Detained last weekend at Malaysia’s low-cost carrier terminal outside Kuala Lumpur, independent Senator Nick Xenophon confessed to being ‘gobsmacked’ at his treatment by Malaysian authorities. Keen not to offend Asian sensibilities, Foreign Minister Bob Carr stated that, while the Australian government would seek an explanation, it equally recognised Malaysia’s ‘strong objections to foreign interference’ in its internal affairs. Somewhat more forcefully, Labor leader in waiting Kevin Rudd called for a robust response, failing to explain what robustness might entail.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s government-controlled press dismissed the issue. The New Sunday Times observed that Foreign Minister Anifah Aman had explained the decision to his Australian counterpart who assured him ‘the two governments would have no misunderstanding’. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein explained he refused Xenophon entry for writing articles that ‘tarnished Malaysia’s image’ and claiming he could ‘cause disorder’. And state-run NGOs condemned the Senator as ‘biased’ and even a ‘dangerous foreign element’.

Is this another round in Australia’s troubled relationship with South-East Asian governments generally and Malaysia in particular? Or is it a somewhat naive Australian government unwittingly playing into a brutal domestic power struggle?

Xenophon arrived in Malaysia as the vanguard of an unofficial cross-party parliamentary delegation to observe the build-up to the forthcoming 13th Malaysian General Election. Xenophon had attended an opposition rally for clean elections in April 2012 and commented acerbically on the long-established ruling party’s practice of vote-rigging and constituency gerrymandering. In the wake of his expulsion, the rest of the cross-party group, somewhat meekly, cancelled their visit.

The otherwise bizarre decision of the Najib government reflects mounting tensions within the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled the federated state in a multiracial coalition since decolonis-ation, and the fear that the ruling party might actually lose the forthcoming election. It wants no observers, official or unofficial, of its questionable electoral practices. Since the 12th general election, in 2008, UMNO has faced, for the first time, a coherent political opposition led by former UMNO Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. In 2008, the opposition co-ordinated by Anwar’s party, Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice, or PKR), made unprecedented gains at both federal and state level. The opposition currently governs in four of the 13 states in the federation and holds 82 seats in the 222-seat federal parliament. The election denied the ruling party the two-thirds majority it needs to alter the constitution at will.

The new political reality after 2008 required UMNO to adapt its practice of authoritarian political guidance that the former Prime Minister — and still influential senior party figure — Mahathir Mohammad exemplified during his long tenure (1981-2003). This meant most notably the humiliation and imprisonment of his former deputy, Anwar, over Malaysia’s response to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

In the aftermath of the 2008 election, Najib Razak, himself the son of a former Prime Minister, replaced Mahathir’s ineffectual successor, Badawi, and adopted a rhetoric of moderation that would fashion ‘1Malaysia’ through a ‘transformative’ and transparent reform agenda. Former advisers to Tony Blair, via the UMNO-approved consultancy FBC Media, facilitated this attempt to rebrand the party. Najib set Blair-style benchmarks for economic and educational performance. He reformed the draconian colonial-era emergency legislation and presented himself as the figurehead for a global movement of moderate Muslims. In 2011, at a London conference to promote Najib’s vision, Blairite Baroness Uddin presented Najib’s Malaysia as an example of ‘moderation through leadership and cohesion’. Obama’s administration in the US also saw Malaysia as a Muslim model as the Arab Spring turned from democratic promise to extremism and chaos.

Despite strong growth since 2009, however, the Malaysian economy remained one of the most economically unequal in Asia. Sweetheart deals with UMNO-linked conglomerates led the Wall Street Journal Asia to describe Malaysia as ‘the world champion of corruption’. Human Rights Watch found no improvement in basic legal protection since 2008. And the World Press Freedom Index ranked Malaysia’s press at a historic low.

Najib’s moderate position and the spin that accompanied it ultimately failed to convince the ethnically and religiously divided electorate. In particular, the Malay vote on which UMNO depends remains split between the ruling party and the opposition. Meanwhile, the leaders of the ethnic and Christian Dayak and Kadazan populations of the west Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah increasingly saw the attraction of rejecting UMNO rule.

As elections approach (they must be called by April), it has become increasingly clear that the opposition would win a simple majority in a fair election. Recognition of this fact provoked a dramatic volte face on the part of the ruling party. From being the voice of Muslim moderation, Najib suddenly evinced a dramatic conversion to Hamas’s cause in Palestine in a cynical attempt to appeal to the fundamentalist constituency at home. Meanwhile, the possibility of a change of government and ‘reformasi’, Najib now claimed could lead to political instability and transform downtown KL into Tahrir Square. When not employing the politics of fear, UMNO engages in ‘money politics’, giving $500 cash gifts to those on low incomes in a new year gesture that looked uncannily like voter bribery. In order to counter the opposition’s effective use of social media, UMNO has created a social media department and a group of ‘cyber warriors’ to engage in virtual war upon opposition blogs and websites.

At the same time, a hardline UMNO faction, Perkasa (the Brave), assert Malay rights and privileges and look increasingly to Mahathir rather than Najib for guidance. Perkasa-linked elements regularly disrupt opposition rallies and show a worrying propensity for violence. PKR communications director Nik Nazmi has faced personal assault and intimidation. At the same time, the authentically moderate face of South-East Asian Muslim democracy, Anwar’s daughter, PKR vice president and MP for the Lembah Pantia constituency in Kuala Lumpur, Nurul Izzah, has seen her electoral roll increase by 15,000 in an electorate she holds by 2,000 votes.

As Nurul Izzah observes, the opposition politicians consider themselves democrats and merely want the space to practice political pluralism. She argues in Towards a Better Malaysia, ‘only through free and fair elections’ can the people decide ‘if ethnic Malay sovereignty or popular sovereignty shall define Malaysia’.

No wonder the UMNO consider a political democrat like Xenophon a security risk. What is more concerning, though, is that other commonwealth parliamentary delegations display a worrying indifference to this potentially seminal moment in South-East Asian politics.

David Martin Jones, a Brisbane-based writer, is a former visiting professor at the University of Malaya