Civil society leaders and political analysts have slammed as short-sighted and oppressive the moves by the government to curb the by-election campaigning of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
Last night, police shot rounds of tear gas and chemical-laced water into a crowd of more than 5,000 who gathered to hear the reform icon speak in Sungai Tinggi, Bukit Gantang, where a parliamentary by-election is due to take place on Apr 7.
Their action was a repeat of the night before, when they also trained tear gas and water canons into another peaceful crowd that came to hear Anwar - this time at Bukit Selambau in Kedah.
Malaysians will face three simultaneous by-elections on Apr 7 - at Bukit Gantang in Perak, Bukit Selambau in Kedah and Batang Ai in Sarawak.
A new regime of repression
Political watchers, including Anwar himself, have criticised the crackdowns as a part of a bid by incoming premier Najib Abdul Razak to silence dissent ahead of his power transition.
“With actions taken against bloggers, threats against lawyers and other groups, I expect the democratic space to shrink. We cannot allow this to happen,” said political analyst Gavin Khoo.
“Government institutions should take note of the fact that even Najib Razak acknowledged in his speech last night that Malaysia has moved on to a new environment and that we must all adapt and adjust to the changes it requires, namely greater accountability and freedom of choice,” said Ramon Navaratnam, president of the Centre for Public Policy Studies and former president of Transparency International.
In the past two weeks, Najib has indeed pushed to tighten his hold on the country.
He has barred at least six online media from covering the Umno annual assembly and election, suspended the licenses of two opposition newspapers and charged eight bloggers for allegedly insulting the Perak Sultan over a power grab that he himself had initiated.
Last week, he also moved to purge leaders of a rival faction in Umno, creating uneasiness in the party as it holds its 59th congress this week.
The 55-year old Najib, rated the most unpopular leader to assume the top office by a recent poll, is due to succeed Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Umno president this week and as prime minister early next month.
There are growing calls from Malaysians and a nation-wide campaign urging the King not to confirm him as prime minister.