AFTER taking a conciliatory tone following a hard- fought general election, the authorities appear to have changed tack with the detention of opposition politicians and the seizure of their newspapers.
But rather than a sustained crackdown, the coordinated move was likely a one-off show of strength, analysts say, with a possible eye on Umno party elections later this year.
"I think this is a warning shot," said political analyst Ooi Kee Beng from Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "It's about setting the tone for the new administration and manoeuvring for Umno's internal elections."
On Thursday, Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president Tian Chua, Parti Islam SeMalaysia member Tamrin Ghafar and anti-government activist Haris Ibrahim were arrested for alleged seditious remarks made at a political forum on May 13.
Also on Thursday, student activist Adam Adli was charged in court with making seditious remarks at the same event.
Meanwhile, the Home Ministry seized more than 2,000 copies of the party papers of the three Pakatan Rakyat parties.
Since becoming Prime Minister in 2009, Datuk Seri Najib Razak has cultivated an inclusive, moderate image. But some say his administration might now take a harder line to shore up his support in Umno.
"In the eyes of Umno hardliners, Mr Najib gave in too much over the last four years," said Dr Ooi.
Political analyst Oh Ei Sun from Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the clampdown could also have been an attempt by Home Minister Zahid Hamidi and police chief Khalid Abu Bakar - both of whom assumed their posts in the last two weeks - to stamp their authority.
Prior to the arrests, the police had taken a hands-off approach. They did not stop the opposition from holding rallies around the country to protest against the election results, despite declaring these "Black 505" gatherings illegal.
While the arrests were not directly linked to these rallies, they came just days after Datuk Seri Zahid's promise of "stern action" against those who participated in illegal mass gatherings.
Thursday's police action brought to mind another coordinated arrest soon after the 2008 general election, when three people - an anti-government blogger, an opposition politician and a journalist - were held under the Internal Security Act. That was also seen as an attempt to placate Umno hawks. But the trio were quickly released after a public outcry.
The larger democratic space in Malaysia and a much stronger opposition also mean that the authorities can no longer reasonably conduct a crackdown, noted political analyst Denison Jayasooria from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
"The circumstances are different. They cannot use that kind of action anymore," he said, referring to opposition claims that this is another Operation Lalang - the infamous 1987 crackdown in which over 100 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act for allegedly stirring racial tensions.
But the police action on Thursday could bolster the "Black 505" rallies just when they look to be dying down. Another one is set to be held in Selangor today.
The arrests would also have hurt Mr Najib's public credibility. Critics have hit out at the authorities for charging and investigating the politicians and activists under the Sedition Act, a law that Mr Najib himself had pledged to repeal as part of his reforms.
"The Sedition Act has no place in our modern democratic society," said the Bar Council in a statement yesterday.
Additional reporting by Lester Kong