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Malaysia's Unlikely Reformer

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Today is Malaysia's 54th birthday, and last night, on the eve of the Merdeka (independence) celebrations, under-pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak caused a stir by announcing a basket of political reforms, including amending the country's draconian detention-without-trial laws and pledging to end the practice by which media must apply annually to have their licences renewed (which free speech advocates say tames Malaysian newspapers and TV)

Change comes slow in Malaysian politics, and Najib's party has been part of Government, in fact the dominant faction, since independence from Britain in 1957, so the announcement caught many on the hop.

A rare protest back in July was met with an over-the-top response by the Government and the police. They first tried to stop the rally going ahead, and then locked down much of Kuala Lumpur, one of southeast Asia's liveliest cities, on the Friday night before the rally.

On Saturday afternoon, when an estimated 20,000 protestors filtered onto the otherwise silent streets, the police fired teargas and water-cannon at the crowd - who were only asking for reform of what they see as a bent electoral system. That said, senior opposition politicians took part in the same rally, so the Government took it to be an opposition event, aimed at rooting them from office, and completely overreacted.

Since then it appears that Najib has had a rethink. He has set up a commission to look into electoral reforms, and then dropped the R bomb last night.

I co-filed an in-depth piece on the reform story here. Among those I interviewed was Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. He welcomed the speech, saying that the proposed reforms are needed, However, he cautioned that "governance is opaque in Malaysia, making it difficult to foresee how the crucial next steps - namely implementation of these proposed reforms - will be undertaken".

And it appears that after getting over the initial surprise at last night's speech, some Malaysians are wary. The next election is due by 2013 at the latest, so the PM is clearly getting into vote-seeking mode in good time. But, then again, isn't that part of politics too? Reform-minded citizens and a viable opposition pushing hitherto-recalcitrant leaders into making necessary changes?

However the changes are long overdue, with the laws allowing indefinite detention without trial in place since 1960. Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysian scholar at the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, told me that many Malaysians are sceptical about the announcement, viewing it "as an opportunistic move and not a decision based on serious insights about the harm that such a legislation does to society."