On the Freedom of Press and Cultural Shifts in Malaysia

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Another month passes by in this somewhat chaotic world in which we live. For those of you who follow Trump, there is plenty to keep you both entertained and horrified – almost on a daily basis. By making an enemy of the mainstream media, with his constant accusations that they publish ‘fake news,’ he has created even more problems for himself. Now, they are quick to highlight any mistakes he makes and delight in playing back past speeches which contradict his latest statements or actions. The late-night talk shows are having a field day, of course, with so much material to work with, they can hardly handle it all. Trump must deeply resent the press freedom in the United States.

In contrast to the US, Malaysia has limited press freedom, and the mainstream media here, as in other ASEAN countries, is subject to strict control. The internet is harder to regulate, but Malaysia’s government has nevertheless blocked or shut down several websites whose content they found unacceptable. Despite the media controls here, many have openly speculated that Prime Minister Najib would ultimately step down because of the questions and problems surrounding 1MDB, which he established in 2009.

However, despite a number of legal actions initiated outside Malaysia, Najib has remained in full control in this country, and authorities here have declined to pursue the matter, apparently in agreement with the PM’s claims of innocence. Most expats understand the limited press freedom in this part of the world, even if they do not embrace it, and it is generally not a major factor affecting their investment decisions or their desire to live here.

On the point of the economy, the PM certainly has reason to be pleased with Malaysia’s economic performance for the first quarter of this year. The 5.6% growth reported is the highest in two years, apparently fuelled by strong domestic demand, export growth, and an increase in manufacturing output. Given the deals recently concluded with China, the future outlook seems encouraging.

One area in which expats do express concern, however, is the steady shift to Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim-majority nations. This seems to be happening in parts of Indonesia, such as the Aceh province of Sumatra, where Sharia law was introduced and where public lashings regularly take place. Recently, two admitted homosexual men were sentenced to 85 lashes, which is certainly viewed with dismay by most developed countries. In Jakarta, in another indication of a shift towards a more conservative interpretation of Islam, the former governor was sentenced to two years for blasphemy, which many, including more liberal Muslims, feel was unjustified.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, the government’s support for the movement to allow Sharia courts here to impose stricter penalties is also seen as part of this trend, and is in direct opposition to Malaysia’s reputation for tolerance and it’s moderate approach to Islam.

Given that the political party members proposing this change have clearly stated a desire to introduce hudud laws, which include penalties like amputations and stoning, this shift has many expats – and Malaysians – worried about the direction this country is heading. We certainly do not feel there is currently reason for expats to worry unduly, but we understand why people are expressing concerns. We also fear that a continued shift in this direction may have a negative impact on the economic growth aspirations of both countries.

A version of this article was originally published in The Expat magazine (June 2017) which is available online or in print via a free subscription.

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