The Malaysian High Court has issued a ruling that confirms the virtual eradication of free speech rights in that country, one of our closest allies in Asia. The Court upheld an absurd edict from Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi banning T-shirts with the word “clean” in Malay as a national security threat. That’s right. A t-shirt calling for clean government has been declared a threat to national security and High Court Judge Muhammad Yazid Mustafa has declared that there is nothing preventing the government from barring such speech. The t-shirts were a response to reports that nearly $700 million had been deposited in the personal bank account of Prime Minister Najib Razak (left).
In a showing of courage (and proof that there remain Malaysians who value free speech), thousands are defying the government. To do so however risks arrest.
The T-shirts say “Bersih 4,” the name of an antigovernment demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, last August. The t-shirts are an embarrassing reminder of the $700 million deposited in the personal bank account of Najib. The government put forward a rather curious explanation that it was nothing more than a donation from undisclosed Saudi royalty. That would not seem a satisfying explanation for a political leader. The money reportedly came from companies linked to a sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. Najib then used his authority to scuttle government investigations, including removing the attorney general before he could conclude his investigation and firing a deputy prime minister who questioned the transactions.
A government spokesman is quoted as assuring citizens that “The reality in Malaysia is that there is freedom of expression without fear of prosecution. Online and in print, the media is freer than it has ever been.” That is a rather bizarre statement when you are arresting people for wearing a t-shirt calling for clean government.