Malaysia’s Political Gridlock and Why Najib is not going to Jail

January 12, 2017

Malaysia’s Political Gridlock and Why Najib is not going to Jail

by Ooi Kok Hin

Despite protests, political realities will keep the prime minister’s coalition in power through 2017 – and beyond.

Image result for Bersih 5.O November 19, 2016

On November 19, tens of thousands of Malaysians assembled in the capital to demand for a free and fair election and the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is implicated in a massive financial scandal. Yet, Najib’s ruling coalition looks set to prevail in the next general election, rumored to be held this year.

Why is this so? I argue Malaysia’s political gridlock is prolonged largely by four factors: electoral malpractices, institutional failures, political fragmentation, and societal fault lines. Until and unless these are changed, reforms will be flimsy at best, and cosmetic at worst.

Electoral Malpractices: Keeping the Incumbent in Their Seats

In the previous general election, the ruling coalition won 47 percent of the popular vote but nearly 60 percent of the parliamentary seats. The opposition coalition won 51 percent of the votes but only 40 percent of the seats (the remaining 2 percent of the vote was split among marginal parties). The discrepancy is caused by the uneven weighting of popular representation. A constitutional clause grants over-representation for rural voters either spanning a large landmass or difficult to reach areas. However, even after taking this clause into account, electoral malpractices are severe.

In a study I co-wrote with fellow analysts from the Penang Institute, we found that at least 68 parliamentary seats and 162 state seats are either excessively under-represented or excessively over-represented under the latest redelineation proposed by the Election Commission. If the proposal comes into effect during the next general election, the outcome is effectively a forgone conclusion because of severe malapportionment and gerrymandering.

Malapportionment isthe disparity of constituency size caused by redelineation. It results in inequitable representation because it provides unequal vote value. For example, one voter in Putrajaya has a value equivalent to one voters in Kapar, as both constituencies have one seat each — even though Putrajaya has roughly 15,991 voters and Kapar has 144,159.

Even within the same state, the disparity of constituency size is striking. In the state of Selangor, Damansara is four times the size of Sabak Bernam. Any of the three excessively under-represented parliamentary constituencies in Selangor are bigger than the three small constituencies combined.

This is not a purely mathematical disparity of constituency size. It is a deliberate packing of opposition supporters into a mega-size constituency, diluting their ability to win other seats and making the neighboring marginal seats more winnable for the ruling coalition. Not surprisingly, Damansara is held by the opposition and Sabak Bernam is held by the ruling party.

Image result for Bersih 5.O November 19, 2016

Gerrymandering, meanwhile, is the practice of deliberately drawing constituency boundaries based on the voting pattern of constituents so that a party may benefit. Malaysia’s redelineation does this in three ways: the creation of constituencies spanning multiple local authorities, the arbitrary combination of communities without common interests, and the partition of local communities and neighborhoods. Voters living on the same street find themselves in different electoral constituencies. The confusion is compounded by the lack of information and publicity about the changes made to constituency boundaries and, crucially, voting districts.

Political Fragmentation: Weaker and Disunited Opposition

Given the steep electoral obstacles which the opposition has to overcome, it is no surprise that the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN) is one of the longest ruling coalitions in the world. The then fully united opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, failed to unseat BN in the 2013 general election. The erstwhile alliance brought together three major opposition parties: the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Any hope of taking advantage of Najib’s crisis has been dampened by the collapse of Pakatan Rakyat due to a quarrel over a chief minister’s position and the Islamist party’s insistence on the implementation of Sharia laws.

Amidst the open animosity between the opposition parties, pragmatist PKR is negotiating a miracle. They are appealing for a one-on-one fight; a scenario which even the most hardcore opposition supporter would find unlikely.

Image result for Bersih 5.O November 19, 2016

The Fractured Opposition

Hostility is mutual between PAS and DAP/Amanah. Bersatu, the new party setup by ousted Deputy Prime Minister Muhyddin Yassin and former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, is beset with internal issues and looks the least of a threat to Najib’s UMNO. A united opposition is anywhere but visible in Sabah and Sarawak, the two states which won the election for Najib, whose coalition took 47 out of 56 seats.

If PAS explicitly teamed up with UMNO, there is some hope that their grassroots and longtime supporters (who view UMNO as a nemesis) may vote for the opposition coalition as a protest against their leadership. Tacit cooperation is more likely, however, and in three-cornered fights, the ruling party will sweep all the marginal seats.

Institutional Failures: Culture of Unaccountability, Graft, and State Repression

Image result for najib razak--malaysia's no 1. rogue

Institutional failures have doomed any formal case again Najib for the financial scandal centered on 1MDB. Former Attorney General Gani Patail was terminated just as he was allegedly drafting a charge sheet against Najib. The chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was replaced, its senior officers transferred out, and one investigating officer’s home was raided by the police. Three out of four figureheads of the special taskforce setup to investigate 1MDB were replaced within months.

The various institutions that were supposed to hold the government accountable have all faltered in one way or another. A concentration of power has enable the state leviathan to dismiss any institution that could actually hold it accountable.

Ideally, legislative institutions should uphold the principles of democracy and justice enshrined in the Constitution. But under the forceful thumb of the executive, they continue to either pass or fail to repeal draconian laws stretching from the colonial era. The Sedition Act, which criminalizes any speech deemed hateful or contemptuous towards the ruler or government, is routinely abused due to its vague clauses. The notorious detention without trial, another colonial legacy, gave powers to the executive to imprison political opponents for lengthy periods without a day in the courtroom. Most recently, the leader of a civil rights movement calling for free and fair elections, Maria Chin Abdullah, was detained under one such law.

The list of institutional failures includes that of the media. Some outlets fought and went down, like The Malaysian Insider. The mainstream press is owned directly by political parties or businessmen friendly to the establishment. Periodic license renewals keep them on their toes. Newspapers editors who did report on 1MDB were called in for police investigation.

Image result for apandi

Malaysia’s Infamous Auditor-General

Institutional failure and lack of accountability are not limited to 1MDB. Year after year, the Auditor General has revealed staggering cases of mismanaged public funds. Government bodies bought wall clocks at RM 3,810 a piece (the market price is easily below RM 100) and scanners for RM 14,670 (market price: RM 200). The “normalization of corruption” is deeply embedded in the existing hierarchy, from the top to the bottom. In the newly released report, the auditors found that the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) lost hundreds of millions due to multiple transactions without proper authorization, dubious planning and execution, and complete mismanagement. It made news for two to three days before disappearing, like pretty much every other scandal. Corrupt acts are committed and revealed, followed by public outrage. But with no institution to exercise accountability, the news eventually disappears. It has become a normal cycle.

Late last year, the National Security Council Act was passed to enable the prime minister to declare an area of emergency as he deems necessary, without the approval of any other institution. Which raises the question: Are there any institutional safeguards to guarantee a peaceful transition of power even if the government fails to recapture popular support in the election?

Societal Fault Lines: One Cleavage Too Many

The fault lines of Malaysian society are too many and too deep, with groups frequently divided along ethnic and religious lines. Due to this, Najib can easily turn a once-unified opposition against one another.

Dr Jamil Khir Baharom, a minister in charge of religious affairs under Najib’s cabinet, paraded a bill amendment to increase the power of the Shariah court. PAS’s dream is to establish an Islamic state by implementing Islamic law, which cannot be fully enforced given the current restrictions on the maximum punishments the Shariah court can spell out. Under the revised version of the proposed amendment, the Shariah court will be strengthened by raising the punishment ceiling to 30 years in prison, a RM 100,000 fine, and 100 strokes of caning.

Image result for Najib and Hadi

Playing with the Islamic Fire

Najib’s olive branch to PAS is working, enticing the party away from cooperation with the opposition and thus sapping the opposition’s strength among the all-important Malay and rural areas.

In Malaysia ,where nearly everything is seen through the lens of race and religion, the push for Islamic law will effectively split society. Since all Malays are Muslims in this country (one’s professed religion is one of the constitutional definitions of being an ethnic Malay), debates on the bill can dangerously be turned into a sectarian conflict.

In the run-up to the November 19 rally, thugs dressed in red threatened the Bersih convoy. The Red Shirts, as they came to be known, are all ethnic Malays led by an UMNO division chief. Threats of violence aside, the racial rhetoric has become too discomforting. Last year, what was a typical robber and shopkeeper brawl turned into dangerous racial gatherings as the two groups called their friends, resulting in a mini-riot that night. In the aftermath of the previous election, the prime minister and the party’s de facto mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, denounced the Chinese as a scapegoat of opposition agents. All these societal fault lines testify to the enormity of the task to to unseat Najib.

The by-elections last year might provide some hint as to how the general elections will turn out. Najib’s coalition won both of them. I was in the suburban areas when opposition parties held a town hall panel session, inevitably speaking in English, touching on issues such as the removal of the Attorney-General. While these are big, national issues, it felt out of place. There is a visible gap between the politicians, the city folks, the demonstrators who so urgently and desperately want reforms, and the voters outside the cities, who voted for candidates affiliated to Najib’s party.

To speak plainly, people don’t mind the status quo as long as they are not affected at the most immediate and personal level. The whole 1MDB scandal has been too complicated to be explained to non-English literate voters with no understanding of the complex technical terms, in a five-minute rally. Financial scandals grow more complicated and people just lose interest. Maybe they underestimate the cost of it all, maybe they don’t care enough or just don’t lose enough; either way they are not angry enough to want to change the status quo.

Image result for Anwar and Mahathir

The partnership that can rattle the beleaguered Al-Kebas aka Malaysian Official 1–Najib Razak

What’s next? Even the unholy alliance between Anwar and Mahathir won’t be able to fight off the structural inequality of power and institutional failures. If political change is not sufficient, will it take an economic downturn to bring change in Malaysia, like Indonesia? In 1998, a combined factor of internal dissidents and economic instability brought the dictatorial Suharto era to an end and ushered in the Reformasi period. If neighboring Indonesia can live embedded in a dictatorship for 40 years and then undergo rapid democratization in so short a time, we can’t and shouldn’t rule anything out yet in Malaysia. But it will take a miracle.

Ooi Kok Hin is an analyst with the Penang Institute. He writes on political and social developments and Southeast Asian affairs.



24 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Political Gridlock and Why Najib is not going to Jail

  1. His Excellency President Erdogan of the Republic of Turkey is going to hold a referendum that will constitutionally allow him to hold the High Office until 2029 on a five year election cycle.

  2. Anything is possible in politics.
    Especially when social forces build up.
    It can be gradual or even “sudden”

    Hungarian Uprising 1956
    Prague Spring 1968
    Solidarity and Lech Walesa in Poland
    Domino-like collapse of Eastern European police states — late 1980s to
    mid 1990s
    Soweto clashes 1976 – end of South African apartheid regime 1994
    Martial law in the Philippines 1972 – Marcos flees into exile 1986

  3. For all the negative things said about BERSIH, (principally that it achieved nothing concrete), the one positive outcome we can say is that spontaneous massive public demonstrations, (hitherto a phenomenon alien to Malaysian political, social culture), is now possible, even accepted, without bloodshed on any side.

    It is a national attainment of maturity of sorts.

  4. @Abnizar, @Dato.Din and to many other Dato’, TanSri, and Tun reading this: do you see a possibility of any prominent Malay could stand up and give up their Malay/Bumiputera heritage publicly today, for the sake of a dying Melayu culture? Current divisive interpretation of ‘Malay’-ness by a small ruling class is definitely choking the ‘Malay’ race, in all fairness.

    If a few good Muslim could stand up and disagree publicly on the current administration’s interpretation of existing Islamic law, it would suffice to change entire spectrum of the nation’s public discourse.

    By a mere disagreement, one could constitutionally and voluntarily surrender one’s privilege as a Bumiputera, and at the same being more faithful to the spirit of the Prophet’s last sermon.

    Let those who needed current divisive understanding of feudalism live out their life as it is. But, for a few daring souls, they could bring a new dawn to a dying Tanah Melayu.

    If more would do the same, the future of Malay and Malaysia would indeed be bright in a post-civilization-clash world. Else, only one future awaits the Melayu ‘race’. That would be layu-layu.

    The Malay community is facing a crisis of leadership, thanks to the system created by Tun Dr. Mahathir who introduced penyamun culture.My family name and my ethnicity are not to blame. So I will not deny my heritage. In fact, I seek to add value to it. –Din Merican

  5. This phrase in the Prophet’s last sermon is what I have in mind when mentioning the spirit of the Prophet’s last sermon.

    //Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

    It is hard to say the special privilege of ‘Bumiputera’ for a connected few elites could be considered given freely and willingly.

  6. Quote:- “Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly”


    So it only applies to things “which belongs to a fellow Muslim”

    Therefore if it involves things which belong to non-Muslims, it is perfectly “legitimate”

    Now we know. It is expressly sanctioned by none other then Prophet Muhammad Himself, the Messenger of Allah, Peace be upon Him.

  7. Quote:- “So I will not deny my heritage”

    Katasayang is not asking you or any other Dato, TanSri, etc, to “deny” anything. No one can “deny” his heritage. If you are a Malay, a Mamak, you are a Malay, a Mamak; if you are an Iban, you are an Iban. You cannot “deny” it away.

    He said to “give up their Malay/Bumiputera heritage”, meaning to “give up” the “privileges & entitlements” that come with being a Malay/Bumiputra, because “giving up” your Bumiputra status does not make you a non-Malay.

    In other words, action speaks louder than words.
    Maybe, true. But ask Mahsthir and he will deny that he is a Kutty (a fella from Kerala, India) but will claim that he is a Malay because of his mom, Wan Tempawan is a Malay. –Din Merican.

  8. Sorry, not sure which way you are leading to katasayang , but the last Sermon by all the three Prophets , although differently put , were of similar Invocation to Al;Mighty God , so , it has gone in three different ways in human existence …..

    But the only congruance , perhaps , concerns the so-called Tabernacle of man himself , which is to be understood as the ‘temporary abode of the soul in the body of man ‘ – and that is the most sacred ! ( can’t be discussed or debated openly ) – you shuold know why , because man tends to ‘deify ‘ himself…..which is wrong.

    But yes, we have to abide by the Caveat indicated by Dato’ Din , because man cannot lose his heritage….something ancestral ….. – hence, man has to strive & strive towards achieving Unity in Diversity , as all religious Faiths have ordained in similar terms …… ( Allah’ hu’ alam , which means only Almighty knows His purpose of Creation…., and we humans are frail….)

  9. @Abnizar, @Dato.Din: Thank you for the prompt response. Yes, I am definitely for the idea that one should not deny nor loose one’s heritage, religion especially, simply because one disagrees with the interpretation of the time. As a Malaysian, I would have no hesitation in declaring my pride of the Mericans.

    I know both of you see the harm caused by the selective implementation of Malaysia’s special rights which was originally planned as an equalizer force, which today becomes a tool to perpetuate the glory of a selected few, and a destructive force used to imprison the spirit of generosity contained within the Prophet’s last sermon, a part of the heritage of the Melayu. I know both of you would also agree to the idea that the Constitution text is man-made, and ought to be changed when it becomes an abuse which caused the Layu-layu of the Melayu. Most of all, I know both of you are pragmatic enough to know our Constitution could not be changed in any time soon, even if wordings within it ought to change for the sake of the Melayu.

    We all sees the ‘progressiveness’ within the Constitution which translated ‘Melayu’ as something that transcends race, and that need not change. Yet, we all would agree that there is no sense of ‘goodness’ contained within the spirit of this generation of Red-shirts.

    It is in light of all of the above that I see the beauty of a few courageous Melayu who would be willing to publicly change one’s status to ‘dan-lain-lain’ to draw the public’s attention for the need for a public discourse of our existing implementation of the Constitution for the sake of the Melayu.

    I see no reason for any Melayu to discard one’s heritage, the same way I see no reason for any Hindraf Indian supporters to discard their pursue, in spite of differences with DAP and PKR. Yet, I see there is no way out of our existing ‘Layu-layu’ course of the Melayus, if something of what I have suggested woud not take place.

    This is especially the case when we know the ‘Tuan-tuan’ Melayu would not be the only force to ‘trump’ up existing ‘abuse’ of current case of ‘Layu-layu’. There are many bigger players who would want to get into the internal struggle of the ‘Melayu’ given the fact that SCS is at play geo-politically speaking.

    If the ‘Melayu’ cannot find genuine beauty within their own heritage, there would be no way for the ‘Melayu’ to fight off many other forces that are at-play. In all fairness, there are much that is needed to be examined within the heritage. There is wisdom within Socrates’ proverbial saying that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’.

  10. Wayne/katasayang, many Malays have already given up their privileges and entitlement and some don’t enjoy the privilege and entitlement to begin with. It’s easy to spot them, through their writings and opinions expressed. You are looking at one here.

    All in all they love the country Malaysia but cannot stand the government. I don’t like to use the word hate as it contours a negative meaning.

  11. @Wayne:

    I have taken out the previous sentence prior to what I have mentioned.
    Prophet’s last sermon is indeed generous and progressive in our modern sense.
    Mentioned paragraph brings special meaning to this weekend’s MLK Jr Day in an alt-right Trump world.

    // All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

  12. Adam was without a father nor a mother , where did he come from ? Ex-nihileo ? –
    Go through the Koran extensively & thoroughly , you could get the Hidayah …… So for billions of years , Mankind has become so Diverse that we are fighting hard to stop the process till today …..All kinds of the human specie exist all over the world, can we stop the (evolutionary) process , since our Earth is going to continue to exist for billions of years more ……? –

    We cannot, indeed we must not, TRY and CONTROL the Future ……

    Excuse me katasayang , you seem to be so engrossed to control events , control the Future , and to ENSURE that that it will evolve into to suit our Individual desireability , it is not possible …..

    In about 2 to 3 thousand (no not billion years ) ahead, all our Ethnicity & this beguiling idea of ‘ race ‘ , will disappear (at least in our homeland ) , WE WOULD BY THEN HAVE BECOME ‘ MALAYSIANS ‘ ……do you feel tormented about it ?

    That to me is to be futuristic , like it or not , the minimum is that EVENTS WILL CONTROL the progress of the human race…..

    What do you think ?

  13. I know. But, unless some Melayu could help revert the course of Layu-layu, all Malaysians suffer. Encourage a few more to consider what I have suggested out of love, instead of hate? We know that all of us who hang around this blog has already gone beyond hate.

  14. I would not be so quick.

    Now we found out that CEO of IPIC who supposedly committed fraud on 1MDB has been paid by Jho Low with his Alias Eric Tan..Clearly no fraud was committed by IPIC and the fraud is all on part of our very own Fully endorsed by Nyanyuk Hadi’s PAS. THIS is HALAL? RUU 355 is HALAL AND SYARIAH TO THE “DEEN”??? Can Hadi Awang understand he underwritten crooks? What makes him any diffferent than Najib or Jamal Yusof or Ali Tinju or the likes of ISIS and Taliban?

  15. In about , or after exceeding the two to three thousand years, it will be the time of our Progeny , our great, great , great , great ;;;;;;; GRANDCHILDREN and descendants will have forgotten whence they came , from where they came , and thenceforth, to which direction they will be heading….. – But natural law will have Providence for them , without even knowing why…..

    (Such the course of human evolution , none can prevail over …..)

  16. @abnizar … No. I do not feel tormented. You have answered well.
    I do know it is not in my control.
    My response is only a respond to what I am able to read and understand.
    Layu-layu in humanity is the mirror to guide us to the path of ideal.

  17. Quote:- “Adam was without a father nor a mother”

    …and the children of Adam and Eve must have committed incest to kick start the sexual Big Bang to produce the human race?

    God must have approved.

  18. “…and the children of Adam and Eve must have committed incest to kick start the sexual Big Bang to produce the human race?”


  19. Wayne , ‘ children ‘ used metaphorically, Adam & Eve , had no progeny of their own blood-line, but being the first , the Primordial man he was the Primogenitor of the human race on earth , and this was a mere few billion years in Cosmic time.

    The Creation of the Physical Universe (without humans ) was thirteen and half billion years earlier in Cosmic time , for Nature to prepare the Advent of the First man…..
    Not that I know much of The Miracle of Creation ….. but the Scripture is clear on this, and I beilieve Scientists , who appeared only about 500 years ago, HAVE CONFIRMED the time-span and sequence narrated above….
    (Not that I am a ‘scientist ‘ myself ! )

  20. The Koran was revealed only 1400 years ago, through the Final Messenger , Muhammad (pbh) , and the revelation in Surah Al’Maryam, confirms the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ (pbh) , without a biological father. There is no insinuation of ‘ incest ‘ whatever, (‘ no man has touched me ‘ ) , and Muslims are FORBIDDEN to insert innuendos and to deceitfully accuse ‘ sin ‘ to Mary – So, Muslims accept in total faith …… the Ayat or verse is : KUN FAYA KUN , when the Lord wills , it happens …..BUT Christians say or belief is ” Jesus is the son of God ‘ and abhorrant in Islamic faith.

    The creation of Adam & Eve was in the ‘Garden of Bliss ‘ (Heaven ) , In this state of spiritual existence ( rohaniat ) , they had not adorned the ‘ flesh ‘ , no bodies , but pure spirit , like the angels …..It was only the transgression of the Lord’s injunction ‘ jangan makan buah kholdi ‘ that led to both their expulsion from their heavenly abode . –

    Point is : Muslims are forbidden to to DECEITFULLY , as in the birth of Christ to believe that he must have been ‘the Son of God ‘ , and the Quran FORBIDS that. , but reaffirms that the Birth was indeed Miraculous , (through POWER of God ) –

    Muslims cannot be DECEITFUL on that point of ‘ Iman ‘ – Kun Faya Kun ‘ , literally ” Be , And It Is “

  21. @abnizar, one has to ask if am I a wali for the heart of the pious as per the hidayah, or perhaps.. just a random monkey buat bising-bising? If I were to be a voice of bising-bising, is there actually a wali in this generation? If there isn’t one, what this says about this generation of Layu-sians? Nonetheless, no pun intended, He knows best.

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