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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 5029

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (20:48): Events are moving fast in our near-northern neighbour Malaysia. I have spoken several times in this place since 2012 about how successive Australian governments have simply not been interested in encouraging democratic standards in our region with one of our most significant neighbours, seemingly turning a blind eye to blatant gerrymandering, voter fraud, intimidation, and a lack of a free press.

Democracy in Malaysia is currently on life support. The outrageous five-year jail term handed out this February to the country's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, on trumped-up charges of sodomy marked a new low for this troubled country. Anwar is recognised as a political hero in our region if not in Australia. He was an outstanding finance minister and deputy prime minister. He shepherded Malaysia through the 1997 Asian financial crisis. He fell afoul of then Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, no doubt because of his strong democratic values and his efforts to rid the ruling UMNO party of corruption. He is a lightning rod for cleaner elections and works with the Bersih movement—'Bersih' meaning clean, in Malay—which must eventually prevail against the stale, corrupt and increasingly repressive regime of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

I am proud to count Anwar as a friend. On the day he was sentenced he rang me twice from the courthouse. On the second occasion, when he was about to be led into the courtroom for sentencing, he begged me that Australians not forget the plight of the Malaysian people. He has been in solitary confinement, his health has been poor and medical treatment has been denied or delayed. I have no doubt that Anwar was jailed to silence him ahead of what the Malaysian regime knew would be a torrid period of scandal and controversy. The second part has turned out to be true, but Anwar has not been silenced. In the past month, Prime Minister Najib and his party have been rocked by a scandal that, if it had happened in any true democracy, would have led to the fall of the government within days. That was not so in Malaysia. As revealed in The Wall Street Journal last month, Malaysian anticorruption investigators have found that payments of nearly US$700 million from shady overseas sources into the government's development fund, known as 1MDB, were redirected to Najib's personal accounts and spent on election campaigning in the rorted 2013 election. Much of the funds remain unaccounted for.

Incredibly, rather than resign in disgrace, Najib's regime called The Wall Street Journal article 'political sabotage' and had the country's chief prosecutor, called the Attorney-General, sacked in blatant breach of the Malaysian constitution. My sources in Malaysia suggest that the Attorney-General was sacked on the eve of laying charges of corruption against Prime Minister Najib.

Incredibly, Malaysian police have been raiding anticorruption investigative bodies to prevent further revelations emerging. The scandal continues to grab headlines and cause deep consternation around the world. Amazingly, Najib vigorously denies any wrongdoing. He remains at the helm of the regime, along with his wife, Rosmah Mansor, known for her luxury shopping sprees and dubbed by many Malaysians as 'Mrs 10 Per Cent'. But, as an editorial in The Economist magazine on 25 July put it:

WHATEVER the truth of them, the accusations levelled against Najib Razak … have astonished a country that some had thought inured to scandal.

In desperate moves to shore up his position, Najib recently has sacked four ministers, including his Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin. Responding to the revelations from his tiny prison cell, Anwar penned an explosive column published in The Wall Street Journal just two weeks ago. In it he warns the region that Malaysia was descending to the status of a failed state, with increasing corruption and sectarianism, race-based privilege, political repression, a state-controlled media and blatant breaches of the constitution. Anwar warned:

… there is real danger ahead. Middle-income nations like Malaysia—after several decades of economic mismanagement, opaque governance and overspending—can devolve into failed states.

Anwar set out how in the past 18 months more than 150 Malaysians have been arrested and many charged with sedition for making public statements criticising the regime. They include students, academics, journalists, lawyers, politicians and a cartoonist.

And what does the Australian government say or do about this unfolding tragedy? While Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed disappointment and raised human rights concerns when Anwar was jailed in February, Australia's position is currently woefully inadequate. In our foreign minister's speech in Kuala Lumpur just four days ago, she lauded our growing defence and trade ties with Malaysia and flattered her Malaysian audience instead of levelling with them. She said:

Our strong economies and stable societies owe much to the robust public institutions and legal frameworks that our parliamentary democracies share.

It might be right for Australia, but it is not right for Malaysia. I have a lot of personal respect for our Minister for Foreign Affairs, but I cannot respect her silence on Malaysia's worsening democratic crisis and the corruption that is engulfing that nation.

In 2012 I joined a fact-finding delegation to Malaysia which examined the electoral system there. The delegation found that elections in Malaysia were open to rorting and vote tampering, and voters were subject to bans on assembly during an unusually short so-called campaign period of just 10 days. Electoral rolls were incomplete and easily defrauded. Sadly the fears I expressed in this place following the 2012 delegation have come true, and the hopes I raised, that Australia would play a role in improving democratic freedoms and elections in Malaysia, appear dashed.

Yesterday, 10 August, was Anwar's 68th birthday. He will be well into his 70s when he is eventually released, if he is released. Yesterday also marked the publication of a powerful joint letter of leading academics and journalists from around the world. Writing in support of the jailed leader and his movement, these experts and writers labelled the trial of Anwar as 'biased and unfair' and condemned the rising political repression in the country. I join them today in calling for the unconditional and immediate release of Anwar Ibrahim, who has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Global concern about Anwar and the deteriorating political situation in Malaysia was highlighted this month by United States Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr Kerry told the media he had raised the imprisonment of Anwar during talks with Najib and 'raised concerns about freedom of expression'. As a nation, we must speak out on this. Australia must assert itself on this festering issue. We should have the courage to call a spade a spade, especially to a great friend such as Malaysia. My argument is not with the Malaysian people, for whom I have the greatest respect, but with a corrupt and rotten regime that threatens to destabilise the region.

Why does it matter to Australia? Australians and Malaysians have a long and positive history together. We helped Malaysians fight off a communist insurgency in the 1950s and again in the mid-1960s. More than 300,000 Malaysians have studied in Australia, starting with the Colombo Plan many years ago. Since 2002 more than 90,000 Malaysians have studied here. More than 116,000 Malaysian-born people live in Australia, and many hundreds of thousands of Australians travel to Malaysia, and many expats live there too. Sadly I can no longer travel to Malaysia.

Our government must show regional leadership to say it like it is. This corrupt and despotic regime is closing down media it does not control; it imprisons political opponents; it jails opposition leaders. An opportunity is coming up for Australians to show their support for democratic freedoms in Malaysia. The Saturday night of 29 August will see a series of solidarity rallies in Malaysia and across the world, organised by Malaysian reform group Bersih 2.0, the movement for free and fair elections in Malaysia. Rallies will take place overnight in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and other places, and Malaysians living overseas are planning rallies throughout the world. I look forward to attending one of the rallies in Australia and invite my parliamentary colleagues to do the same.

Many Malaysians are just fed up with the corrupt regime and are saying so. But there are concerns that Najib will become increasingly repressive. The world community must support Malaysians who want to bring about a peaceful return to democracy and the rule of law in Malaysia. My plea, in the week of Anwar Ibrahim's 68th birthday, is for more Australians to get involved and support our Malaysian friends for a peaceful, democratic transition, for a government that is free of corruption, a government that Malaysians can truly be proud of and a government that will enhance, not compromise, the stability of our region.