Opposition fears more court battles after Lim Guan Eng's arrest

Supporters of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng gathering outside the court in George Town after his arrest.
Supporters of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng gathering outside the court in George Town after his arrest.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Supporters of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng gathering outside the court in George Town after his arrest.
Supporters of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng gathering outside the court in George Town after his arrest.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Prime Minister Najib Razak is quietly adopting a harder line against his opponents, raising the political stakes sharply in Malaysia at a time of growing economic uncertainty.

Many in the opposition now fear that the move to slap corruption charges on Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is one of the country's most senior opposition leaders, could be a precursor to a wider attack against others in the courts in the coming months.

"Najib thinks that he is politically much stronger and is in the position to break the back of the opposition by forcing the disqualification of our elected politicians through the courts," says parliamentarian Sivarasa Rasiah from the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

But Mr Sivarasa, who himself is facing criminal charges under the country's Multimedia and Communications Act, believes that Mr Najib's tactics will backfire.

"I am open to the idea that I could be disqualified. But does that mean that BN will win my seat at the next election? I doubt it," he says, referring to Mr Najib's ruling Barisan Nasional coalition government.

The wisdom of the Premier's strategy will only be tested at the next general election, which must be held before mid-2018 but is likely to be called some time next year, according to government politicians.

NAJIB TRYING TO 'BREAK' OPPOSITION

Najib thinks that he is politically much stronger and is in the position to break the back of the opposition by forcing the disqualification of our elected politicians through the courts.

PARLIAMENTARIAN SIVARASA RASIAH, from the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

GOVERNMENT CREDIBILITY AT STAKE

There are also risks for the government by bringing Guan Eng to court... We have the Attorney-General leading the prosecution and the government is laying its credibility on the line (with this case).

DEPUTY HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER NUR JAZLAN MOHAMED.

 

In the meantime, Malaysia's political funk will deepen and likely cloud the prospects of the economy, which is struggling following the collapse of oil export revenues and high levels of government and household debt, say analysts and private economists.

It isn't just opposition politicians that Mr Najib is targeting.

Former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin and former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir were sacked last week from the ruling Umno party for publicly opposing Mr Najib.

Mr Najib has has also taken aim at his harshest critic, former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Over the last six months, the government has withdrawn the former prime minister's security detail, stopped grants to his Perdana Foundation and put indirect pressure on the owners of national car maker Proton to remove Dr Mahathir as company chairman.

Mr Najib's strong-arm tactics in recent months are a far cry from his political position just a year ago, when he was almost ejected from power over the financial scandal surrounding state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which continues to be the subject of probes in seven countries.

Opposition politicians say it is no surprise that the corruption charges against Lim came days after the top two officials at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, who were widely seen as opposed to the Prime Minister, stepped down.

"Clearly these events are connected," notes PKR's Mr Sivarasa.

Opinion remains divided, even within the ruling coalition, on the impact of Mr Najib's increasingly tough stance.

"To me regardless of whether Lim is guilty or not, such action will galvanise the opposition supporters and voters in the urban areas, especially Penang, instead of weakening it," says Mr Andy Yong, deputy youth chief of the Gerakan party, in a statement posted by the Malaysiakini news site yesterday.

But Deputy Home Affairs Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed argues that charges of alleged persecution of the opposition are overblown.

"There are also risks for the government by bringing Guan Eng to court," he tells The Straits Times.

"What if the courts decide in his favour?

"We have the Attorney-General leading the prosecution and the government is laying its credibility on the line (with this case)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Opposition fears more will be hauled off to court'. Print Edition | Subscribe