Najib and Malaysia’s road to redemption?

February 19, 2016

Najib and Malaysia’s road to redemption?

As leading party UMNO and its embattled PM desperately cling to power, there could be even darker times ahead for Malaysia’s democracy. 

The actions of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak have been met with widespread disbelief from domestic and international observers.For many, there seems to be no end to the series of scandals directly or indirectly linked to Najib and his associates, beginning with a financial investigation abruptly brought to an end by a newly-appointed Attorney-General, Mohamed Apandi Ali.

The investigation, concerning the alleged misappropriation of nearly US$4 billion through entities linked to a state investment vehicle, now continues in international jurisdictions, not in Malaysia. Najib is also being investigated in France in relation to an older scandal involving the payment of illegal commissions to a close associate, linked to Malaysia’s purchase of French submarines in 2002.

Public discussion of Najib’s credibility will likely continue, even though the Attorney General is considering amending the Official Secrets Act to impose severe punishments on those who leak to the media, along with reporters and editors who act on those leaks.

To date, media coverage of leaked documents has been a major source of information about the scale and severity of the allegations against Najib. If these amendments are enacted, this tightening up of information flows would come on top of travel restrictions preventing individuals from lodging crime reports against Najib in Europe and elsewhere in Asia. Nevertheless, it appears that international investor confidence in Malaysia is declining, regardless of any potential future restrictions.

Despite this decline, governments, including Australia’s, remain reluctant to criticise Najib, and public questioning about his administration has largely been confined to Australian media outlets. This reluctance likely stems from Malaysia’s importance as a trade and regional security partner for Australia, and from the belief that Najib, who has been taking steps to shore up his political future, will lead the nation for some time to come.

At the same time, however, any observer with an interest in Malaysia would be advised to keep a close eye on the measures Najib is adopting. These measures are designed to protect his position, but they might also make for uncertain times in future.

Australia’s investment in Malaysia

Australia and Malaysia need each other, and each nation is on the other’s list of top 10 trading partners. Malaysians consume Australian food, raw materials, manufactured goods and education exports, sending ever large numbers of students who require more goods and services in our cities when they arrive. Malaysia is also a party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements and an important partner in counter-terrorism and migration surveillance.

For Malaysia, Australia is an essential source of education and training for its most productive economic sectors, and an important destination for thousands of migrants who leave Malaysia every year. In this sense, Malaysia’s strong relationship with Australia is also a useful pressure valve, as Australia now hosts debates about Malaysia’s future that engage its diaspora of students and professionals, effectively letting off domestic political steam.

Australia permits these debates without openly interfering, including rallies like Bersih last year, at which 5,000 people gathered in Melbourne to call for cleaner elections and transparent government. Malaysia tacitly permits them as well, usually allowing government critics to travel freely to speak to Malaysians and international lobby groups, albeit accompanied by expressions of disapproval aimed at domestic audiences.

Malaysia’s Prisoner of Conscience

Australia has also moved in subtle ways to signal its understanding that Malaysian society is politically divided, and even official functions and programs have begun to accommodate non-government actors. In August 2015, for example, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop attended a function for women leaders that included Ambiga Sreenevasan, a prominent lawyer and Bersih leader. There have also been exchange schemes involving staffers from opposition parties.

This form of quiet diplomacy creates options for Australia without causing a backlash, unlike the open intervention which triggered the deportation of South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon in 2013.

Australian engagement with non-government actors is unlikely to become more vocal or obvious, despite Najib’s approval rating having fallen to 23 per cent, as reported by the Singapore media based on Merdeka Centre polling from August last year. This is unsurprising, as there is no alternative government for Australia to establish more open links with, or, at present, for Malaysians to elect.

Based on current realities, this situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, although two years remain between now and the next election, and the contest for Malaysia’s future remains competitive and fluid.

Domestic political moves

The Pious UMNO kleptocrats and cronies

The move to close down the corruption investigation has been one in a sequence of many, initiated by Najib and his supporters, to realign Malaysian politics in their favour between now and 2018. The aim is to reconstruct a strong Malay Muslim electoral bloc, led by Najib and his UMNO party, whose majority position cannot be challenged by a weak and divided opposition.

This is a tried and tested UMNO strategy, and if it is successful, the opposition will have been limited to a ‘Chinese’ group of naysayers stoked by a few ‘liberal’ Malay Muslim supporters. A successful realignment along these lines is intended to prevent a 2018 election victory from attracting the same criticisms as the contested 2013 result. It should appear more like a triumph for Malay Muslim unity and rural grassroots politics, and less like a product of the Malaysian electoral system.

This is why UMNO’s moves since 2013 have also included splitting up the opposition coalition, beginning with jailing Anwar Ibrahim a year ago for the crime of sodomy, based on charges that are widely believed to be politically-motivated. Additional moves have included hosting discussions on hudud laws that seemed to convince Islamist party PAS to leave Anwar’s rebranded coalition, now in a much weaker position than in 2013.

Now espousing an independent position after UMNO eventually declined to support hudud, PAS has begun to extract important concessions from UMNO regardless, including a sharia index which is likely to trigger a new round of Islamisation in Malaysian politics. Such rounds are usually accompanied by debates about the position of liberal Muslims and Malaysia’s non-Muslim minorities, leading to fears that Malaysians’ famous tolerance might be stretched beyond its limits. Indeed, observers question whether Malaysia’s commitment to countering radicalisation is in reality undermined by its government’s willingness to Islamise public life.

Since 2013, government spokespeople have admitted to funding NGOs espousing precisely this aim, including ISMA and Perkasa, both of which advance majoritarian arguments that infuse Malaysian debates.

Other moves have included portraying last year’s Bersih rally as just another Chinese protest, a portrayal enabled by a government decision to declare the rally illegal, thereby preventing (mostly Malay Muslim) civil servants from attending. The ‘Chinese’ effect was also supported by the noticeable absence of PAS activists, after PAS declined to mobilise to support the rally.

Najib has also moved to suppress rebellions inside UMNO, beginning by sacking the last Attorney-General, Abdul Gani Patail, who had been leading the investigation against him. He also sacked his high-profile former Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, who had openly cast doubt on UMNO’s future electoral chances. Since then, Najib has ‘oppositionalised’ figures linked to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, an open Najib critic who even attended the Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur.

In this vein, state parliamentarians apparently aligned with Najib recently managed to oust the former prime minister’s son, Mukhriz Mahathir, from his Chief Minister position in the Kedah state legislature. Mahathir has responded by declaring himself patron of a group of anti-Najib UMNO branch chiefs, drawing immediate criticism that they are ‘shit-stirrers’ whose agitation is likely to fail.

Not surprisingly, public mistrust has not abated through this sequence of extraordinary political moves. Set against a backdrop of financial scandal, they seem to only compound Malaysians’ misgivings over the state of the economy.

These fears are also being stoked by revelations of financial difficulties at Tabung Haji, a taxpayer-guaranteed entity through which aspiring Muslim pilgrims save for travel to Mecca for the Haj. The August 2015 poll by the Merdeka Centre found 78 per cent of Malaysians disapproved of Najib’s economic management, and that result is unlikely to have improved much in the months since.

No guarantees for anyone

UMNO continues to invest heavily in Najib, and its strategy of working to rally a Malay Muslim majority. Yet there remain serious questions around whether this strategy will work to deliver an election result that UMNO can defend at home and abroad.

If UMNO’s project of restructuring the Malaysian political contest fails to achieve its desired effect, the party’s popular vote could potentially fall again, shredding the legitimacy of a 2018 victory and raising more questions about Malaysia’s direction. The resulting damage to Malaysia’s image as a parliamentary democracy would inevitably affect Australia’s relations with a neighbour it relies on for Southeast Asian security and social cohesion.

Dr Amrita Malhi is a researcher and writer on histories and politics in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and its interAsian contexts. She is Secretary of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, and holds an affiliation with the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Her website is


7 thoughts on “Najib and Malaysia’s road to redemption?

  1. I read the original article by clicking link above.
    This is comment from a reader Peter Cohen which i am sure he wont mind if i post here:

    Malaysia is a lost cause. The Government and opposition are thoroughly corrupted and Malaysians are frozen, with no conception what to do, but clearly unwilling to take to the streets as Indonesians and Filipinos have in the past. UMNO will not be removed any other way, and even if they are, PAS will take their place. The opposition is looking more and more like tired old versions of MCA and MIA, and stalwarts like Lim have become mere status-quo mouthpieces and Anwar lost his shine 30 years ago. Malaysia has been in trouble since 1982, and has lived off of fantasies and larcenous Malaysians. Unless PAS pulls an upset, the next PM WILL be Zahid Hamidi, and what he may lack in capricious larceny, he will make up for in fascist tendencies, bullying, racism and abuse of the law; the law being what UMNO says at any given moment. Malaysia has gone from a rich colonial and post-colonial nation to a global laughing stock, where President Obama has to invite PM Najib to Los Angeles, using other ASEAN leaders as cover, to hide Najib’s ass. The real question is why Obama cares so much about a deadbeat Prime Minister who is a global embarrassment and engages in a hilarious soap opera with the “new” activist Mahathir, in his 247th role (now as friends of the Chinese-Malaysians, at least his butler and money launderer, the insane Matthias Chang) which would be even funnier, if Malaysia’s whole existence as a nation were not at stake.

  2. highcut28, forgive my ignorance, but why would P Obama want to hide Najis’s ass?? For the sake of the TPPA ? I wonder whether ,in some grand scheme of things, Obama is ‘involved’ in Najis’s global scandal(s), hence the need to hide the infamous ass.

  3. I can hear someone say, Cohen? Aren’t “Cohens” Jews?

    Look it up, the Cohens were actually the “purest” of Jews.

    Bearing the surname indicates that one’s patrilineal ancestors were priests in the Temple of Jerusalem — Wiki

    So his comments are drastically discounted in Ketuanan Melayu Malaysia.

    Having said that, his comments that “…with no conception what to do, but clearly unwilling to take to the streets as Indonesians and Filipinos have in the past. UMNO will not be removed any other way….” is one I would take as a compliment.

    Because herein lies hope for a better Malaysia. No matter how bad things are, the streets are not where our problems can be settled or solved permanently, something the Red Shirts dispute of course.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not against a peaceful demonstration to publicize a message, however sectarian, pro or anti establishment. I am against the Indonesian / Pinoy version which Mr. Cohen thought we lack the gumption to emulate.

    Our only hope lies in a paradigmatic shift of the Malay majority mindset. That is, banish the congenitally inculcated notion that the PM “may” be corrupt, but he is OUR PM. Our PM knew this and laughed all the way to Ambank, literally.

    Until this day comes, and true to Mr. Cohen’s priestly lineage, his oracular prediction that “…the next PM WILL be Zahid Hamidi, and what he may lack in capricious larceny, he will make up for in fascist tendencies…” is a given and a given for the next 10 PMs.

    The next frightening level of course is from “OUR PM” to “OUR Malaysia” when the country becomes a failed state.

  4. Wayne: Peter Cohen is Jewish. He is the great grandnephew of David S. Marshall, the first Chief Minister of Singapore. He always comments on the New Mandala of Australia National University.

  5. Gents come come there are plenty of decent Cohens and Goldsteins around
    They are not necessarily Zionists.
    I had a Goldstein patient who was amazed that Chinese pork dishes are so good – here in Islamic Malaysia 🙂
    Cohen’s comments are pretty spot on . I just hope they are not prophetic !

    Wayne, u said it in yr last sentence where we re headed

  6. Actually, the question is why Adenan Satem has not exercise his full leverage that will see at least some redemption. Adenan can chose to work with Muhiyiddin or Mahathir or both or Pakatan. All options allow him to be Kingmaker and set the terms.

    He, at least on paper, has nothing to lose and all to gain by toppling Najib. The only risk is Najib runs to Hadi’s PAS and sink everyone.

    Yes, there are many in UMNO beyond the point of no return who will take out their knives against him but so what? His heroic effort will let any if his dirty laundry get washed.

    So what say Adenan Satem?

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