PM takes the Malay cake
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd must be applauded for his diplomatic initiatives to mend fences with Malaysia during his visit there.
After all, there were years of barbed words from former leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad about Australia, to PMs Paul Keating and John Howard.
But for Mr Rudd to praise Malaysia's democracy as vibrant for the way it has handled its democratic transition takes the cake.
Malaysia was neither a dictatorship nor a totalitarian state from which to transit to democracy.
Rather, it is widely perceived that Malaysia is now headed the other way - from a democracy to feudalism characterised by patronage.
Mr Rudd must never forget that a nation that jails innocent people is hardly a vibrant democracy.
Since last December five civil rights activists belonging to the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf 5) have been languishing in jail.
The activists were ordered detained by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi under the draconian Internal Security Act.
The law absolves the Government from explaining its reasons and allows the state to detain them indefinitely.
The outrage felt across Malaysia led to one detainee, Manoharan Malayalam, being elected to parliament in March even while in jail.
So former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim - who did his first jail stint under the ISA in the 1970s - was not far off the mark when he said that Mr Rudd was sacrificing principles for realpolitik.
The shock swing against Mr Abdullah's ruling Barisan Nasional Party in the March poll and pressure from Dr Mahathir forced his decision to step down in 2010, announced just after meeting Mr Rudd.
Mr Abdullah will hand over to his chosen heir apparent, Najib Tun Razak, himself embroiled in a bizarre murder case.
So why is Mr Rudd so keen on ties with Malaysia's unsteady leadership?
The realpolitik has much to do with getting Malaysia's endorsement for Australia's bid to get a rotating seat in the UN Security Council.
Mr Rudd also seeks Malaysian acceptance of Canberra in the East Asian Economic Caucus, which Kuala Lumpur has always opposed for geographical and cultural reasons.
This was exacerbated by a perception of Australia's regional role as "deputy sheriff " to the US, and particularly the Iraq invasion.
That reluctance is unlikely to change. But sceptics in Malaysia reckon that Mr Rudd's soft power proposal of promoting a student exchange program will defer rather than hasten a future bilateral understanding.
Why? Malaysia has an apartheid-like educational system under the country's affirmative action program.
For 40 years, most of the country's Malay, Chinese and Indians have had separate education along racial lines, the favouritism of Malays engendering what is now becoming a communal divide.
It will soon dawn upon Australia that any student exchange with Malaysia needs factoring these peculiarities, which do not reflect the true make-up of that nation.
In short, the Malaysian students who head to Australia under Mr Rudd's proposal may not necessarily be the ones a meritocracy produces.
Dr Anwar again faces allegations of sodomy, similar to false charges on which he was jailed a decade ago.
His recourse to an Islamic court to allege slander against his accusers, rather than the courts under the secular constitution, is yet another sign of lack of confidence in the judiciary, beset by allegations of judge-fixing.
The galling, possibly insidious, effect of the rising Islamisation, coupled with the Government's inability to safeguard the constitutional right of freedom of worship for the country's Hindu minority, have tested Malaysia's race-based democracy.
A democracy can only be as good as the people living in it attest it as such. Kevin Rudd should have known better.
- Jaya Prakash is a Singapore-based freelance journalist.
Where's Michael Backman when we need him?