Malaysia’s Najib mess is Mahathir-made

August 5, 2016

Malaysia’s Najib mess is Mahathir-made–The Summing Up

by  Dan Slater, University of Chicago

At least embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is right about one thing. The current mess in Malaysian politics is the making of his greatest nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, who led the Southeast Asian nation with an iron fist from 1981–2003. What Najib fails to fathom is that Mahathir has not produced this mess by criticising his leadership, but by paving Najib’s path to power in the fashion he did during his decades in office. Mahathir may believe that he can end the crisis by bringing Najib down. But history should judge Mahathir himself as the author of a long national decline that has culminated in this latest crisis.

To be sure, Najib’s fingerprints are all over the current mess. The proximate source of the crisis has been the collapse of Najib’s pet sovereign-investment company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). This has caused Malaysia’s stock market and currency, the ringgit, to plummet in turn. All this has transpired amid credible allegations that the Prime Minister siphoned an eye-popping US$700 million into his personal bank account.

But this road toward ruin commenced with Mahathir, not Najib. It is vital to realise that Mahathir rose to power in blessed circumstances. Malaysia’s economy had been growing healthily for decades, thanks to the prudent economic management of a highly capable bureaucracy. Governance and tax collection were effective, and debts were few. Natural resource wealth, including oil, was professionally stewarded. A decade of muscular redistribution to the country’s ethnic Malay majority had restored social stability after the race riots of 1969. Incoming foreign investment was copious and about to mushroom even further. Mahathir commanded one of the most cohesive ruling parties (the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO) and coalitions (the Barisan Nasional, or BN) in the world. The regime was authoritarian, but not intensely repressive or disliked in comparative terms. In short, Mahathir was holding a winning hand when he became prime minister in 1981.

Then came the debt. Obsessed with following in the footsteps of Asia’s technological leaders, Mahathir began borrowing heavily to fund his ‘Look East’, state-led heavy-industrialisation program. Privatisation was part of his growth package, but the beneficiaries were businessmen of loyalty more than talent. When the global economy went into recession in the mid-1980s, patronage started drying up. UMNO split, largely in reaction to Mahathir’s strong-armed style of rule. Mahathir’s two most talented rivals, Tengku Razaleigh and Musa Hitam, bolted from UMNO despite their deep personal ties to the party, mostly to get away from Mahathir himself. Mahathir responded by launching a police operation under the pretext of racial tensions, imprisoning and intimidating political rivals, and cementing his autocratic control.

Hence by the late 1980s, all of the defining features of Malaysia’s current crisis under Najib’s leadership were already evident under Mahathir. The regime was increasingly repressive. The office of prime minister was becoming a haven of autocracy. Ethnic tensions had been reopened to political manipulation. The economy was worrisomely indebted. UMNO was shedding some of its most capable leaders. This was the beginning of Malaysia’s sad national decline, under Mahathir’s watch and at his own hand.

Fast-forward a decade and all of these syndromes would recur in even nastier forms. The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–98 punished Malaysia for the unsustainable dollar-denominated debts it had accumulated under Mahathir’s single-minded push for breakneck growth. Mahathir blamed everybody but himself for the crash. He sacked and imprisoned his popular and gifted deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, largely for his temerity in suggesting that Malaysia needed deeper reforms to regain economic health.

Mahathir didn’t pull Malaysia out of its crisis with economic reform or adjustment, but with more and more borrowing and spending. This was possible because Malaysia was still sitting on the fiscal reserves it had been amassing for half a century, since the British colonial period. Mahathir grandiosely claimed that his imposition of capital controls had saved the economy. But capital flight had basically run its course by the time controls were implemented. Mahathir imposed them to facilitate political repression as much as economic recovery. The spectre of anti-Chinese riots in neighbouring Indonesia was then callously manipulated to keep ethnic Chinese voters in the BN fold in the 1999 elections.

Najib trained and mentored by Dr. Mahathir

Hence even before the turn of the millennium, Malaysia was hurtling down the very trajectory of decline we are witnessing in the current crisis. Like Mahathir, Najib assumed autocratic control over the economy and embarked on reckless borrowing and investment schemes, especially 1MDB. Like Mahathir, Najib unleashed a torrent of repression under antiquated security laws to protect his own position amid rising criticism from civil society and from within UMNO. Like Mahathir, Najib has recklessly played the ethnic and religious card as his position has weakened. And in consummate Mahathir style, Najib has now even sacked his deputy, Muyhiddin Yassin, for questioning Najib’s repression of the media in response to the 1MDB scandal. In sum, Mahathir has nobody to blame more than himself as he watches Najib drive Malaysia even further into the ground.

Neither Najib nor any of his current plausible replacements appear capable of reversing Malaysia’s decades-long decline. Herein lies perhaps Mahathir’s worst legacy of all. By forcing the three most capable politicians beside himself out of UMNO during their prime, Mahathir ensured that only relative lightweights would command leading positions in Malaysia’s most powerful political institution. If Malaysia is to exit this crisis on a path to restored health rather than steeper decline, the political and economic reforms first demanded in the reformasimovement of the late 1990s will finally need to put in place: either by a new generation of leadership within UMNO, or by Malaysia’s repressed but resilient political opposition.

Dan Slater is associate professor in political science at the University of Chicago.

Malaysia’s mess is Mahathir-made

20 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Najib mess is Mahathir-made

  1. Its true Mahathir created the mess BUT in the Save Malaysia compaign, it has alll the elements of admission of wrong except one – the freeing of Anwar Ibrahim. But the Citizen Declaration do call for the separation and independence of the different branches of govt including the Judiciary which should allow for the freeing of Anwar. Its as close as you are going to get from Mahathir his admisstion of failure.

    The forming of bumi-only party seems to go against an admission of wrong. it is a stubborn refusal to admit completely wrong. In Malaysia, its difficult to be non-racial, its wrong to be racist and that is a difficult politics to hold. Its possible Mahathir’s new party will just be an iteration of its former self but truth is those who expect everything that has been modus operandi for at least a few decades to dissappear overnight is unrealistic.

  2. “If Malaysia is to exit this crisis on a path to restored health rather than steeper decline, the political and economic reforms first demanded in the reformasimovement of the late 1990s will finally need to put in place: either by a new generation of leadership within UMNO, or by Malaysia’s repressed but resilient political opposition.”

    HOW? Talk is cheap.
    Don’t see anything at the end of the long suffering rakyat’s rainbow! Only fiddling while Rome burns! And all these talks of solving the mess from 1MDB by people who were the culprits! Can’t Malaysians see the forest for the trees? Can’t they see who doesn’t have the balls to take over and who has?

  3. Yes, but who is holding (and abusing) power today ??

    “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing lately…. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God,—go!”

  4. /// Hawking Eye August 2, 2016 at 12:16 pm
    Some have so much dislike for Mahathir and his past that they do not want him to have any role play in the making of a newer Malaysia. ///

    Quote unquote.

  5. Our nation has no time to keep blaming n hating the past leader. The situation of our nation is like a tiger with it four paws stuck with a thorn.

  6. what newer Malaysia. It will be re-branding of another Malay racist party like PAS. Beware. Mahathir, a Malayalee Indian Muslim, will is too entrenched with his cunningness.

  7. Now, Najib is firmly in control,finally.
    He the boss.
    The blame game is over.

    So, Najib has NO MORE EXCUSE not to perform from now on, or, (in my expressed view, since a year ago, in sacking his Deputy, Muhyiddin, cutting the umbilical cord to the premiership prospect of MB Mukhriz, who was also sacked 3 months later), he (Najib and his cabinet) will be held fully Accountable for their Incompetency and Failure to deliver to the benefits of deserving Rakyat who will punish him, come 14 GE.

    In short, he needs to show strong, quality leadership.
    There are great, often difficult, challenges ahead,
    No more excuse !

  8. “Dan Slater is associate professor in political science at the University of Chicago.”

    Well Danny Boy, you’re going to be full professor now.

    “Malaysia’s Najib mess is Mahathir-made”????????????????



    What a profoundly original thought.

    I’ve never heard it before.


    You are a Nobel Prize winner of the near future.


  9. Use to be dont count anymore.What Mahathir did a long time ago wont matter now but what is happening now is what count.If we cannot even see this,we are not going to get better.

  10. This is the law of Karma. Mahathir will leave this world a sad and broken man, humiliated by Malaysia Official No.1 and his flock of enriched sycophants. The same flock of sycophants who used to kiss Mahathir’s feet and worship the ground he walked on are now calling him a senile old man and laughing at him. Such is the ending of a once all powerful iron fisted dictator now getting a taste of his own bitter medicine. His legacy will be erased from UMNO’s re-written history on Malaysia.

  11. 1. Someone told me that Malays, generally have a crabby ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ – which is the begrudgery, resentment or success of a peer.
    2. Add that to the ‘Negative Selection’ pressures brought about by Octo.
    3. Complemented by the ‘Peter and Dilbert principles’ prevalent in a constitutionally weak, hubristic, rent-seeking, entitled caste-system, will force UMNOb into it’s present state of ‘Celaka’.
    4. With our Genius Launderer and Embezzler MO1 dedaking them and virtually NO new blood entering the party, it is definite that inbreeding will definitely cause an unprecedented ‘Extinction Vortex’.

    1+2+3+4 = Extinction.

    It’s from it’s volcanic ashes, that Octo will remake ‘Malay’ Adam..

    Are we a Failed Nation state? Remember, Malaysia managed to sneak into the UNSC as a non permanent member a third time.. and that’s the respect shown by the Taikors! Zimbabwe only got in Once!

    Kindly access Wiki and make a donation, if you bother to look up the definitions of the stuff in parentheses.

  12. Mahathir, by almost humorous poetic irony, is in a true dilemma.

    Whether he forms a Malays only or a multi-ethnic political party, he is cooked.

    Malays who are in or not in UMNO will not join as it is not yet a gravy train even if it’s Malays only. The more politically enlightened and active Malays would have already joined either PKR, PAS or even DAP.

    If it’s a multi-ethnic party, the UMNO Malays will find it emotionally difficult to join hands with the other races to fight back against their own race in UMNO.

    For the above two reasons, I don’t expect any mass migration from UMNO or non-UMNO Malays coming in droves.

    Some Chinese and Indians not wanting to join the opposition parties in the past may now find it “politically correct” to join a multi-ethnic party helm by Mahathir and thus avoid any accusations of being unpatriotic or even racist. But we all know the Chinese and Malays are too politically impotent to be of any use to Mahathir. He need Malays and in large numbers. But he will not get it, unfortunately. So Najib has nothing to worry about.

    I suppose Mahathir’s strategy in forming a Malays only party is to work out a loose second-cousin type coalition with the real opposition parties, defeat UMNO Baru in GE14 and being a Malays only party could easily do a “reverse takeover” of UMNO Baru in due course.

    Whatever it is Mahathir cannot let go of UMNO Baru, not only because it was actually his baby, but just think of the massive financial / commercial assets that UMNO Baru has and which his son would inherit.

  13. Finally we have article from someone from University of Chicago, an institution in the middle of the United States and an institution generally known to uphold conservative viewpoints of the United States and the world.

  14. /// Abdul Jalil August 5, 2016 at 7:32 pm
    Use to be dont count anymore.What Mahathir did a long time ago wont matter now but what is happening now is what count.If we cannot even see this,we are not going to get better. ///

    I think this line of thinking is even more short-sighted and blinkered.

    History has a, well, history of repeating itself. If we don’t learn from history, we are are condemned to repeat it.

    I know I am repeating myself, but it bears repeating – Mahathir was the one who made it possible for Najib to remain in power no matter how corrupt he is.

    1) Mahathir may or may not have introduced money politics, but he improved vastly upon it.

    2) Mahathir changed the rules of UMNO elections so that the incumbent gets a huge advantage and it is practically impossible to remove the incumbent chief.

    3) Mahathir changed the electoral rules so that the rural votes are worth much more than the urban votes resulting in almost certain wins for UMNO.

    4) Mahathir tamed and emasculated the sultans, the judges, the police and all the civil and administrative machinery.

    So, unless there is a complete overhaul, monkey business will go on as usual.

    So, let’s say Mahathir managed to oust Najib. So what? The next guy who occupies the PM seat will continue to bleed the nation dry. Are things going to get better as long as the system instituted by Mahathir remains in place?

  15. As long as the political structure continues to be based on racial divide the oppression of the dominant racial group of the minorities will continue, since politics is all about control and distribution of national wealth. This imbalance will lead to inequitable treatment that will continue to frustrate the minorities, especially they are are main wealth generating lot.

  16. Quote:- “… what is happening now is what count…If we cannot even see this, we are not going to get better”

    What do we mean by “what count”?

    What really “count” is:-

    … the population of the country consists of 70% Malays;

    … 80% of the personnel in the civil / judicial services, police & army are Malays;

    … UMNO Baru and its senior office bearers and proxies have controlling interests in at least 3 of the major banks;

    … 100% of the GLCs are managed by Malays;

    … 60% of cabinet ministers are Malays.

    So the point I am making is what “counts” is what the Malays want. It’s what they want that counts.

    It is silly and naive to think that the Malays want anything that either do not benefit them, directly or indirectly, or take away what they already have and enjoyed for the last 4 decades.

    So before we talk about what the rest of us can or cannot see, ask what the Malays want because that is what counts.

  17. Dan Slater,
    Are you implying that DOJ is practising double standard ?
    One(present) is implicated,not both
    Your theory of present inheriting the past is a myth
    That shows that you cannot even differentiate between a monkey and a coconui

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