Malaysian Premier Datuk Hussein Onn's decision to leave the political stage next month after five years in office has opened a lively election season. But many Malaysians active in public affairs are more concerned about new legislation drastically curbing freedom of speech, supposedly guaranteed in the federal Constitution.
A newly passed amendment to the law governing Malaysia's 14,000 or so associations and pressure groups allows only politicians, political parties, and associations registered as political movements to make public comment on government affairs.
The law is seen as a heavy-handed move to stifle criticism which is, after all, merely disagreeable rather than dangerous. The law bestows sweeping powers on the registrar supervising the societies' affairs: For instance, he may deregister, on his own authority, societies he judges to have breeched the law.
The decision can be appealed to the home affairs minister, but ironically the law does not allow a court challenge of the decision.
The law has sparked an almost unprecedented campaign of defiance from Malaysian societies ranging from religious movements to merchant guilds and social reform groups.
Cabinet ministers have defended the law on the grounds that it is necessary to force societies acting as political parties to show their true colors. Others have spoken darkly of the dangers of communist infiltration, or the threat that foreign infiltration poses to the fragile balance among Malaysia's ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Muslim communities.
Of more immediate interest, however, is a provision banning convicted criminals from political office of five years after their releasE.
The provision may be just what the ruling party establishment needs to undermine the position of Malaysia's maverick politician Datuk Harun Idris, who is serving a five-year sentence for corruption and forgery, but still wields considerable influence.
A more deep-rooted concern, some observers believe, may be unease over the influence some societies seem to have acquired among the masses flocking from rural areas into towns and cities.
Lured by the new prosperity visible in the glass and concrete skyscrapers and luxury hotels dominating the Kuala Lumpur skyline, many end up in mean shanties, forming a new class less susceptible to traditional social influences.
But these societies -- and many Malaysian lawyers as well -- are worried not only about limits on free speech but also about erosion of constitutional protection against abuse by the executive.
An internal security act already in force allows detention of suspects without trial. A recent amendment to the Constitution allow the King -- or, in effect, the Cabinet -- to declare a state of emergency in anticipation of a threat to security or national welfare. There's no need to wait for that threat to materialize. The King's decision may not be challenged in court and the cabinet can rule by decree, whether or not parliament is in session, and therefore without reference to the electorate.
The government and many within the political establishment plead that there is no sinister intent behind the new legislation, that it would never be applied in the extreme manner suggested by its critics.
Independent analysts are less sanguine. "This is not a unique piece of legislation," commented one diplomat. "But it is one more step down the ro ad towards a more authoritarian style of government."