Politics in Malaysia–Old Timers make a comeback

Politics in Malaysia–Old Timers make a comeback

by Sebastian Dettman, Cornell University


Image result for Mahathir on a Political Comeback

The most surprising twist of Malaysian politics in 2016 has been the rapid evolution of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad from ultimate regime insider to opposition leader. Mahathir now frequently shares the stage with the regime opponents he jailed during his 22 years in power. He made appearances at the rally of the pro-democracy group Bersih and even showed up at the opposition Democratic Action Party’s congress, saying his previous views on the party were wrong.


Yet Mahathir is not the only unlikely new opposition. Former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin and Mahathir’s son Mukhriz have joined up with Mahathir after both were fired from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. These ‘three Ms’ now head a new political party — the United Indigenous Party of Malaysia (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia). A number of prominent UMNO leaders at the state level, including UMNO Sabah’s Shafie Apdal, have left the party, signalling simmering internal discontent.

All of this is evidence of how the enormous 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal continues to reshape Malaysian politics. Prime Minister Najib Razak has squashed domestic investigations that might definitively link him to the billions of dollars missing from the state investment fund 1MDB. But international investigations in the United States, Switzerland, Singapore and elsewhere will likely result in more damaging and difficult-to-deny revelations.

These defections should be a major source of worry for Najib’s government. Scholars of competitive authoritarian regimes like Malaysia have long noted the key role of regime defectors in encouraging regime collapse.

Image result for the red shirts in malaysia

Yet there are a few reasons why Najib’s position seems temporarily secure — not least because of the powerful authoritarian tools he inherited from Mahathir. Perceived regime opponents have been sued, attacked and detained. The Red Shirt Group — led by UMNO division leader Jamal Yunos — have repeatedly threatened and attacked organisers of the Bersih protests. After their November rally in Kuala Lumpur, Bersih organiser Maria Chin Abdullah was detained for 11 days in solitary confinement. Independent media has suffered from website blocks, raids and criminal charges.

In another major realignment, Najib has slowly drawn in the Islamic opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). He pledged support for the controversial bill championed by PAS President Hadi Awang, which is widely seen as laying the groundwork for hudud (Islamic criminal law) implementation in Malaysia. In early December, Najib and Hadi shared the stage at a rally to highlight the plight of the Muslim Rohingnya community of Myanmar.

At the international level, Najib has found a welcome new partner in China. China has snapped up 1MDB’s assets at rock-bottom prices, and may help the company pay for its legal disputes in exchange for government land. There has been a series of high-profile Chinese investments in the East Coast Rail, real estate development in Malacca and Johor Bahru, and around the high-speed rail line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Najib enthusiastically greeted Trump’s election in the United States, but it is unclear whether the change in government will affect the Department of Justice’s investigation into 1MDB.

Image result for Najib selling out to China

The next general elections are likely to take place in 2017, which places electoral manoeuvring at the top of all parties’ agendas. Opposition leaders hope high-profile defectors like Mahathir and his new party can help make unprecedented inroads into government territory. But the warming ties between PAS and UMNO will significantly complicate the opposition’s problems of divvying up seats and presenting a united image to voters. Najib — and UMNO — still have access to enormous state resources, control over the elections process and an array of authoritarian tools that will greatly aid them in retaining power.

Yet as elections loom, the more fundamental issues around Malaysia’s politics are being sidelined. Who or what comes after Najib? There is little sign that Najib’s ouster will trigger the protracted institutional reform needed to prevent future abuses of power. The party he leads has shown little evidence of soul-searching over the scandal.

It is also unclear how willing the new opposition leaders are to stay outside the ruling government if and when Najib leaves power. At the least their style of politics seems an uneasy match with the multiracial and progressive image cultivated by the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. Mahathir’s race-based Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or PPBM, unapologetically harkens back to a racial paradigm of politics, seeking to sweep up discontented UMNO leaders and supporters. As a result, the newly expanded opposition is left with antipathy to Najib as their major unifying issue.

Image result for malaysia sold to china

Malaysia has entered a new and potentially dangerous chapter in its political history. At this point, it seems the opposition can only raise the stakes for Najib to further erode democratic institutions in a bid to keep his party — and himself — in power.

Sebastian Dettman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government, Cornell University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.

3 thoughts on “Politics in Malaysia–Old Timers make a comeback

  1. Najib’s strategy of coopting PAS rather than compete with them is no different than the Sauds coopting the Ikhwans- Wahabbis. The Sauds strategist after decades funded by unimaginable wealth is realising the Pandora box they have created. The Malay Muslims, by measure of real performance, are superior to them. Why follow the lesser who wishes to be more like them?

    Maybe they hope end up like Iran, UMNO following of the Sauds, just temporal towards the Islamic state. The problem is they are also proven failures. Iran, can build a nuclear bomb but they still only sell oil and nothing else and instead of a corrupt family, they have a corrupt cleric- politicians state.

    Are the Malays just NUTS? Why be like people who are beginning to see they should be more like them?

  2. Politicians blame civil servants. Retired civil servants blame the politicians.The citizens blame the politicians.and the blame game is going on from Algeria to Zimbabwe. In the meantime globalization is bringing on new problems.

    To my mind the people who have to carry most of the blame are Civil Servants. For failed policies that have no financial implications they may be left off the hook. But for failed policies that have financial implications the Civil Servants are at the core of the problem. They are the ones on the Tender Board. They are the ones who award the contracts .They are the ones who prepare and sign the payment vouchers. They are the ones who sign the payment cheques.

    Civil Servants of the Third World should end this blame game and do the job that they have been placed to do.

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