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Often attributed to the East, this phrase is probably no more Chinese than the hundreds of sayings attributed to Confucius when we were growing up. But it has a certain inscrutable air to it, so the Chinese get blamed. As far as I can tell it can be traced to pre-war Britain, and connotes the kind of foreboding that was gathering in Europe at the time. However it came about, the phrase is an apt one for Malaysia’s troubled political scene.

As one of the least fragile democracies in South-East Asia, Malaysia has experienced the kind of economic growth that other countries in this region admire and envy. Only Singapore has developed more rapidly following independence in this part of the world. But unlike Singapore, Malaysia has the beginnings of a genuine democracy, and in the last election the opposition parties gained the control of several states, including Selangor, the state in which Kuala Lumpur is located, and the most prosperous state in the country.

The response to this growth of political maturity has been mixed, with some relishing the political vitality, and some genuinely fearing for the perks that now appear threatened by an opposition victory. It is in this context that the death of a young aide to the opposition party must be cast. Teoh Beng Hok died in the custody of a quasi-police organization, the MACC, his body broken from a fall from the building where he was being detained and questioned. The political fallout has been swift and unavoidable.

The opposition party has called for an independent investigation, and the parents are refusing to buy the official version that their son somehow went missing from MACC custody for several hours. A new twist was added today when a leading member of the ruling coalition crossed the floor to the opposition benches stating that his conscience would not allow him to remain in the government any longer. The government controlled media are understandably supportive of the official line, but the internet is abuzz with rumours and accusations. Interesting times indeed.

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