KUALA LUMPUR — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s pledge to grant freedom of speech to the public and media was met with suspicion from observers who noted he was responsible for shutting down three newspapers during the infamous 1987 Ops Lalang.

They also pointed out that his pledge coincided with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s (PPBM) move to bar reporters from covering the debates during its annual general meeting on Saturday.

“What sort of freedom? He said the press will twist whatever that was debated, but Umno’s AGM was open to the press, right? From there, you can conclude (Dr) Mahathir says one thing but does another thing,” Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) Jeniri Amir told Malay Mail.

“His record is tainted with all sorts of scandals. There was no press freedom under him and he amended various acts including the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 to strengthen his political hegemony.

“In actual fact, he abused his powers by using the political hegemony tools. Now he promises all sorts of things. I think this is just bait to hoodwink voters,” Jeniri said.

The lecturer also said PPBM’s media restrictions during the AGM debates gave an impression that there was “something to hide”, which would otherwise be exposed if the press was allowed to cover the event.

Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) analyst P. Sivamurugan also shared Jeniri’s views, adding that it is unusual for Dr Mahathir to promise freedom of speech and yet censor journalists at PPBM’s AGM.

“But is he talking about absolute freedom (of speech) or limited forms of freedom? It implies that we’ve never enjoyed full freedom, something many have criticised him for during his time in office.

“It is possible they did so (media gag order) because they do not want to accept criticisms which will go beyond their expectations, or they might still be looking for answers to certain issues which they worry they will be unable to answer should they be raised,” Sivamurugan told Malay Mail.

Independent political analyst Lim Teck Ghee suggested that Dr Mahathir’s pledge was nothing more than an election strategy.

“This is clearly the last reinvention of Dr Mahathir and I see it as his final attempt to salvage his name in the history books. Sometimes self-realisation comes very late especially for those who have held power for so long,” he said when contacted.

Merdeka Center co-founder and director Ibrahim Suffian described Dr Mahathir’s speech during PPBM’s AGM as typical of politicians, adding that the apology that the former prime minister made then was designed to placate critics.

The Ops Lalang security crackdown took place during Dr Mahathir’s administration. During the 1987 dragnet, 119 people were detained under the Internal Security Act while four newspapers were also suspended.

Ops Lalang and the use of the ISA had prompted Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to remark that the country was undeniably “on the road to dictatorship”.