Malaysia’s brazen Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is determined to reduce the country’s alarming gang activity at any cost
By Sacha Passi Illustration by Victor Blanco
Armed with bold words and backed by the support of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is Malaysia’s man in charge of maintaining law and order. Recently, however, the tough-talking 60-year-old has come under fire for behaving more like the gangsters he has vowed to lock up than a keeper of peace, given his unabashed approach to internal security.
Not long after taking his new post following Malaysia’s general election in May, which was marred by claims of electoral fraud and vote manipulation, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party member reportedly said that Malaysians who were unhappy with the country’s political system should leave Malaysia – a statement that raised the alarm over his political future in a multi-racial society.
Early last month the former defence minister scheduled a marathon session in Parliament, which saw controversial amendments to the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA) passed through the lower house. It was a success for police and government lawmakers who blamed the abolishment of Emergency Ordinance – which allowed up to two years’ detention without trial – for rising crime rates on Malaysian streets. However, many international observers raised concerns that the PCA amendments proved that Prime Minister Najib Razak had backed away from his commitment to strengthen civil rights in the country.
“Given Malaysia’s long history of using preventative detention powers to intimidate and incarcerate political opponents, it’s highly likely that we will see the PCA misused in the same way once it becomes law,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UMNO and its allied political parties in the BN
government are facing a greater challenge than ever before from the opposition, so I’m certain the temptation to lock away activists will be too much for Prime Minister Najib to resist.”
Perhaps more concerning than the changes to the PCA – which will allow a ‘Crime Prevention Board’ to issue two-year detention orders, essentially a return to holding prisoners without trial – is the Home Minister’s recent response to Malaysia’s rising gun crime: that police should “shoot first” if confronted by suspected gang members.
The speech, in which he also noted that more than half of the country’s estimated 40,000 gangsters are ethnic-Indian Malaysians, was criticised for spreading racial hatred within the country.
“Home Minister Zahid is Malaysia’s top law enforcement official, yet he is promoting the illegal use of lethal force,” said Robertson. “Prime Minister Najib should be clear he will not tolerate such statements or unlawful practices, which show a callous disregard for basic rights.”
However, Najib is unlikely to mobilise against a leader who is popular within the UMNO, which dominates the ruling coalition, according to Gerhard Hoffstaedter, a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Queensland in Australia who specialises in the Malaysian state.
“During the tail end of the election, and more recently, we have seen a more decisive and hardline approach to national politics,” Hoffstaedter said. “This is perhaps sustainable for the UMNO, but not necessarily for the ruling BN [given that] its Chinese and Indian parties were decimated at the election. Thus hardline ethno-exclusivist politics has played well for the UMNO but, ultimately, both parties will have to think about the future.”
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