Malaysian Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib Tun Razak, founder of the Global Movement of Moderates, has been widely praised by international leaders (including President Obama and Prime Minister Abbott) for his commitment to democracy and moderate Islam.

Yet between 2013 and 2014, according to Amnesty International, 44 people in Malaysia were investigated or charged for sedition. Another dozen or so have been investigated this year, the latest being the daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

What is behind this crackdown?

Najib's reputation as a reformer owes much to changes he announced in mid-September 2011 that appeared to be moving Malaysia in a more democratic direction. Reforms included ending a decades' long state of emergency, amending several repressive laws, and repealing the notorious Internal Security Act that allowed indefinite detention without trial. In July 2012 he also promised to end the 1948 Sedition Act, a catch-all law covering any action perceived to bring the government, the Malay Rulers or Islam into disrepute.

The new laws, passed in mid-2012, were in fact not as democratic as promised. But when the government performed poorly in the 2013 general election – losing the popular vote though still winning 60% of parliamentary seats – the reforms were partly blamed.

The government responded by using the Sedition Act against pro-opposition groups to demonstrate that it remained in control. An orchestrated groundswell by United Malays National Organisation-linked (UMNO) pressure groups also followed, calling for the Sedition Act to be maintained to protect Malays, the Rulers and Islam.

At the UMNO general assembly last November Najib obliged, promising that the Act would be retained and in fact strengthened – even outlawing advocating secession for the states of Sabah or Sarawak. 

Two further reasons for using the Sedition Act have arisen in recent months.

First, former prime minister Mahathir has fallen out with his erstwhile protégé, declaring his opposition to reforms such as abolishing the Internal Security Act, and demanding Najib resign. Since Mahathir still retains strong support in UMNO, Najib has had to demonstrate he is just as able as the former prime minister in cracking down on the opposition.

Second, the government wants to limit all opposition to the recent conviction and 5-year jail sentence of Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy. Most Malaysians seem unconvinced of Anwar's guilt. In an attempt to address this, the prosecutor (an UMNO lawyer appointed for the trial) has even gone on a roadshow giving graphic details of the alleged crime. Now sedition investigations have been launched against those who have criticised the court decision. 

The most recent investigation is against Anwar's daughter Nurul Izzah. An MP in her own right, she delivered a speech in parliament – in fact prepared by Anwar – that was critical of the sodomy conviction. Parliamentary speeches are privileged in Malaysia, and although there is an exception for sedition, this is confined to questioning citizenship, the special position of the Malays, and the Malay rulers, and does not extend to the judiciary.

The jailing of Anwar was already a considerable setback for Malaysia's international reputation. The investigation of Nurul Izzah for a parliamentary speech – along with the intimidation and unnecessary act of detaining her overnight – has done nothing to help.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Firdaus Latif.