader of one of the world’s leading democracies.

Mr Cameron’s overtures of late are indicative of a clear signal that Britain should look East and not just to India and China but to Southeast Asia as well. There is every reason why this part of the Asian world should welcome Mr Cameron’s visit apart from the fact that this region, with its vast growth potential, will soon be the fourth-largest single market in the world.

We understand Mr Cameron’s need to promote trade and expand business ties with Southeast Asia but surely the need to go “to the ends of the earth” to sell its wares cannot be satisfied at all costs. Surely, no one in his right mind would expect Mr Cameron to “sell his wares” to ISIS simply because they are the anti-thesis to freedom and democracy and to the fundamental principles of Islamic statehood itself. Nor would we be surprised that Mr Cameron is not prepared to go to Thailand because of the military coup that brought the current leaders there to power in May last year. Why then, are we expected to understand that Mr Cameron’s visit to Malaysia is perfectly above board and is the right and proper thing to do?

If David Cameron could see it fit to avoid visiting Bangkok on account of the democracy-deficit, it stands to reason that similar reservations should be held in relation to Malaysia. Where is the moral difference between staying clear of a military dictator and of a leader who is embroiled in a money-laundering scandal of unprecedented proportions? And that is just for starters.

It is already a widely known fact that Prime Minister Najib Razak has been implicated in allegations that more than RM2 billion linked to the 1MDB funds was transferred to his personal account as was first exposed by the Wall Street Journal. These allegations have to this day not been categorically denied by the Prime Minister except for flimsy explanations that “I have never received money for personal gain”.

David Cameron’s meeting with the leader of an administration that has also been tainted by its relentless prosecution of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will no doubt give the impression that the UK government condones political persecution. Anwar is a prisoner of conscience who had taken the political opposition in the last general election to victory and would have become Prime Minister but for the widespread fraud perpetrated by the Najib government. Incidentally, the scandal concerning the fund transfer to his personal account coincided with the holding of the last general election.

Meanwhile, the Edge magazine which has been playing a major role in exposing the financial shenanigans surrounding 1MDB has been suspended from publication for “reasons of national security and public order.” No other explanation could be more ludicrous than that. All right thinking groups, NGOs, politicians who believe in press freedom have roundly condemned this arbitrary use of executive power even as they continue to be threatened with arrests and prosecution. Indeed, we have made it clear that this suspension not only threatens press freedom but is a violation of the people’s right to information.

It is also true that Malaysia and Indonesia are trying to confront Islamist extremism, in as much as this represents a threat to freedom and democracy. The passage of anti-terror laws purportedly to counter this threat is understandable and must be supported but only as long as such laws do not undermine the rule of law and constitutional freedoms that are part and parcel of a democracy based on the Westminster model of government.

In this regard, Mr Cameron should be aware that the recently passed Prevention of Terrorism Act is one such legislation that does not meet the basic procedural and substantive safeguards required of such a constitutional democracy.This is not a law that promises to empower “moderate and reforming Muslim voices” – that much taunted “new counter-terrorism strategy” that Mr Cameron subscribes to. It is a law that takes away time-honoured judicial discretionary power in sentencing and runs the high risk of being abused by the executive, a predisposition already established by the government’s repeated use of the Sedition Act to silence political dissent and opposition.

The public relations fanfare that had heralded Najib’s coming to office as Prime Minister six years ago with the promise of more open government, greater democratic space and accountability and transparency in governance has proven to be indeed nothing more than a huge public relations exercise at the expense of the tax payers’ money.

Under these circumstances, visiting Mr Najib sends a message that Mr Cameron is willing to risk blemishing the UK’s reputation as a country which supports freedom, democracy, the rule of law and good governance.

*Azmin Ali is currently the Chief Minister of the State of Selangor and Deputy President of the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan)