Can Mahathir’s return save Malaysia?

July 6, 2017

Can Mahathir’s return save Malaysia?

by William Pesek*

Bold change is needed to restore Malaysia’s competitiveness

Image result for doctor in the house

Malaysians, Keep your cool. Dr.Mahathir is around to save you from Najib Razak

Malaysians could be excused for wondering if they are stuck in a time warp as Mahathir Mohamad rails against a sinister force wrecking an economy he spent two decades building.

But times have changed. The last time 31 million Malaysians witnessed this spectacle was 1997, and the target was billionaire investor George Soros. Today, the former prime minister is denouncing the current one, Najib Razak. And in a delicious twist of irony, even Soros shares Mahathir’s misgivings about Najib’s willingness to burn down one of Southeast Asia’s most promising economies just to stay in power.

Image result for doctor in the house mahathir

Malaysia’s 92 Year Old Comeback kid

Might this headline-grabbing tussle change policies that are undermining Malaysia’s living standards? Unfortunately, the probable answer is “no.”

Mahathir, 91, says he “may be forced to consider” abandoning retirement to rescue Malaysia from corruption scandals and neglect. Among the problems: since 2009, Najib has broadened affirmative action policies that benefit the ethnic Malay majority at the expense of productivity, deterring foreign investment. The state fund Najib created, 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), is the subject of money-laundering investigations from Singapore to Zurich to Washington.

Image result for Najib Razak

Malaysia’s Infamous Prime Minister Najib Razak is feeling the political heat

The 1MDB fiasco accelerated Najib’s slide from Mahathir prodigy to nemesis. Mahathir rarely misses a chance to demand Najib step down over disclosures that some $700 million found its way into the prime minister’s pockets (Najib denies any wrongdoing and claims “personal donations” from Saudi Arabia, whatever that means). Soros, a U.S. citizen, appears equally aghast. According to emails released by WikiLeaks, Soros lobbied the U.S to disassociate itself from Najib even as Washington engaged with Malaysia to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

But would a return to Mahathir’s firebrand ways really help? He deserves considerable credit for transforming a tropical backwater into an Asian tiger with some of the region’s most impressive skylines. But Mahathir’s 22-year tenure that ended in 2003 was marred by authoritarian leanings, media intolerance and insular industrial policies like building national car brand Proton. His impolitic tirades found a global audience in 1997 and 1998 when he, bizarrely, blamed Jews — Soros, especially — for a plunge in Malaysia’s currency. His capital controls and jailing of his pro-capitalism deputy prime minister drew admonitions from around the globe.

There is also what Mahathir’s return says about today’s Malaysia. For one thing, it speaks to the dearth of young leaders to replace the old warlords. For another, the opposition is too feckless to provide Mahathir a plausible route back to the premiership. His old party, United Malays National Organisation, is also Najib’s, and it has held power for more than six decades. Barring a critical mass of party elders tossing Najib to the curb, which is highly unlikely, Mahathir would have to find another way in.

The wild card here is that Mahathir`s battles with Najib prod the government to do its job, not just dole out patronage. The main task is increasing competitiveness. When Mahathir left office, Malaysia ranked 37th on Transparency International’s corruption index. By 2016, it had slumped to 55th place. Since Najib took over in 2009, Malaysia has also lost ground in the productivity and efficiency scales — ranking 21th in competitiveness by the World Economic Forum then and 25th now. Najib’s team is big on splashy conferences to tout success in raising Malaysia’s game, even though the facts belie the claims.

The battle-scarred Mahathir is just as charismatic as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in his post-leadership incarnation. Some pundits argue Mahathir could act as a Trojan horse, attacking Najib’s stranglehold from inside. Yet even if Mahathir outmaneuvered Najib and reclaimed the crown, there is no guarantee things would change course significantly. To do so would be to water down the policies and laws that kept Mahathir in power — ones Najib is now using to cling on.

Only bold change will ensure Malaysia thrives in this Asian century. Its neglect of Chinese and Indian minorities, for example, is self-defeating economic apartheid. It encourages many of Malaysia’s best and brightest to flee to Singapore or Hong Kong and increases the relative attractiveness of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam for foreign executives.Bold change is needed to restore Malaysia’s competitiveness.

The 1MDB scandal continues to do considerable damage to the Malaysian brand. And while 1MDB replaced Malaysia Airlines losing a Boeing 777 in the global headlines, the two incidents are not completely unrelated. The bungled search for flight MH370 — and the opacity and cluelessness of the official response in the weeks following the disappearance in 2014 — exposed a political system unaccustomed to basic accountability. Malaysia’s clumsy response to 1MDB followed a similar pattern, offering insights into how a resource-rich nation with reasonable growth rates could be ensnared in the middle-income trap.

Instead of scrapping antiquated race-based quotas for hiring and business contracts and getting the state out of the private sector, Najib doubled down on 1971 — the year his prime minister father introduced this “New Economic Policy.” In 1991, Mahathir tried to augment it with a “National Development Strategy,” but Malaysia has done much more strategy-spinning than ensuring development keeps pace with Asian peers now pulling away from Najib’s economy.

Asia-based journalists long missed Mahathir’s fiery rhetoric and mercurial style. I was in that Hong Kong ballroom 20 years ago when he complained bitterly about the “rape” of Malaysian markets by Soros and his ilk. And let us face it, Najib brought this wrath on himself. Entertaining as he is, though, Dr. M is a wildly imperfect messenger for what ails the economy. The time warp Malaysians should fear as Mahathir and Najib exchange blows is one that takes living standards backwards.

*William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: what the world can learn from Japan`s lost decades”. He is a former columnist for Bloomberg.

14 thoughts on “Can Mahathir’s return save Malaysia?

  1. I am quite certain Tun M knows what is needed to restore Malaysia’s downward trend, in terms of restoring check-and-balance, putting in place a transparent budget oversight, and ensuring terms limit within political parties and elected government ministers. What is preventing him from accomplishing what is needed is his willingness to act on it, readiness to admit his past faults, and our ability to forgive. I don’t see how 1PM could stop Tun M if he is resolved to act on them in short years he may still have. Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia, and I say it as a pendatang Cina Kristian who hated and despise Tun M a lot nearly almost all of his life. Malaysia has no other viable choice today.

  2. The opposition have no candidate of PM material.Not Azmin,not Anwar,who is not eligible to stand anyway.Mahathir is the opposition’s last hope,for better or worse.As a leader Mahathir is many times smarter,better and stronger than Anwar.Mahathir have proven that Anwar is no match for him.Just look how easy Mahathir sent Musa and Razaleigh packing.

  3. Quote:- “Bold change is needed to restore Malaysia’s competitiveness”

    Any “boldness” to restore Malaysia’s competitiveness that the country had have mostly emigrated and now to be found in Singapore, India, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and may be even Timbuktu.

  4. It was almost a year ago that I asked on Din’s blog, and later in Malaysiakini, whether Mahathir could save Malaysia. It seems that today more people are thinking that way. The political pendulum is moving in that direction.

    I think that Mahathir still retains great loyalty within UMNO — personal loyalty that is not based on money. Paying off the UMNO division chiefs and others is the only way that Najib stays in power.

    Mahathir still is remembered and revered in the countryside — UMNO’s stronghold. If Mahathir campaigns against Najib in the countryside, Najib and UMNO will have a hard time.

    BUT — as I wrote a year ago, there have to be conditions. And as one year has passed, I have added two more:

    (1) Mahathir and his supporters must agree to secure Anwar’s release from prison and restore his political rights. It seems Mahathir has now accepted this idea. He even now says that Anwar can become Prime Minister.

    (2) All sedition and other charges, including travel bans, against all opposition leaders and others, such as the courageous Zunar, must be dropped.

    (3) Mahathir should agree to cooperate with the United States and the many other countries around the world that have steadfastly, carefully, and honestly investigated the 1MDB money trail, and seek justice against all those who have stolen money from the Malaysian people. That starts with Najib, Rosmah, Riza Aziz, and Jho Low.

    (4) He should agree to campaign in the countryside and explain to the rakyat, and especially to the Malays, how Najib and the current generation of UMNO leaders have betrayed them and stolen their money. It might be difficult for him, at his age, to travel everywhere, so use modern technology and send his message across the nation !

    (5) Finally, he should establish a “Transition Council for the 21st Century.” It would be composed of young Malaysian leaders — the next generation. It can no longer be a “one-man show” by Mahathir. If he wants his vision of a modern 21st century Malaysia to be achieved — and I think that is what he really wants, at the end of the day — then he needs people like Guan Eng, Nurul Izzah, Tony Pua, Rafizi Ramli, Azmin Ali, Tuan Ibrahim, and so many others to achieve that.

    How ironic it is — that the only way that Mahathir can achieve his vision of “2020” is to forsake UMNO and all the problems that he himself helped to create. And then to turn to the opposition. But that is the way out for the future — for him, and for Malaysia.

  5. China circa late 1970s. “It does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”

    Malaysia circa late 2010s. “It does not matter if a cat is young or old, as long as it catches rats” ?

  6. Beg your pardon, he won’t be able to return ….its the law of nature – he WAS on top of the circle , north pole , and he abused ‘ nature ‘ , so he’s being sent to the south pole , @ the bottom , to have a taste of his own ‘medicine ‘ ( verse ” which of the favour of the Lord would you deny ? ” ”””’ ) –

    The same portent for PM Najib ‘ which of the favour of the Lord would you deny ” ? – the ‘cycle is turning , and soon you would be @ the bottom in the ‘ south pole ‘ , the cold, cold wintry weather with icycles will envelope you…. –

    ( Anyone interested , you could check up the Book by Prof/ Tariq Ramadan )

  7. I agree with you John, but would like to add another 3 conditions before Octo can be in charge:

    (6) Octo and all pretenders to the ‘future’ Oppo cabinet submit themselves to third party audit and declare all assets – including bungalows, luxury cars, extra spouses, sexual preferences (or none thereof) and other stuff that can detract from CAT;

    (7) Octo and all leaders must undergo a full physical examination including cardiac stress tests and blood-sputum-urine-spinal fluid investigations;

    (8) Octo et al, must pass the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test to rule out even ‘mild dementia’. We are not only concerned with Alzheimer’s and other mental impairments, but also Koro/vCJD (mad-cow disease).

    It should also be noted:
    Now that the Chief Justice and COA president terms has been said to be ‘unconstitutionally’ extended for another 3 years, it would be good that they be sent to a retirement home forthwith – in Pedra Banca lighthouse should PH takes over. T The useful civil appointees like the present IGP, the head of Military Intelligence, Private Solicitor cum Public Prosecutor and the AG will also be extended indefinitely too by the Launderette con-operators.. Time to shut down sunset businesses and money games.

  8. Actually, the biggest issue with Mahathir leading the opposition is it may not work because he can only do it for this coming GE. He only has one shot at it. Truth is if Mahathir can do even just two election,Najib would already be getting Rosmah to pack her Hermes bags.

    If PH is to risk it with Mahathir, they should at least not have to redo their plans if he fails. They need to haggle with Mahathir to make sure, follow up when he fails, and it Muhiyiddin and Mukhriz is no real follow up plan.

  9. The question now is does Najib dare to use the big-stick against Mahathir, and if he does, will the people, especially the Malays, who really counts, stand by and watch?

    This is the final test for the people of Malaysia, whichever way it goes.

  10. The Malays have a saying “rumah kata pergi, kubor panggil mari” and this is whom Malaysia is relying on to make the change. For Che Det he is trying to redeem his past mistakes made during his 22 years tenure by championing the cause for removal of Jibby who is his own making. The monster he created has now taken on his own powers and Che Det is powerless to stop.

    Sad that things have come to this, Malaysia is relying on a 92 year old war horse to change the political situation. this is a hopeless situation. One question though, will the change be any better since he was the one that installed Jibby? i wont hold my breath.
    Good comment. That is why for this reason among others, Najib will remain in power after GE14. After that, we are definitely go down the road to the perdition. Chin up, Orang Malaya. Change will come only without Mahathir, and with the retirement of aging opposition leaders and the awakening of UMNO membership body. I believe something drastic will happen to shake our country from a state of indifference and timidity.–Din Merican.

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