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Election results reflect voters' demand for democratic reforms and freedom of expression, says SEAPA

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a SEAPA media statement:

Malaysians win a chance at meaningful democratic reform

Bangkok (12 March 2008) - The stunning setback to Malaysia's ruling coalition in the country's recent national elections underscores the people's demand for political and democratic reforms, and the need for greater openness in the Southeast Asian country.

It was the failure of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to deliver on promises for good governance, accountability, and an end to corruption that tarnished his administration and severely damaged his coalition; and it was the lack of openness, the absence of free expression and press freedom, and the stifling of independent media in Malaysia that never really gave those promises any chance to be credible or legitimate from the very start.

Ironically, it was Abdullah's authoritarian predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, who said it best: "The problem is we (the ruling coalition) have become so arrogant. We suppress any opinion that we do not like and begin to believe our own reports, which are not actually consistent with what is happening in the country."

Although the incumbent government was returned to power, its popular vote was slashed to just over 51 percent, with the opposition also gaining greater representation in Parliament and capturing five out of 13 state seats.

The former information minister, Zainuddin Maidin, who was among the major parliamentary casualties in the ruling coalition, had infamously exhorted the mainstream media not to tell the prime minister the truth, especially that which was unpalatable to the ruling government. Had the heavily-controlled media been allowed to serve the truth instead of government propaganda, the ruling government might have been able to gauge the real sentiments of the people, address their concerns adequately and be spared the embarrassing backlash it is facing now.

There were clear signs of growing public dissent in the months prior to the election. Civil society groups took to the streets to show their unhappiness with a range of issues that are exacerbated by the lack of democratic freedoms. Such protests - the events themselves, their basis, and the subsequent clampdowns - were also not fairly covered by the traditional mainstream media, increasing public dissatisfaction at the lack of democratic spaces.

To be sure, the repressive environment, rationalised by supposed concerns for racial anxieties and potential for ethnic and religious riots, is a legacy of Mahathir more than of anybody else, but it was the ruling coalition's revelling and contentment in the face of that legacy that was their collective undoing. The Malaysian leaders' unwillingness to accept criticism, engage in debate, encourage genuine civil participation, and indeed foster greater tolerance through greater openness, is what has long rendered Malaysia's political foundations unstable and in desperate need of reform.

Hopefully, the message of the last elections is loud and clear and hopefully, the opportunity for reform will now be exploited to the fullest.

As has been demonstrated, avoiding and hiding the truth is a disservice not only to the public but also the government. SEAPA hopes that Malaysia's new elected leaders, at both state and federal levels, will move to create an enabling environment for free expression, and calls on civil society to continue engaging with the authorities to abolish restrictive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act.

Malaysians want more democracy, more openness, more space for open debate, press freedom, and free expression. Without these, any promises of good governance and reform will ring hollow and incredible.

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