Malaysian authorities have arrested Ho Kay Tat, publisher of the Edge, and Jahabar Sadiq, the CEO of the Malaysian Insider, under the Sedition Act. The government charges that the news portals’ have violated laws while reporting on hudud, or Islamic criminal laws. Both leaders are vowing to fight the charges and carry on business as usual.

Is The Press Coming Under Assault In Malaysia?

Both the Edge and the Malaysian Insider are the chief alternatives to the heavily censored and controlled state media within Malaysia, and as online portals they are not subject to as strict of oversight as traditional newspapers. The most recent charges, however, demonstrate Malaysia’s slow veer towards conservatism, and a potential assault on the Press itself.

Legal Case Grounded In Larger Social Changes

Malaysia has slowly found itself being divided along racial lines with conservative Muslim Malays slowly growing more at odds with Chinese and Indian Malaysians. Political tensions are also being increasing divided along urban-rural lines. One of the results of this growing divide has been a gradual racial radicalization and increasingly conservative Islamic laws and enforcement.

The biggest driving force behind this seems to be the resurgence of the Chinese community as a political power. Following the race riots in Malaysia’s early years of independence, the Chinese community essentially took a back seat to the Malay community, and rural Malay districts largely controlled the country’s politics.

Recent elections of seen the emergence of a powerful opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, and the Chinese DAP has proven to be among the most constituent parties (ironically, the conservative Muslim group PAS is another major constituent). During the last election cycle, PR actually managed to secure the popular vote, but extensive gerrymandering denied it control of the government.

Trends Could Have Wide Sweeping Effects On Malaysia

Malaysia has long suffered from a brain drain with many of the best and brightest Malaysian Chinese and Indians heading to Singapore, Australia, or elsewhere to pursue their career. The reasoning is simple: in their home country they will face stiff racial prejudice, while abroad they’re less likely to be judged by their racial background.

Just a few years ago the Malaysian government was working to staunch the flow of talented individuals abroad, but if racial tensions continue to worsen, these efforts will almost certainly fail. For a country currently facing a middle-income trap, where rising costs are eroding Malaysia’s ability to compete with low-cost labor, but talents and skills do not yet justify high-income wages, which could prove to be very problematic.