Democracy fades in Malaysia and Turkey as leaders crack down

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

It’s an unfortunate fact that there are very few successful, secular democracies among Muslim-majority nations. Sadly, two of this rare breed are now in the process of failing.

If Malaysia and Turkey continue sliding towards authoritarianism, it will put democracies in the Islamic world on the list of endangered species. And they are sliding. In the past 10 days, the governments in both countries shut down media outlets that dared report unflattering facts about their leaders.

And when peaceful protesters marched on the weekend to object to the shutdown of Turkey’s biggest opposition newspaper, Zaman, the police turned water cannon and tear gas on them.

<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare.</i>
Illustration: John Shakespeare.

In Malaysia it was the country’s most popular news website, The Malaysian Insider or TMI, that was blocked by the government. The next day Prime Minister Najib Razak tried to justify the blatant censorship by writing that it was “unhealthy journalism” to have news portals that were “constructing their own version of ‘reality’”.

It’s a sure sign of the dictator’s mindset – only one version of reality may be allowed to exist, and that’s the version officially sanctioned by the ruler.

“Malaysia has been sliding towards authoritarianism since Mahathir pursued the sodomy case against his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim,” says Amin Saikal of ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at a conference in Kuala Lumpur in January.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at a conference in Kuala Lumpur in January. Photo: AP

It was the notorious case that then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad invented maliciously in 1998 to destroy his  would-be successor.

“It’s been sliding to authoritarianism for some time and now it’s coming to a head,” says Saikal. “Turkey was more successful than Malaysia.”

But after an impressive period of flourishing, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan “has remained in power for so long that he has become complacent, and now he’s becoming increasingly authoritarian”, says Saikal.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Photo: Presidential Press Service/AP

Erdogan, now the President, first took power when he was elected prime minister in 2003. The ruler’s urge to kill freedom of speech has nothing to do with Islam.

Both Turkey’s Erdogan and Malaysia’s Najib have been following the universal handbook for strongman leaders in trouble – they are protecting their own power.

And perhaps the biggest single impulse to censorship has been the effort to silence allegations of personal corruption at the very top.

Spectacular corruption cases exploded into the faces of both leaders. In Malaysia’s case,  in 2015the Wall Street Journal made the stunning disclosure. The sum of $US681million – close to a billion Australian dollars –  had been deposited into Najib’s personal bank account.

Najib’s government has sought to explain it away:  it was a political donation from the Saudi government. Perfectly normal and above board.  Unfortunately, the Saudis didn’t play along. Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir said  he accepted the Malaysian attorney-general’s opinion that there had been no wrongdoing, the New York Times reported last month. But   he did not think  the money had come from the Saudi government. Or that it was a political donation.

“It is a private Saudi citizen, I believe, and the funds went to an investment in Malaysia,” al-Jubeir told the newspaper.

Najib’s government has put up a stonewall, but foreign governments and media are steadily dismantling it, stone by stone. The Swiss attorney-general has said  Switzerland has serious evidence of $US4billion being misappropriated from Malaysian state-owned companies.

Three other governments – the US, Hong Kong and Singapore – are also investigating related transactions. Najib is responding to the unravelling of his story with increasing repression.  It’s only a part of the bigger, broader Malaysian retreat into authoritarianism, but it gives particular point to it.

In Turkey, the stunning corruption allegation emerged against its ruler in 2013. The first sign of a scandal emerged in December that year when police raided the homes of people suspected of being part of a big money-laundering scheme. They found $US17.5million in cash, allegedly used to pay bribes. The police arrested 52 people that day. It emerged that every one was somehow connected to the ruling political party, Erdogan’s AKP.

It then exploded onto Erdogan himself when  audio was posted to YouTube.  He was reportedly heard telling his son, Bilal, to urgently get rid of tens of millions of dollars. Erdogan has claimed the recordings were counterfeit, a mashup. Independent experts disagree.

Erdogan claims the case is a political plot launched by a former ally now archenemy, US cleric  Fethullah Gulen. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean the corruption is a fiction. Once again, foreign investigators are unravelling the official denials.

Last month an Italian  prosecutor  named Erdogan’s son as a suspect in laundering large sums of cash illegally through Italy.

The trend to autocracy and repression is not limited to Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, since around 2006-07, the world has entered a phase that US academic Larry Diamond has dubbed a “democratic recession”.

In its annual review of liberty, Freedom House last year spoke of “a growing disdain for democratic standards that was found in nearly all regions of the world”.

It measured “nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains – 61 to 33 – and the number of countries with improvements hit its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.”

Still, the loss of successful, secular democracies in the Islamic world is a special tragedy because they are so very rare, and successful role models are so very powerful.

After the so-called Arab Spring convulsed Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya, only Tunisia has emerged on a democratic trajectory, and only a tentative one. Do any successful, secular democracies remain among  Muslim-majority countries?

“I cannot think of any other than Indonesia,” says Amin Saikal. Malcolm Turnbull on Monday quoted Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo as saying Indonesia proves that Islam, democracy, tolerance are compatible. “It’s a great example,” Turnbull enthused. Sadly, for now, it’s a very lonely one.


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