IN Malaysia's fettered democracy, Chandra Muzaffar has made a career of being a nuisance. In 1977, Mr. Muzaffar, then an academic in the northern island city of Penang, founded Aliran Kesedaran Negara or the National Awareness Movement, a nonpartisan multiethnic organization and publisher of an internationally known monthly.
Fifteen years later, despite tight press controls, a crackdown on dissent in 1987, and the recent government buyout of major media outlets, Aliran endures as an independent voice and a barely tolerated thorn in officialdom's side.
"They allow a little freedom because it suits their purpose," observes Muzaffar. "It's like a safety valve on a pressure cooker. You allow a little in order to stay in power."
Aliran "is one of the few sources of news not owned or controlled by the government and is thus invaluable," says Diane Mauzy, a prominent specialist on Malaysian politics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
"The government can't stand him," she says, referring to Muzaffar. "To them, he's worse than a nuisance."
In a mixed landscape for press freedom in noncommunist Southeast Asia, Malaysia maintains one of the region's tightest hammerlocks on the press.
In neighboring Thailand, the press, including two respected English-language newspapers, pursues exposes and in-depth investigations, spotlights social and environmental problems, and, with growing self-confidence, tweaks politicians, bureaucrats, and even the powerful military.
In the Philippines, a rollicking mood pervades much of the press since President Corazon Aquino came to power. With the proliferation of newspapers, competition, and sensationalism, Filipinos often quip that their country has too much press freedom.
However, at the other end of the spectrum, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia keep the press under close scrutiny.
In Malaysia, outspoken strongman Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has turned press freedom into an anti-Western crusade, intimidates the press with a stringent licensing law, Western and Malaysian observers say. Through media purchases in recent years, the government has gained a stranglehold over the English, Chinese, Malay, and Arabic script press. That control was an important edge in last year's election that swept Dr. Mahathir back into power and thwarted a budding opposition movement, Western o bservers say.
"Self-censorship plays a big role, especially among the newspapers with a large capital base who are afraid they'll lose their licenses," says Muzaffar. Licenses are reviewed every year. "This has created quite a bit of fear among editors and publishers."
During its years as a pesky adversary, Aliran has never been pressured by the government to change content, says the founder. The publication began as a quarterly, but since 1982 has been published monthly by a volunteer staff of seven to 10 people. Circulation at home and abroad is about 17,000, and Aliran is funded totally by Malaysians, Muzaffar says.
Still, the publication, which explores religious and social issues, economic policy, and ethnic relations in multiethnic Malaysia, has felt the government's pique.
In the October 1987 roundup of more than 100 opposition politicians, journalists, and church workers, Muzaffar was detained for almost two months. His arrest became a cause cbre as outraged admirers protested and American congressmen and Asian scholars from around the world launched a letter campaign for his release. His colleagues turned out two issues while he was in jail.
"He's seen as an honest intellectual, although his positions sometimes seem a little naive," says one Western observer.
Last year, Aliran won a seven-year government and legal battle to begin publishing in Malay, the language of more than half of the population. Before the 1987 crackdown, the magazine had won court approval for the Malay edition, only to have the decision overturned three years later. Inexplicably, the government later reversed itself and granted a license to the Malay edition, which circulates 4,000 copies.
Muzaffar, who stepped down as president last year to write books, says Aliran's presence is "useful and necessary in the Malaysian context because of the political parties' inability to address the fundamental problems of the country. This is a sort of fettered democracy. You can see it everywhere," he says. "But in terms of civil rights, there is still scope for dissent."