Malaysia’s Shambolic Opposition

November 18, 2015

Malaysia’s Shambolic Opposition

by John Berthelsen

With the demographics going their way and UMNO enveloped in massive scandals, why can’t the opposition pull it together?

Azmin Ali

With more than two years to go before the next election, Malaysia’s opposition has a golden opportunity to take over the government, not because of the continuing scandals brewing within the state-backed 1MDB investment fund or rising concern over the economy, but because of demographics.

The figures tell the story – or they don’t. For a variety of complex reasons, including but not exclusive to their own ineptitude, a turnaround is unlikely although it should be. With the Barisan and particularly the United Malays National Organization depending for support largely on the rural ethnic Malay population, that is a dwindling base.

Today 74.7 percent of the population is categorized as urban, according to the CIA World Factbook, and is urbanizing at a rate of 2.66 percent annually. The Barisan also depends on the aging or elderly for its support. Today 45.4 percent of the population are under the age of 24. Perhaps two-thirds are under 40, according to Ibrahim Suffian, the program director of the Merdeka Centre social research organization.

The urban young, in addition to thinking more freely and not being bound by the strictures of dress and behavior of their elders, have access to far wider sources of information. Virtually all of the young, Suffian said, now get their news from the Internet rather than the mainstream media, all of which are owned by pro-government political parties, and which monopolize the conventional political dialogue. That means Malaysiakini and others that are distinctly anti-government or at least neutral are their primary source of news.

Less loyalty for the Barisan, but…

“More people are coming into the electoral process and they are less loyal to the Barisan,” Suffian said. “The older are more committed. Everything else being equal, it does represent a challenge for the Barisan because they have to deal with a much larger, younger electorate. Voter sentiment is less loyal. At this point, voters’ views are more varied, the government can’t control the sources of information.”

Anwar Ibrahim, Wan Azizah

The opposition is made up of Anwar Ibrahim’s moderate, predominantly urban Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, now run by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, while he resides in prison; the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party; Parti Amanah Negara, which emerged from the wreckage of the fundamentalist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and, depending on the mood, the fundamentalist remainder of PAS itself,

With all of these factors going for the opposition, why is it so badly crippled? Surprisingly, for one thing, the two massive scandals involving 1MDB and the sudden appearance and disappearance in 2013 of nearly US$700 million in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts haven’t really percolated down beyond the well-educated middle class, Suffian said in a telephone interview. But the coalition is so badly fractured by religious and ethnic differences and competing claims to power that unless a miracle happens, its chances of winning the election, even given the disarray in the ruling Barisan Nasional, are minuscule.

The Real Elephant in the Room

The intractable fact of race continues to hamper the country as it has for generations. In an analysis quoted by reporter Scott Ng in the local website Free Malaysia today, the Ilham Center recently published a survey of 720 Malay voters in the northern state of Penang, now ruled by the Democratic Action Party and arguably viewed as Malaysia’s most effective state government.

Lim Guan Eng2

Nonetheless, the voters view the Penang government as a DAP government, not a coalition one, with predictable attitudes on the part of the individual races. Malay voters don’t understand the DAP, they don’t think it represents their interests. The DAP has been attempting to bring in more Malay members to the party nationally, but it remains largely a Chinese party to them and that generates fear that the Chinese, who control the economic sinews of the country, would control the political ones as well if they came to power.

“The problem of credibility among Malay voters is something the opposition, whatever form it may take, has to address before the next general election,” Ng wrote. “However, it is significant that only 43 percent of the survey respondents were identified as UMNO supporters. The rest were fence sitters. If we take this as a general model for the feelings of the Malays nationwide, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for the opposition to widen its support base.


That means that somehow, the opposition has to come up with concrete policies and credible leaders, Ng wrote. “Failure to do so will be tantamount to handing Najib the election on a silver platter. The question is, can the opposition parties get their heads together long enough to really address the opportunity at hand?”

In a survey by the Merdeka Center done a month and a half ago, Suffian said, the young are split between the opposition and the ruling party. “The view is that many are still undecided, not happy with the opposition, because it is fragmented and spending time fighting each other. There is a certain pull against the Barisan, but it is discontent more over how the economy has performed than because of the scandals.”

Many people feel there is something wrong because of the scandals, he said, but they don’t understand what it is. “The main negative that affects their perception is the economy. People are worried about the currency, future job prospects. Sentiment is negative as far as government, but the problem is that people are stuck.”

That means if the opposition is going to present a viable face to the electorate in the next election, which must be held before April 2018, it must somehow reformulate itself as predominantly ethnic Malay-led, a difficult task because for better or worse, the Democratic Action Party is the strongest in the coalition. Parti Keadilan, led by the 63-year-old Wan Azizah, is riven by factionalism, with Mohamed Azmin Ali, the Chief Minister of Selangor State, which PKR controls, harboring ambitions to take over. Azmin is a polarizing figure who could drive people out of the party.

Hadi and Harun Din

Amanah, the moderate remnant of PAS, has not put together enough rank and file voters to become a significant force. Its members bolted the fundamentalist party over the stated ambitions on the part of the leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, to implement harsh Islamic law in Kelantan, the only state PAS controls. PAS controlled an efficient vote-gathering machine prior to the breakup, but is being pulled in two directions, with some factions leaning toward throwing their support to UMNO and Najib.

Rafizi and Tony Pua

There is a generation of younger leaders including Rafizi Ramli, the secretary general of PKR, Tony Pua, the de facto spokesman for the DAP, and Lim Chin Tong, also of the DAP. But they so far haven’t generated the gravitas to take over from the older generation.

With Anwar in prison, and with the Barisan reportedly determined to keep him there for the rest of his life, there is no major unifying force to pull the coalition back together and give it a Malay brand. Ethnic Malay candidates put up by the DAP all lost party elections as ethnic Chinese voters abandoned them. That means that despite the problems the Barisan faces, it may well survive.

The Opposition’s Trust Deficit

November 8, 2015

COMMENT: I remember 2008 very well when the coalition party which was assembled hurriedly by Anwar Ibrahim to contest the General Elections made a huge impact on our political scene by denying UMNO-BN its two third majority in Kam and Din@Phnom Penh International AirportParliament.

Terence Netto, my journalist friend and I described it as the Malaysian Spring of 2008. It saw the birth of Pakatan Rakyat comprising Parti KeADILan Rakyat, Democratic Action Party and PAS and the political demise of Tun Abdullah Badawi who had to hand power to Dato’ Seri Najib Razak; and his 1Malaysia administration  was launched in 2009. There was then hope of an alternative government in waiting and the emergence of a two-party system.

I made big play of this two-party system at The East-West Center Forum in Washington DC together with  former US Ambassador to Malaysia, Amb. John R. Malott in June, 2013. All that fizzled out. The opposition is broken up with the exit of Hadi’s PAS, leaving behind a fractious PKR, and Chinese dominated DAP courting a new splinter group from PAS led by Mat Sabu and his team of confused Islamic democrats. The new Pakatan Harapan is, therefore, anything but hope.

UMNO itself is split because of its own internal struggles. But Najib remains in office because all attempts by Tun Dr. Mahathir and others to unseat him have failed. One would have thought the political opposition would have exploited Najib’s moment of vulnerability. In stead, the Opposition  shot itself in the foot.

On present reckoning, I think, the Prime Minister will consolidate himself and hold on to his coalition of UMNO,  a discredited MCA, a much weakened post-Samy Vellu MIC and  an also run Gerakan.Thanks to the Opposition, UMNO-BN is a TINA (there is no alternative) government.

After 6 years, we are saddled with an economy practically in tatters and a corrupt and dysfunctional government engaged in the politics of regime survival. Malaysia is a failed democracy with a constitution that is not worth the paper it is printed on.

What has become of us as Malaysians after 58 years of Independence?  Malaysians no longer trust our politicians to do the right thing, which is to act in our interest. It is a sad commentary for me to say that at least there is a government since the alternative based on their record since 2008 is a political ragtag army of anarchists and hypocritical do-gooders who cannot even form a shadow cabinet. Any disagreement with my take on the state of Malaysian politics?- Din Merican.

The Opposition’s Trust Deficit

by Scott Ng


The Ilham Centre recently published the results of a survey on Malay voter sentiment in Penang that paints a picture of what exactly the Opposition must overcome if it intends to take over the federal administration. The survey of 720 Malay voters in Penang, found, among other things, that PKR is viewed as a multiracial party that cannot help the Malays, that PAS is not seen as a champion of Malays and Islam, and that the Penang government “feels” like a Chinese one.

Gerakan, another multi-ethnic but largely Chinese party, did not give off the same feel. Instead, when it was in power in Penang, the Malays felt like Umno was running the state. Now, we may not be here to discuss Gerakan, but the distinction made by the Malay voters surveyed is telling indeed. It shows that DAP’s perception problems are still a major obstacle to the Opposition’s quest for federal power.

Another major distinction the voters made was that the state government of Penang was a DAP government, not a Pakatan one. Now, this is of particular importance as the survey also shows that the Malays generally have positive feelings about Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, with the voters describing him as humble and approachable, appreciative of the fact that he is always on the ground. However, due to the influence of government controlled media, the Penang state government is still perceived as a “Chinese” government and thus a threat to the Malays in the state.

PKR and PAS have equally pressing worries in Penang, given the results of the survey. Neither of the two parties has the credibility to proclaim themselves defenders of race and religion, according to the voters surveyed. This means that even with the Prime Minister and UMNO being as unpopular as they are, the Malays still do not trust the Opposition with their future.

The problem of credibility among Malay voters is something the Opposition, whatever form it may take, has to address before the next general election. However, it is significant that only 43% of the survey respondents were identified as UMNO supporters. The rest were fence sitters. If we take this as a general model for the feelings of the Malays nationwide, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for the Opposition to widen its support base.

Whatever form the Opposition takes as the 14th general election approaches, it cannot take its eyes off the prize, and that means bridging the concerns of the Malays with concrete policies and credible leaders. Failure to do so will be tantamount to handing Najib the election on a silver platter. The question is, can the opposition parties get their heads together long enough to really address the opportunity at hand?

Singapore is not an island

October 12, 2015

 Jason Chin answers DAP on Bilahari’s Article

“Dr Mahathir seems to have expected to exercise remote control even though he was no longer prime minister. Among his grievances with his successors were their warming of ties with Singapore, Mr Najib’s decision to settle the railway land issue, cooperation on Iskandar Malaysia (IM) and the refusal of both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib to proceed with his pet white elephant: the “crooked bridge”. Dr Mahathir wants to replace Mr Najib with someone more pliable.”--Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large

Bilahari KBilahari Kausikan–An Astute Observer of Malaysian Politics

A lengthy, well-analysed and descriptive article was published recently in Singapore’s The Straits Times entitled “Singapore is not an island” by Bilahari Kausikan. Bilahari expressed his opinion on the current political climate in Malaysia and how it related to Singapore-Malaysia ties.

DAP’s Tony Pua was irked and responded in super quick time. ( The Opposition coalition is a perfect coalition you see. Nobody can speak negatively about them.

When the late Lee Kuan Yew criticized UMNO he was applauded by DAP. But when he questioned Pakatan, his views were deemed outdated and wrong. But Lee has not been the only one with reservations about Pakatan.

Earlier this year Dr. Bridget Welsh, a renowned political analyst who is a senior research associate at the Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University said that the Opposition coalition in Malaysia is starting to become irrelevant due to its internal quarrels, blaming not only the leadership of PAS but also the DAP for it.

Bilahari was spot-on when he said that Pakatan Rakyat, although in theory multiracial, “have nothing in common except the ambition to displace BN.” He added that in his opinion the new coalition of Pakatan Harapan was itself a ‘forlorn hope,’ and likely to fail.

In Tony’s response, he said that Bilahari’s views suggest that Singapore lacks a moral compass despite all its wealth and developed nation status.

In the first place, dear Tony, how morally encompassing is it for the DAP to now be in “alliance” with Dr Mahathir Mohamad? Malaysia does not need moral lessons from Tony Pua the DAP way. You, Tony, are in no position to accuse anyone of not having a moral compass.

In 2010, an Australian media group revealed that Singapore’s intelligent services and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had told the Office of National Assessments (ONA) in Australia that Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ‘did indeed commit the acts for which he is currently in prison’.

When these revelations were made five years ago, PKR’s Tian Chua jumped to Anwar’s defence noting that the allegations were just “hearsay” and we could not depend on what foreign intelligence officials say. Fast-forward 5 years to 2015, and the same bunch of Opposition people are now heavily relying on what foreign reports have published. Double-standards, nay?

An online petition to the United States government was made to pressure President Barack Obama to prioritise the release of Anwar in the superpower’s policy towards Malaysia. When the British Prime Minister was due to come to Malaysia, the Opposition tried hard to get him to cancel his trip. When that failed, DAP’s lawmaker once again wrote an open letter asking the British PM to not support Najib’s administration. However, when the Chinese Ambassador came to Petaling Street and made an inference to the government’s administration, the Opposition chose to remain silent. Why is interference welcomed in one case but not in another?

Despite all the Opposition’s call for an international boycott of Najib’s administration, Malaysia is still involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations. So far, the Opposition’s call for a cut in international ties with Najib’s government have been in vain.

tony-pua-unta-1In his top-selling book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey said that most people seek first to be understood; to get their point across. In doing so, they ignore the other person completely. They concentrate on a few selected aspects of what is being said. They focus only on the words, missing the meaning entirely.

Tony Pua is doing exactly that. Instead of digesting and properly deciphering Bilahari’s opinion, he knee-jerked to defence. This is exactly why most world leaders do not see any prospect in the Opposition pack in Malaysia.

Jason Chin is an FMT reader

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.

Dr P. Ramasamy of DAP responds to Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kasuikan

Dr. P RamasamySingapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, who is a retired Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently a Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy Studies, Bilahari Kausikan, seems to have caught the attention of Malaysians, particularly, those from the DAP for the wrong reasons.

His recent 3,000-word article entitled “Singapore is not island” which appeared on October 6, 2015, in the The Straits Times (Singapore) seems to have elicited critical comments from the DAP leaders.

In his article, Bilahari said that the Chinese in Malaysia are delusional in that they continue to miss the point that Malays would not give up their political dominance at any costs. And if there is Chinese challenge to Malay political power, there is possibility that UMNO would combine with PAS to defend Malay rights.

He went further to criticise the Chinese for not having learnt any lessons from the May13, 1969, racial riots. Bilahari thinks that the recent Bersih demonstration was entirely staged by the Chinese to challenge the Malays and that the counter-demonstration organised by the “red shirts” was a typical Malay response to the Chinese challenge.

Bilahari thinks that Chinese youths are delusional in that they don’t understand history and how the working relationship among the various ethnic groups were constituted in the aftermath of political independence in 1969. Finally, Kasikan cautions the Chinese not to be too delusional but to grasp the reality and to make peace with the Malays.

Bilahari is entitled to his views and they would not be challenged as long as they reflect the ground reality in Malaysia. However, Bilahari seems to go overboard in not understanding the Malaysian political and ethnic reality, but goes overboard in defending a political and racial system that is entirely problematic.

First, as the DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang pointed out, it is not clear whether Bilahari makes a distinction between Malay political dominance and supremacy. While political dominance seems inevitable due to demographic changes, the presence of powerful Malay political parties, the inevitability of the institutions of the royalty and other traditional features of the Malay community, Malay supremacy is something no sane or decent Malaysians would accept or condone.

So in this respect, Bilahari has failed to distinguish these two concepts and hence his own “delusional thinking” to understand the complex and unfolding features of the Malaysian political scene.

Not fair to say Chinese have been misled

Second, sorry, “delusional thinking” is not a pre-occupation of the Chinese in Malaysia, especially the young ones. I don’t think that Bilahari is fair to the Chinese to say that they have been misled or misinformed about what is good or bad for Malaysia.

Malaysian Chinese youth like the youths of other races, want a decent country with a decent political system, a system that stays far away from corruption and misdeeds and a system that will ensure justice and fair play for all Malaysians.

Is Bilahari fair to say that these needs can be interpreted as a challenge to Malay political power? And if the Chinese engage in these acts of political and social participation, are they deemed to have broken the racial pact that was hatched before political independence?

Third, for the information of Bilahari, the Malaysian political and social systems are not static. Sometimes, foreign observers and writers, despite their good intentions, make the mistake of “essentialism”.

In other words, they would think and act as though there are one or two features that would serve as the determining or causative factors. Thus, in the case of Malaysia, it would be race and in the case of India, it would be caste.

Those engaging in essentialism would tend to miss the nuances, complexities and the fast unfolding aspects of a country’s political, social and economic systems.

Bilahari’s major error in his analysis is the mistake of engaging in essentialism without the benefit of critical analysis of the fast changing political scenario of the Malaysian system. Thus, what he knows about the system might be far off from reality.

Fourth, Bilahari is equally guilty of ignoring the larger reality of Malaysian political life. He seems to think that Malay political parties, especially Umno and PAS, have the overwhelming support of the Malays. This is not the truth. He fails to realise that Malays, especially the urban ones, have left UMNO en bloc in the last 20 years or so. Even PAS, the so-called Islamic party, has lost its clout due to the purges and desertions by many good leaders.

So, what is happening in Malaysia is not Malay political dominance being reinforced, but rather, Malay dominance or supremacy being weakened due to various misdeeds, corruption and the lack of democracy and others.

While he thinks that PAS and UMNO might join hands to counter the Chinese “uprising”, he fails to note that they Malays in PKR and the newly-minted Parti Amanah Negara are together with the DAP in dismantling the BN-UMNO regime!

Fifth and finally, there is nothing to be learned from the May13, 1969, racial riots.Such riots should be avoided, not only to be giving in to the racist and supremacist demands of the Malay right wing forces, but challenging Malay supremacy as represented by UMNO and its affiliates.

Bilahari, again, by engaging in essentialism, thinks that the riots occurred because the Chinese challenged the might of the Malays. However, such a naïve view cannot be acceptable in the light of evidence about the riots that have come about in recent years.

P RAMASAMY is Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang and the state assemblyperson for Perai.

Singapore is not an island

Malaysia is undergoing a systemic change that has profound consequences for Singapore

by Bilahari Kausikan

Published The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015Bilahari-Kausikan-Singapore2What do most Singaporeans make of recent events in Malaysia? Bersih. Pesaka. 1MDB. A Deputy Prime Minister sacked. Protests and counter-protests.

Are we so inured to commotions across the Causeway that they seem no more than the faint tolling of distant bells, evoking only bemusement and schadenfreude? Our system works, so shrug and tend our own garden. If this is the attitude, it is mistaken. We are indeed different. But I believe Malaysia may be on the cusp of a systemic change that could have profound implications for us.

Since 1957, first Malaya then Malaysia, was premised on a political and social compact that had Malay dominance as its cardinal principle. So long as this was not challenged, other races could have their own space. In political terms, this compact was reflected in a system structured around an alliance of race-based political parties with the dominant Malay party – United Malays National Organisation or UMNO – at its centre.

The Chinese were represented by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), later joined by Gerakan; the Indians by the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Two opposition parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS ), were in principle multiracial, but in practice largely Chinese and Malay and in any case were peripheral.

It was our refusal to accept the system’s cardinal principle that led to Separation from Malaysia in 1965. But it was a system that had its own coherence and until relatively recently, it did not serve Malaysia badly. And despite the complexities of bilateral relations and occasional periods of tension, over the last 50 years, it was a system we learnt to work with, while going our own way. That familiar system is now under immense stress. It is not certain that it can hold together.

Pressure Point

The pressure point is religion. Arab influences from the Middle East have for several decades steadily eroded the Malay variant of Islam in which adat or traditional practices coexisted with the Quran in a syncretic, tolerant synthesis, replacing it with a more austere and exclusive interpretation of Islam. This is one aspect of a broader process of globalisation which is a sociocultural and not just an economic phenomenon. It has changed the texture of Malaysian society, I think irreversibly.

It is impossible for any country to insulate itself from globalisation. Religion in Singapore is not immune from globalisation’s consequences, and not just in our Muslim community. Evangelical Christianity is one example. But Singapore is organised on the principle of multiracial meritocracy. So long as this is accepted by all races and religions as the foundation of our identity, the most corrosive political effects are mitigated. In the Singapore system, God – every God – and Caesar are separate and so all Gods must perforce co-exist, with the state playing the role of neutral arbiter.

The cardinal principle of Malay dominance is enshrined in the Constitution, which also places Islam as the first component in the definition of a Malay. This makes the mixture of religion and politics well-nigh inevitable. UMNO politicians have been unable to resist the temptation to use religion for electoral advantage. They are responding to the logic of the system as it has evolved.

najib-mahahthirIn 2001, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a fundamental political error when he tried to undercut PAS by declaring that Malaysia was already an Islamic state. A constitutional controversy ensued. But the most damaging consequences were political not legal.

Tun Dr Mahathir’s incautious declaration gave a sharper political focus to the changes in the interpretation of Islam that were under way and catalysed a competitive dynamic in which those inclined to religious moderation were inevitably outbid and overwhelmed.

The result has been an increasingly pronounced emphasis on religion in UMNO’s political identity and a significant and continuing narrowing of the political and social space for non-Muslims.

Surveys show that Malaysian Malays privilege Islamic credentials over other qualities they look for in their leaders. A Merdeka Centre survey this year revealed that 60 per cent of Malaysian Malays polled identified themselves as Muslims first rather than Malaysians or even Malays. Demography accentuates the political impact of these attitudes. In 1957 the Chinese constituted 45 per cent of Malaya (West Malaysia). In 2010, they constituted only 24.6 per cent of Malaysia including East Malaysia. Malay fertility rates are significantly higher than both Chinese and Indians.

In the 2013 Malaysian General Election, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition got only 13 per cent of the Chinese vote. Two days after the election, Utusan Malaysia, an UMNO mouthpiece, pointedly asked “Apa Lagi Cina Mau?” (What more do the Chinese want?)

The question was provocatively phrased, but not entirely unreasonable. Prime Minister Najib Razak tried hard to win back Chinese votes but got almost nothing for his efforts. MCA won only seven seats. Gerakan was wiped out. The DAP won 38 seats, the largest number in the opposition coalition.

A New System in the Making?

The Chinese parties in BN had clearly lost the trust of Chinese voters. Can MCA win back Chinese votes? Doubtful. MCA is obviously powerless to stem the narrowing political and social space for non-Muslims; the fecklessness of its leaders exposed by constant scandals and internal bickering.

MCA in TattersIn 2013, BN lost the popular vote but retained its parliamentary majority because of the 47 seats it won in East Malaysia. Native East Malaysians are not ethnically Malay but are classified as bumiputera. Some in UMNO began to question whether it was really necessary to work with the Chinese at all. The declining numbers of Chinese in the Malaysian population will sooner or later make them electorally irrelevant to UMNO and BN had already retained power without their votes.

Nor can the opposition coalition of the DAP, PAS and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat – Pakatan Rakyat (PR) – form a new multiracial system. PR was always a motley crew. Although its component parties are in theory multiracial, they have nothing in common except the ambition to displace BN. Only Anwar’s charismatic personality and political skills held them uneasily together.

Anwar is now in jail and PR has fallen apart. PAS has left. Without Anwar, Keadilan’s future is bleak. The DAP is subject to the demo- graphic constraints of a falling Chinese population and is unlikely to make substantial electoral advances beyond its present strength, although it will probably retain what it now holds. PR’s successor – Pakatan Harapan – a coalition of the DAP, Keadilan and a minor breakaway faction from PAS, is a forlorn hope (pun intended).

PAS has purged its moderate leadership and is now led by the ulama. UMNO is increasingly relying on religion to legitimise itself. UMNO and PAS may eventually form some sort of de facto if not de jure alliance that could be the core of a new ruling system. There may be token ornaments of other races, but the Malaysian system will then comprise an overwhelmingly dominant Malay government with a DAP-led Chinese opposition. This will be potentially explosive.

I do not know if such a system will really replace the current system, but it certainly seems possible, even probable. It will not happen overnight. But the controversy over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) could well hasten its emergence. The recent demonstrations seem to foreshadow such a development.

Struggle for Power in UMNO

The anti-government Bersih demonstrations held in late August this year were, despite a sprinkling of other races, predominantly Chinese affairs. PAS, which had joined previous Bersih demonstrations, stayed away. The organisers claimed the demonstrations were apolitical, but the DAP with Keadilan clearly played significant roles.

Last month, a pro-government counter-demonstration was organised by Pesaka – a right-wing Malay group ostensibly devoted to silat, the Malay martial art. The demonstration was almost entirely Malay, positioned as defending Malay rights and marked by fierce racial rhetoric. Before the demonstration, posters were displayed, captioned “Cina turun Bersih, sedialah bermandi darah” (Chinese who attend Bersih, be ready to be bathed in blood) which depicted a Bersih supporter being slashed with a parang. A flier with a similar slogan was found at DAP headquarters.

UMNO denied organising the demonstration. Dato’ Seri Najib did not attend but said he had no objections to UMNO members doing so. The President of Pesaka is an UMNO leader. Another UMNO politician, who was one of the driving forces of the Pesaka demonstration, proudly admitted he was racist because it was under the Constitution.

Thankfully, violence at these demonstrations was avoided by the strong police presence. But the demonstrations certainly raised the temperature of an already racially fraught atmosphere.

Although the authorities denied it, the affray that broke out in July at Low Yat Plaza, a mainly Chinese shopping area in Kuala Lumpur, after a Malay youth was accused of stealing a mobile phone, was certainly racial. It exposed the tinderbox Malaysia had become.

Shortly after news broke about US$700 million (S$1 billion) believed to be from 1MBD being traced to what was alleged to be Mr Najib’s personal account, a Putrajaya spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has not taken any funds for personal use.”

UMNO has always operated through a system of patronage. If this is what the spokesman was hinting at, then Dr Mahathir’s accusations against Mr Najib ring hollow. Did he not preside over the same system and for far longer than any other Malaysian Prime Minister?

This system also means that Mr Najib is in no imminent danger of being forced from office so long as he holds the majority of UMNO divisions and retains Malay support. Frustration may account for Dr Mahathir’s attendance at the Bersih demonstration which I do not think has raised the good doctor’s standing with the Malay ground.

The 1MDB scandal is less about corruption than about a struggle for power within UMNO. Dr Mahathir seems to have expected to exercise remote control even though he was no longer prime minister. Among his grievances with his successors were their warming of ties with Singapore, Mr Najib’s decision to settle the railway land issue, cooperation on Iskandar Malaysia (IM) and the refusal of both Tun Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib to proceed with his pet white elephant: the “crooked bridge”. Dr Mahathir wants to replace Mr Najib with someone more pliable.

The intra-UMNO power struggle is not over. Mr Najib retains his office but has been politically damaged. Dr Mahathir’s reputation may have been dented, but he still has a following within UMNO and the Malay public.

Mr Najib cannot allow himself to be outflanked on the right. Two days after the September demonstration, he attended a Pesaka gathering. He praised Pesaka members as being “willing to die” for the government and said “Malay people can also show that we are still able to rise when our dignity is challenged, when our leaders are insulted, criticised, shamed”, adding, “We respect other races. But don’t forget: Malays also have their feelings. Malays also have their limits.”

What Next?

A former minister, Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin, has said that “if Najib succeeds in uniting UMNO and PAS, then I am confident the Malays will forgive his grave mistakes”, adding that “after fulfilling this large and sincere task” he should step down and hand power to former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

I do not know if Mr Najib feels he has committed “grave mistakes”. But he certainly will not hand over power to a man he unceremoniously sacked. Still, Mr Zainuddin is probably not wrong about anyone who brings UMNO and PAS together becoming a Malay hero. It may not be Mr Najib, but the trajectory of political developments in Malaysia already seems to point in that direction.

Malaysia and Singapore are each other’s second-largest trading partner. Malaysia is Singapore’s sixth-largest investment destination and we are the top investor in IM. Every day tens of thousands of Malaysians commute across the Causeway to work in Singapore. It is in our interest to see Malaysia stable with a healthy economy.

Mr Najib understands that Malaysia and Singapore need each other. So far and unusually we have not figured very much in the controversies. Dr Mahathir did trot out his tired line about Singapore Malays being marginalised. But it did not catch fire. Did the government dampen the spark? No way of knowing for sure but if it did, it is one more black mark against Mr Najib in the old man’s book.

We, of course, have no choice but to work with whatever system or leader emerges in Malaysia. But some systems will be easier to work with than others. And the current heightened state of racial tensions suggests that we should not assume that the transition from one system to another will necessarily be peaceful.

It is my impression that many young Malaysian Chinese have forgotten the lessons of May 13, 1969. They naively believe that the system built around the principle of Malay dominance can be changed. That may be why they abandoned MCA for the DAP. They are delusional. Malay dominance will be defended by any means.

Any new system will still be built around this principle, and if it has some form of UMNO-PAS collaboration at its centre, enforcement of this principle will be even more rigorous with even less space for non-Muslims.

The respected Malay poet and writer Pak Samad recently warned “the way race issues are played up… it is not impossible that things will peak into a state of emergency”. Pak Samad is a member of the DAP and he was appealing to the government to take a more equitable attitude towards all races. But his views and those of some idealistic young urban Malays are exceptional and, during an intra-UMNO power struggle when the banner of Malay dominance is raised particularly high, utterly irrelevant.

Singaporeans should also note that no country’s domestic politics exists in a geopolitical vacuum.

Chinese Ambassador’s Remarks

In the midst of these unfolding developments, China’s ambassador to Malaysia made his way to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Close to where only a few days previously the police had to use water cannons to disperse a potentially violent anti-Chinese Pesaka-led demonstration, the ambassador read out a statement that among other things pronounced the Chinese government’s opposition to terrorism, any form of racial discrimination and extremism, adding for good measure that it would be a shame if the peace of Petaling Street was disrupted by the ill-intentioned and that Beijing would not stand idly by if anything threatened the interests of its citizens and Malaysia-China relations.

Under other circumstances these sentiments would perhaps have passed notice. But the timing and context laid the ambassador’s words and actions open to disquieting interpretations. Was it just bad judgment? What was he trying to do? If the Ambassador was trying to help the Malaysian Chinese, then he failed miserably. He probably made things worse for them by confirming the worst suspicions of the Malay right wing.

But were the interests of Malaysian Chinese even a consideration? Was the intention to highlight a rising China’s clout? The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended the Ambassador’s visit to Petaling Street as “normal” and emphasised China’s adherence to the principle of non-interference. But this was of course what she would have said irrespective of China’s intentions.

More telling perhaps was the apparent confusion over whether or not the Chinese Ambassador should be summoned to explain himself. This should have been obvious. A retired Malaysian diplomat who used to deal with China pointed out the dangerous precedent that would be set if no action was taken. But different Malaysian ministers contradicted each other, with a clearly frustrated Foreign Minister Anifah Aman finally telling them all to leave it to Wisma Putra.

Was this the consequence of China’s influence? Possibly. In the end, some sort of meeting with Wisma Putra seems to have occurred. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi subsequently announced that the Malaysian Cabinet decided to “call in” the Chinese ambassador (he was careful to make clear the ambassador was not being “summoned”).

Lesson For Singapore

We cannot solve other people’s problems. Malaysians must work out their own destiny and we will have to live with their choices.

Are we completely immune to contagion from Malaysia? After 50 years, does our collective Singapore identity now trump racial identities? Maybe under some circumstances. Optimistically, perhaps even most circumstances. But under all circumstances?I doubt it. Let us wish Malaysia well and hope that the worst does not occur. But it would be prudent to take no chances and prepare ourselves as if it might. The first step is for all Singaporeans to understand what is happening in our neighbourhood and realistically appreciate our own circumstances.

Deterrence and diplomacy are necessary to reduce the temptation that some in Malaysia may have to externalise their problems and minimise the bilateral friction that will sometimes be unavoidable. Strong deterrence and agile diplomacy must be underpinned by national cohesion which in turn rests on a foundation of common understandings.

Of late it seems to have become fashionable for some sections of our intelligentsia to downplay or even dismiss our vulnerabilities. Some political parties tried variants of this line during our recent General Election. Are they blind and deaf to what is happening around us? Is their desire for notoriety or political advantage so overwhelming as to make them indifferent to the consequences?

Malaysia is not the only concern. The haze is a daily reminder that all is not well down south too. This is not the most salubrious of neighbourhoods.

The writer, a former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is now Ambassador-at-Large.

Mahathir and Najib from the same Evil UMNO Pod

August 10, 2015

Malaysia: Mahathir and Najib from the same Evil UMNO Pod

Mahathir and Najib in the same UMNO pod

The deepening rot in Malaysia started a few years into the tenure of former PM Mahathir Mohamad, under whom UMNO became known as ‘Under Mahathir, No Opposition’.

For the best part of 60 years, UMNO Baru, formerly UMNO, was treated with reverence by politicians and the media. It could do no wrong, its actions were never scrutinised, it was not held accountable for any failures, nor were its politicians responsible for mismanagement, corruption or abuse of power.

The actions of both Mahathir and Najib Abdul Razak are guided by fear – fear of losing their power, fear of the unknown, fear of losing their freedom. Below are eight reasons why Najib is doing a Mahathir, and why Umno Baru, and not just Najib, should go.

First. The harassment.

The ordeal faced by the directors and officials of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) will revive memories for former Anti-Corruption-Agency (ACA) Director-General Shafee Yahya, who felt Mahathir’s wrath,  in 1998.

Summoned to Mahathir’s office, a fuming Mahathir barked, “How dare you raid my senior officer’s office?”, to be followed by, “Did Anwar Ibrahim ask you to raid the office?”

An official complaint had been lodged about the Director-general of the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), Ali Abul Hassan Sulaiman (and later Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia. Shafee was allegedly ordered by Mahathir to close the case. The EPU was directly under the PM’s Department and its role was to oversee the privatisation of projects.

Today, history is repeated, and Najib also feels threatened by the actions of the MACC, which is trying to investigate the 1MDB scandal.

MACC Communications Director Rohaizad Yaakob, and Special Operations Director, Bahri Mohamad Zin, were transferred immediately and ordered to report to the Prime Minister’s Department. Two other MACC officers allegedly remain in police custody and have been refused bail.

This can only mean one thing. Najib is afraid and he must act before he is toppled, not by the rakyat, but by others who seek his throne.

Second. The women.

In June 1998, a disillusioned Shafee returned home and told his wife Kalsom Taib, that after 33 years of service, he wished to resign. Kalsom coaxed him into staying and told him to hold his head up high, despite Mahathir’s accusation that the ACA “fixed people”.

Shafee was interrogated several times at Bukit Aman, and the family braved several accusations, including one of breaching the Official Secrets Act. Kalsom (photo) later published a book called ‘The Shafee Yahaya Story’ about her husband’s ordeal.

Today, another woman has come to the defence of Bahri. His daughter Eila posted on Facebook that her father, had served the MACC (formerly ACA) for 33 years.

She said, “For decades, he carried out his duties to investigate and arrest those who were out to swindle funds illegally from the rakyat. He and his division succeeded in saving hundreds of millions, from going missing.”

Third. The PM’s response.

Police reports were lodged on June 13, 2000 about Mahathir’s interference in the ACA investigations in June 1998. To date, there has been no further news of any Police action. When asked, Mahathir told the press that he had no recollection of the incident. Mahathir’s selective amnesia is a recurrent excuse.

Rosmah and Najib now
Today, Najib is seething. He blames the opposition for spreading “false” information about him. At the Pasir Gudang UMNO Divisional Meeting, he said, “I was made a target for no reason”, and said that the people were “flaring up for no reason”. Perhaps, the matter of a RM2.6 billion donation, is of little consequence to him. Anwar could have been a useful scapegoat, except that Najib had had him imprisoned last January.

Fourth. The Pak Lah effect.

Former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi incurred Mahathir’s displeasure, and there were furious attempts, behind the scenes, to oust him. The impatient Mahathir had to protect his legacy, and ensure his progeny succeeded him. Eventually, an embattled and much criticised Pak Lah was forced from office, and replaced by Najib.

Unfortunately, Mahathir underestimated Najib’s other half, the self-styled First Lady of Malaysia (FLOM), and Najib could not be persuaded to keep his end of the bargain.

The ‘Pak Lah effect’, characterised by criticism and badmouthing, was launched on Najib. Mahathir was probably blindsided when Najib acted with speed and removed Muhyiddin from office.

Fifth. The IGP and the Attorney-General.

Surrounding oneself with allies is a trick to ensure a few more days, or weeks of freedom. Mahathir had the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) and the Chief Justice on his side. Mahathir compromised the Jdiciary, in 1988, with the appointment of the allegedly scandalous Lord President Tun Hamid Omar. This led Malaysia down the slippery slope. We now teeter perilously at the edge of the short drop to becoming a banana republic. Is it too late to save ourselves?

Today, the IGP, Khalid Abu Bakar, is alleged to be Najib’s ally. To guarantee his freedom from prosecution, Najib has replaced Abdul Gani Patail with his mate, Apandi Ali. In Malaysia, it is not what you know, but who you know.

Sixth. The crackdown.

Both men silenced their critics with force. One used the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Operation Lallang. Najib is using the Sedition Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) and the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) in the ongoing crackdown on dissenters.

Seventh. Anwar.

Both Mahathir and Najib found Anwar to be a thorn in their side. Mahathir prosecuted Anwar with Sodomy I; Najib lacks imagination and continues the trend, with Sodomy II.

Eighth. The rakyat.

For decades, Malaysians allowed politicians to ride roughshod over them. The Malays, who were fed on a diet of insecurity, fear their own shadows. The self-reliant Chinese fear economic doom. The Indians fear being left out of the equation.

Malaysia is at a crossroad, and is facing its worst crisis since May 13, 1969. The rakyat must start to think as Malaysians, and follow the correct path, to help Malaysia regain its feet.

David Cameron under Fire for Talks with Scandal Ridden Premier Najib Razak

July 29, 2015

Foreign Affairs: David Cameron under Fire for Talks with Scandal Ridden Premier Najib Razak

by Beh Lih Yi in Jakarta

David Cameron

David Cameron under fire ahead of talks with scandal-hit Malaysian leader

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sacks Deputy and country’s top attorney after questions over claims he took millions from government investment fund.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing criticism for pushing ahead with a visit to Malaysia this week at a time when the south-east Asian nation’s leader is embroiled in an escalating corruption scandal and has stepped up a crackdown on dissent.

Malaysian Premier Najib Razak has been urged to resign after media reports alleged some US$700m linked to a troubled state investment fund (1MDB) had ended up in his personal bank accounts.

Razak has denied taking any public funds for personal use, and his government has lashed out at criticism by mounting a crackdown on dissent that has seen two newspapers suspended and a British-based whistleblowing website blocked.

MuhyiddinFormer Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia

On Tuesday, the Malaysian Premier removed his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, who has openly criticised him over the scandal, just hours after the government sacked the country’s top attorney, who had been leading an official investigation into the corruption allegations against Najib.

Politicians and activists who have criticised the government have also been hit with travel restrictions, with one prominent opposition MP barred from leaving the country.

“There could have been a better time for the visit,” Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Malaysia’s opposition leader, told the Guardian ahead of Cameron’s arrival in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, the final stop of a four-nation tour of south-east Asia.

The MP, who is also the wife of jailed opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim, called on Cameron to raise the scandal and human rights issues when he holds talks with Najib, and said he should also meet opposition parties to get “a better idea” about the political turmoil engulfing the former British colony.

“He must not only meet with the government but the opposition as well,” she said. “He should talk about freedom, the suspension of the newspapers and the use of the sedition law – something that is so repressive – and the welfare of the former opposition leader [Anwar].”

Liew Chin Tong, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action party, said Cameron must tell Najib categorically to “respect the rule of law as well as human rights”.

Cameron is hoping to boost trade ties between the UK and the region during his visit that also includes stops in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Efforts to fight jihadist group Isis are also on the agenda during his stops in Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia.

Michael Buehler, a south-east Asian expert at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said Cameron would not be “entirely honest” if he ignores the corruption claims during his visit, as business and politics remain closely linked in the region.

“One cannot talk about business without also mentioning the political conditions in these countries. Cameron’s visit is indeed untimely, given the escalation of the corruption scandal in the country,” Buehler said.

Writing in the Daily Mail last week about the trip, Cameron himself vowed to put the fight against graft top of his agenda after claiming critics were “wrong” to say the UK should avoid doing business with countries with barriers to trade, including corruption.

“Many in South East Asia have led the battle against corruption, which costs the global economy billions of pounds a year. Britain is joining them in that fight – I’ve put the issue at the top of the global agenda,” he wrote.

Najib’s move against the deputy premier came in an unexpected cabinet reshuffle just two days after Muhyiddin broke ranks and openly urged Najib to tell “real facts” over the scandal and answer questions over whether he received the money.

Announcing the decision, Najib said “differences of opinions shouldn’t be expressed openly” among his cabinet members, according to the Malay Mail Online website.

The cabinet reshuffle was seen as an attempt to shore up support for the beleaguered Najib in the cabinet, as an internal tussle within the ruling party in the coming days could put pressure on the Malaysian leader to resign.

Foreign Affairs: Obama Stay Clear of Najib’s Malaysia

July 29, 2015


Foreign Affairs:  Obama Stay Clear  of Najib’s Malaysia

by Charlie Camp6ell

Washington is having serious trouble finding dependable allies in Southeast Asia

Obama Najib GolfStay Away from Tainted Malaysian Prime Minister

The U.S.’s “rebalancing” toward Asia has two main pillars: being a counterweight to China and securing a free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If Washington is to succeed on both fronts, it needs as many friends in the region as it can win. The U.S.’s newest ally is Malaysia, this year’s chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nation, collectively a growing market, and, on the surface, a modern, democratic, Muslim country.

In April 2014 U.S. President Barack Obama paid an official visit to Malaysia, the first sitting President to do so in decades, and, later in the year, played golf with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak when both were on holiday in Honolulu. This November, Kuala Lumpur will host the next East Asia Summit and Obama is due to attend.

But recently, all the news coming out of Malaysia is negative. After becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal, Najib on Tuesday sacked his Deputy and Malaysia’s Attorney-General in an apparent purge of critics. British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing a domestic backlash for pushing forward with a visit to Kuala Lumpur this week despite the snowballing controversy.

Here are five reasons why Obama might want to break from Cameron by giving Najib a wide berth.

  1. 1MDB — A Wall Street Journal report has alleged that Najib’s personal bank accounts received nearly $700 million in March 2013 from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-owned development fund. Najib has protested his innocence and threatened legal action against the Journal. “I am not a thief,” Najib told Malaysian media on July 5. “I am not a traitor and will not betray Malaysians.” The Police, the local anticorruption agency, the Attorney General’s office and the central bank are investigating the allegations. On July 8, the police raided 1MDB’s office in Kuala Lumpur and took away documents. Even before the latest news, 1MDB was an embarrassment for Najib, who chaired the fund’s advisory board as debts of $11.6 billion were accrued. Such are the suspicions of malfeasance that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ran the country from 1981 to 2003 and has long been considered Najib’s mentor, has repeatedly called for his protégé’s resignation over 1MDB’s alleged mishandling.
  2. Anwar Ibrahim — Najib’s main political rival is once again in prison for a sodomy conviction. Human Rights Watch deemed his five-year sentence handed down Feb. 10 to be “politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law.” This is the second time Anwar has been jailed for sodomy.
  3. Hudud — Stoning for adultery and amputation for theft are not the kind of punishments meted out by the progressive state that Malaysia purports to be. Yet Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is supporting attempts to introduce hudud Islamic law in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) heartland state of Kelantan, where nightclubs are forbidden and men and women are designated separate public benches. Why is UMNO supportive of recognizing hudud under federal law? Largely because PAS is part of a three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition that is UNMO’s chief challenger. The other partners — Anwar’s Keadilan, or People’s Justice Party, supported by middle-class, urban Malays, and the Chinese Malaysian–backed Democratic Action Party (DAP) — are strongly against hudud. Many analysts accuse UMNO of cynically fostering a radical Islamic bent to widen rifts in its political opponents.
  4. Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa — In 2002, when Najib was Defense Minister, a $1.25 billion contract was signed to purchase two Scorpène submarines from French firm DCNS. Altantuyaa was a Mongolian woman who, knowing French, facilitated negotiations as a translator, and then allegedly attempted to blackmail Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Najib’s aides with whom she was also having an affair, for $500,000 over “commission” payments he had allegedly received. Two policemen posted to Najib’s bodyguard detail were convicted of murdering Altantuyaa on October. 18, 2006. Najib denies any involvement.
  5. Prevention of Terrorism Act — Najib campaigned on scrapping the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) but then immediately replaced it with the equally sweeping Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA. The POTA includes practically the same powers as ISA, including two-year detention without trial, and was dubbed a “legal zombie arising from the grave of the abusive [ISA]” by Human Rights Watch. Najib also vowed to repeal the similarly maligned Sedition Act but reneged after his election in 2013. In fact, in April his government extended the maximum jail term under the Sedition Act from three to 20 years.