Culture–The Social Glue and Identity

July 7, 2015

Culture–The Social Glue and Identity

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

culture-and-exportingEvery group of humans whether dwelling in the same cave or working for the same corporation must share some common goals, values, and worldview, as well as everyday routine practices. This is what culture means; it is the social glue that binds the members together and differentiates them from others. Far from being society’s oppressor, culture is its savior.

The human baby is not born a carnivorous hunter or a vegetarian ascetic anymore than it is born an Aryan or Chinese. The baby may have Aryan characteristics (sharp nose, blond hair, and blue eyes) or that of a Chinese (moon face, jet black hair, and epicanthic folds) but those features do not make what it will be. Whether that baby will turn out to be a proud bearer of a swastika or marches the streets waving Mao’s Little Red Book depends upon the culture in which it has been raised.

Tune to BBC News. If you close your eyes you would assume the announcer to be a lithe English lassie. Look at the screen and your preconceived images would be shattered for behind that flawless British voice might be a lady of African descent or a Semitic-looking Arab woman, minus the purdah of course.

The process by which a group instills its collective ways and values upon its new members – acculturation – is by nature conservative, to uphold prevailing norms and standards. The dark-skinned BBC announcer could not possibly sound so elegantly authoritative had she been brought up in Southside Chicago or a Soweto township.

I had a childhood friend back in the old village. Born as I was during the terrible deprivation of the Japanese Occupation, his family, like so many poor Chinese families in rural Malaysia at that time, was forced to give him up. Growing up in his adopted Malay family, he was no different from the rest of us. I was not even aware that he was adopted despite his obvious non-Malay features.

Later as a teenager he became extremely chauvinistic, espousing fanatical sentiments of Malay nationalism. Even that did not trigger any irony on my part. On one occasion he was particularly virulent in his denunciations of the immigrants while within hearing distance of my parents. When he was gone my father laughed, remarking that someone ought to hold a mirror to my friend’s face whenever he was indulging in his racial demagoguery. Only then did it register on me that he was Chinese looking. The incongruity of his being a Malay supremacist.

My digressing short story here must have an uplifting ending. My friend did indeed outgrow his adolescent delusions and become a successful businessman with a multiracial and international clientele. Today he is the paragon of the liberal, progressive Malay, the ones the PERKASA (the acronym of a Malay ultra right-wing group) types love to hate.

Just as my friend’s upbringing (his acculturation) turned him into an insular, chauvinistic nationalist, his later vocation reformed him into an open, worldly businessman. Later, I will pursue this unappreciated but important role of trade and commerce in liberating minds.

The Dayak WarriorCulture provides the backdrop for much of our learning and experiences, as well as the environmental (both physical and social) stimuli that our brain is exposed to. These are what shape our view of reality, or in the language of neuroscience, the subsequent patterns of neural networks. Culture conserves the values and norms of that society and transmits them unchanged to the next generation.

Culture is also internally consistent even though to outsiders some of its norms and practices may appear destructive or non-productive. To the Mafia of southern Italy, being violent and vengeful are valued traits, to maintain family ‘honor.’ In not-so-ancient China members of the triad maintained their strict code of silence through uncompromising and merciless enforcement; the price for breaching being gruesome death. Then there are the “honor killing” of the Pashtuns and the self-immolation suttee where a widowed Indian would throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Those destructive acts must have served some purpose otherwise the culture would have abandoned them long ago. The Chinese code of silence was perhaps a protective reaction to the brutish local warlords, while “honor killing” and suttee were meant to demonstrate the supreme value of family honor and marital fidelity. In that culture a widowed woman would be treated so harshly and discriminated against so mercilessly that she would be driven to prostitution or home wrecking.

To someone from a culture where infidelity is the norm (if we can believe Hollywood movies and the scandals involving Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger), suttee and honor killing seem barbaric and way out of proportion.

Likewise hudud’s stoning to death for adultery; to Muslims it reflects the sanctity of marriage and the high premium we place on marital fidelity. Humans being human, the culture does provide an outlet to minimize the possibility of imposing this harsh penalty; thus multiple wives or even “temporary” ones. The ancient Chinese accepted concubines.

As an aside, despite hudud’s current notoriety, it is well to remember that during the four centuries of Ottoman rule, the actual number of cases of “stoning to death” was only one. Compare that to the number of deaths through suttee burning and gentleman’s duel.

The Anglo Saxons’ “duel unto death” is on the same plane as suttee and honor killing; the difference merely in means and methods. The underlying principle and end result are the same – a matter of “honor” and the senseless taking of a life respectively. It illuminates my point that culture is internally consistent. It is futile for anyone, especially outsiders, to pick and choose a particular element of a culture and pronounce it regressive or uncivilized. The true and only meaningful test of a culture is how it prepares its people to stresses and changes, especially when those are sudden and dramatic, or imposed from the outside.

Do Employers in Malaysia discriminate ?

July 1, 2015

Do Employers in Malaysia discriminate ?

By Lee Hwok-Aun and Muhammed Abdul Khalid (

For a Full Report read:

Lee Hwok AunDo employers discriminate by race? The question typically elicits immediate and impassioned reactions from opposing ends.

Of course companies discriminate, some assert. It’s a known – even accepted – practice: Q companies prefer to hire Q people. It’s too hard to find suitable candidates from the Q group. The public sector practices pro-X policies, so the private sector reciprocates by favouring Y. Everyone has an anecdote to support their case.

No way, others retort. Why would profit-minded firms hire based on identity? They are only out to get the best quality person for the job. It wouldn’t make sense to prefer one race over another. If Z applicants do not get opportunities, it’s because they are less qualified. Anecdotes are supplied too.

This verbal and anecdotal dueling never ends. Both sides have valid but not decisive arguments, though positions are often exaggerated by personal bias and emotional baggage. Resolving the debate, while trying to avert combustion, requires objective empirical enquiry across a large sample of employers and employees.

Let us first specify the context. Sometimes we speak in code, but face it, the predominant images of labour market discrimination that form in our minds pit Chinese-owned private sector businesses against Malay graduates and a Malay dominated public sector against the non-Malay workforce.

How do we detect whether employers privilege one group and exclude another? We could ask them how they recruit, or ask graduates about their experience finding a job. However, their answers will very likely be biased. Racially discriminating employers will likely not reveal their true intentions, while graduates who feel they have been discriminated may overstate their grievance or may not be fully informed about the circumstances behind their rejected applications.

What about the effect of quality? If Chinese graduates are preferred in the private sector and Malays in the public sector, is it because of race, or is it academic attainment, compatibility of person with organisation, or other factors?

In a recent study, Muhammed Abdul Khalid and I tried to disentangle these gnarled issues. We conducted a field experiment that observes real decisions made by employers on persons they call for interview. Instead of asking employers whether they discriminate, we sent fictitious Malay and Chinese résumés to real job advertisements, then recorded the ones that got called back for interview and compared those with the ones that did not get called.

We ensured that the Malay and Chinese applicants in our pool were similarly qualified. We controlled for quality, in the way that experiments isolate the effect of the determinant in focus by controlling for – in other words, taking away – the effects of other determinants.

Here’s how the experiment went. We generated a pool of fictitious résumés of fresh degree graduates – credible job applicants with invented names and addresses. Résumés were clustered by quality, based on cumulative grade point average (CGPA). Those with CGPA of 3.1 -3.9 were considered “above average”, and those in the 2.2-3.0 range we classified as “below average”. Those with higher CGPA tended to be more impressive in terms of extra-curricular activities, language abilities and other positively regarded attributes.

Since we used CGPA to indicate quality, we chose not to include foreign university graduates. Foreign universities, especially in English-speaking countries, are more highly regarded; holding a foreign degree thus corresponds with being a higher quality applicant. To remove this overlap with CGPA as the quality marker, we confined our applicant pool to graduates of local universities – both public and private institutions.

Our research assistants sent four applications to entry level online job advertisements for engineering and accounting positions, one for each combination of race and quality: above average Malay, above average Chinese, below average Malay, below average Chinese. In total, we sent 3012 resumes to 753 jobs in the private sector. We attempted to apply to public sector jobs as well, but unfortunately could not proceed due to insurmountable technical hurdles

We then recorded callbacks for interview, and observed whether résumés of one race are significantly more likely to be called, after controlling for quality. Just to be clear, let me state again the basic scenario we are scrutinizing: when employers evaluate job applicants that are comparable in all aspects except for race, are they more inclined to one race over the other?

We also compiled data on the companies to which we sent job applications, and derived a profiled for each company based on the group holding a majority of directorships and shareholdings and therefore most likely to exercise control. The main categories that emerged were Chinese-controlled, foreign-controlled (including foreign-local joint ventures), and Malay-controlled, with a smattering of Indian-controlled and mixed-controlled companies (where no group clearly exerted control).

Similar experiments have been conducted and validated around the world, notably in the UK, US, India, and France. All of them find the presence of discrimination, to varying extents, based on race, ethnicity, gender, or caste.

Ours is the first study in Malaysia employing this method. And what did we find? Race matters – a lot. Chinese applicants are much more likely than Malay applicants to be called for interview. Quality also matters, but much less so.

The numbers give us a better sense of our main findings. As shown in the first line of the table, Chinese applicants on the whole registered a callback rate of 22.1 – that is, for every 100 Chinese résumés sent to job ads, 22.1 got called for interview. For every 100 Malay résumés sent, only 4.2 got called for interview. The ratio of these callback rates indicates strong preference for Chinese graduates. For every Malay applicant that gets called, 5.3 Chinese applicants get called. Discrimination was significantly larger in engineering jobs than in accounting jobs.

The gap is smaller, but still large, for higher quality résumés. An above average Chinese applicant is 4.5 times more likely to get called than an above average Malay, while the corresponding ratio for below average Chinese and below average Malays is 6.5.

These findings robustly indicate that private sector employers discriminate in favour of Chinese fresh graduate applicants and against their Malay counterparts. This is not surprising, although the magnitudes probably exceed our hunches.

Resume quality Chinese  callback rate

(per 100)

Malay callback rate

(per 100)

Chinese callback rate per Malay callback rate
Overall 22.1 4.2 5.3
Above average 23.5 5.2 4.5
Below average 20.7

Since publicizing these findings in November 2012, two broad criticisms have recurred that are worth discussing here. The first criticism denies that discrimination could occur or tries to explain it away, based on personal or company experience. However, such views overlook important aspects of our research and the extent to which we control for quality.

We have noticed that people, especially employers, refer to scenarios or experiences of filtering out Malay applicants before the interview stage because their academic records, on average, fall short. Sadly but truly, the educational achievement gap between groups remains substantial at graduation from university.

However, this study precisely addresses the issue by ensuring that equivalent numbers of Malay and Chinese applicants attain high CGPAs. Our data show that even top of the class Malays, graduating with CGPAs above 3.6 from the more reputable local universities, are considerably less likely than even below average Chinese graduates to be called for interview.

Another criticism asserts that the study merely confirmed what we “already know” and is thus worth little. True, we may have already known that discrimination existed – but only from personal observation, experience, hearsay, or presumption. Now we have empirical proof, from sample of over 3000 job applications and 750 companies.

More importantly, though, let us not be too convinced and comfortable that we already know all there is to know on the matter. Indeed, we found out much more than we thought we knew. Within the Chinese and Malay applicant pools, personal characteristics besides race impact on the prospects for interview.

Take Chinese proficiency, which is often divisive in discourses on graduate employment. Actually, it should be a more unifying issue. Our study finds that Malays who declare proficiency in Chinese language are more likely to be called for interview than Malays who do not. Chinese proficiency is also an advantage for Chinese applicants, of course.

We also found that type of university or tertiary institution makes a difference, but not entirely in line with common perceptions of “unemployable” public university graduates. Malays holding degrees from Universiti Malaya, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia – the major and more established public universities – enjoy better than average prospects for getting an interview.

The outlook for University Teknologi MARA (UiTM) graduates varies across job type. In engineering jobs, they are evaluated on par with peers from major public universities, but UiTM accounting graduates are viewed less favourably. On the whole, it is Malay graduates of private institutions who face the slimmest chances of getting called for interview.

Of course, this study would not be quite complete without examining if a hiring company’s profile affects job applicant’s chances. Well, it does, but it is not a simple, caricatured story of Chinese companies obstructing Malay entry. For accounting positions, Malays applying to Chinese-controlled companies are less likely to be called back, compared to Malays seeking work in Malay-controlled or foreign-controlled companies.

For engineering jobs, our results are most interesting. A foreign-controlled company is least likely to call a Malay applicant. However, a Malay engineering graduate has a better chance of getting an interview in a Chinese-controlled firm than a Malay-controlled firm.

We trust and hope our work has shed cool light on a heated and nationally vital subject. Undeniably, this study has limitations.

This research just examines discrimination in selection for interview, not the job offer stage, let alone employment and promotion, which impact further on our economy and society. Investigating discrimination at those levels is exceedingly more controversial and difficult, if not impossible, since it will involve research assistants posing in person as job candidates.

Nonetheless, our findings have broader implications. Our evidence of discrimination means that qualified Malay applicants are potentially being overlooked and excluded from job opportunities. Also, if discrimination occurs at this stage, it probably occurs at later stages as well – although the magnitude is likely to be less than what we observe in this study. Employers are more likely to discriminate at this early job application stage, because there is much less information about job applicants than employed personnel, and the process is impersonal and removed from scrutiny.

More importantly, though perhaps frustratingly for some readers, this research does not directly address the burning question: why do employers discriminate? We too would dearly like to know, but our chief objective was to probe and measure discrimination, and that’s made for a big enough project.

Before generalizing anecdotes or pondering why discrimination occurs, we ought to investigate its form and prevalence, and this field experiment has produced a careful, methodical and objective gauge of this phenomenon.

While we have not produced data to empirically inform why employers discriminate, we have highlighted the complexities of the problem and the need for further investigation.

Our findings demonstrate that factors not revealed in résumés have a major bearing on graduates’ selection for interview – whether related to attitude, compatibility of applicant with company, past hiring experience, or other factors and combinations of factors. Perhaps some employers expect Malay applicants to not socially fit into the company and hence do not bother calling them for interview. Perhaps they feel a need and justification for private sector to counterweigh the pro-Malay policies public sector. We cannot confidently evaluate these arguments without further study. Emphatically, we must not be hasty to blame the discrimination we detect on malevolent motives and racial stereotyping, prejudice or bigotry.

Clearly, there’s more work to be done in this thorny, fertile field. We hope that the cause will be taken up by the academic community, private organizations, governments,… indeed, all of society. These are shared problems demanding shared solutions.

*Dr Lee Hwok Aun is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies, Universiti Malaya. Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid is now Research Fellow at Malaysian Institute of Economic Research 

Cambodia under Samdech Hun Sen: Significant Progress with some challenges ahead

June 26, 2015

Cambodia under Samdech Hun Sen: Significant Progress with some Challenges ahead

by Vannarith

Hun Sen has steered Cambodia towards peace and development, helping overcome the most difficult period in the country’s history, which included both the civil war and subsequent factional power struggles. In the late 1990s, he managed to dissolve the remaining Khmer Rouge forces and reintegrate them into the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, marking the end of the civil war

…Hun Sen’s governance strategy revolves around three factors: political stability, development and promoting cultural identity. His ambition is to transform Cambodia into a middle-income country by 2030, and a high-income country by 2050… In the 30 years Hun Sen has been in power, Cambodia has made significant progress but key challenges remain.

Phnom Penh2015 marks 30 years in power for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who became Prime Minister in January 1985 at only 33 years old. He has consolidated his power base through charismatic leadership, paternalism, coercion and a system of patronage.

There are mixed views on Hun Sen’s leadership. It is essential to understand the national context to conduct a well-balanced assessment of his achievements and shortcomings. Cambodia is a fragile country after nearly three decades of war and conflict. Social and political distrust, a potential source of political instability, remain deeply embedded in Cambodian political culture and society.

For Hun Sen, peace and security and socio-economic development occupy center stage in Cambodia’s domestic politics, with democracy and human rights coming in second.

The Premier is one of the main architects of peace-building in Cambodia. His political career started with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation which, with the support of Vietnam, toppled the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979.

At the end of the 1980s, as similar economic reforms were being pursued in Vietnam and Laos, Hun Sen chose to follow the free-market economic model. But Cambodia took a different political reform path from that of Laos and Vietnam after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. Cambodia adopted a liberal, multi-party political system, incorporating the principles of democracy and human rights in its 1993 constitution.

Hun Sen with Sam RainsyHun Sen has steered Cambodia towards peace and development, helping overcome the most difficult period in the country’s history, which included both the civil war and subsequent factional power struggles. In the late 1990s, he managed to dissolve the remaining Khmer Rouge forces and reintegrate them into the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, marking the end of the civil war.

In the last two decades, Cambodia has enjoyed an average of 7.7 percent GDP growth. Cambodia is classified as a ‘high growth country’ by the World Bank. The poverty rate fell from 47.8 percent in 2007 to 18.9 per cent in 2012. But the development gap between urban and rural areas remains wide. In 2011, 91 percent of poor households were living in rural areas. Cambodia’s poor households are vulnerable to an array of shocks including natural disasters and water, food and energy security crises.

Hun Sen’s governance strategy revolves around three factors: political stability, development and promoting cultural identity. His ambition is to transform Cambodia into a middle-income country by 2030, and a high-income country by 2050.

Still, the Prime Minister’s leadership and legitimacy were critically challenged in the July 2013 general election when his Cambodian People Party (CPP) suffered a remarkable drop in popular support, losing 22 seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

One of the reasons for falling support for the CPP is the chronic and rampant corruption within the government and the party. Corruption is the root cause of social injustice, human rights violations, the culture of impunity, the mismanagement of natural and state resources, widening income inequality, and the downgrading of social ethics and values.

Acknowledging these problems, Hun Sen set a comprehensive reform agenda after the 2013 elections. But concrete outcomes have yet to be seen. To fulfil the agenda and build his own legacy, Hun Sen must make major institutional changes. He must be innovative and consistent in fighting corruption and nepotism otherwise his reform policy will fail, further challenging his legitimacy and legacy.

Transformative and adaptive political leadership, effective and efficient bureaucracy, and popular support and participation are necessary if political and economic reforms are to succeed. Hun Sen’s government must further deepen the reform agenda by focusing on these three elements.

Hun Sen has, some say, adapted his leadership style too slowly to cope with Cambodia’s fast-changing social transformation. His authoritarian leadership is not popular, especially among young people. The majority of Cambodian youth aspire to change. At the party congress in February, CPP leaders added youth leaders to the Central Committee, resulting in 70 out of 545 members being under the age of 50, in a bid to gain support from Cambodia’s youth.

Hun Sen also takes a pragmatic approach towards foreign affairs. His core foreign policy objectives are to maintain national peace and security, further economic development, reduce poverty, and raise Cambodia’s image and prestige.

Hun Ssn with Chinese President XiWhile he is pushing to diversify Cambodia’s strategic and economic partners, but there is currently still a tilt towards China. Economic and cultural ties define Cambodia–China relations. China is now Cambodia’s largest source of both foreign direct investment and development assistance.

Cambodia has also engaged in promoting global peace and stability, sending more than 1,700 peacekeepers to different parts of the world under the UN framework and is actively involved in the global campaign to end landmines. It is taking a leading role in promoting the ‘responsibility to protect’ in Southeast Asia, and intends to build stronger partnerships with ASEAN and the UN to build the state’s capacity to protect its population from genocide and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement.

In the 30 years Hun Sen has been in power, Cambodia has made significant progress but key challenges remain.

Vannarith Chheang is lecturer of Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Leeds. This articles originally appeared n the East Asia Forum, a platform for analysis and research at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University

More Bad News for Malaysia’s Democracy

June 22, 2015

More Bad News for Malaysia’s Democracy

by James Giggacher

Back in February, 2015 just after Anwar Ibrahim lost his appeal against sodomy charges and was given a harsh five-year jail sentence, New Mandala spoke to Malaysia politics expert John Funston.

John FunstonHe said that without Anwar around to unite the conflicting policies and personalities, maintaining the opposition alliance would be “extremely difficult”.

He was spot on.

A mere four months after Anwar’s jailing and the seven-year-old People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat, has called it a day, declaring Wednesday that it no longer “functions formally”.

It brings an end to Malaysia’s most successful opposition movement; one which won the majority of votes in 2013’s general election to almost unseat the six-decade ruling coalition Barisan Nasional. Only gerrymandering of seats saw Barisan Nasional maintain power.

The collapse of the coalition comes about after attempts by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to enforce the controversial Islamic law, hudud. The Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) objected to the move and now the two parties have severed ties.

Which raises the question; what does this mean for the already slim hopes of democracy in Malaysia? The first thing to keep in mind is that while Pakatan Rakyat showed great promise as a possible alternative to the ruling Barisan Nasional, it was never a cohesive alliance.

“The collapse came about for the same reason the parties split after the 1999 election – because a group within PAS has sought to press for an extreme version of its Islamic ideology,” says Funston.

“This time the pro-Ulama group are even stronger – after a bitter campaign they won a clean sweep of all top positions in the party’s general assembly earlier this month.”

Another key difference is that the pro-Ulama group is now looking to work with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s UMNO party to achieve its goals – in particular the implementation of the extreme hudud law in PAS-run Kelantan.

But as Funston points out, as too Tom Pepinsky here, it might not be the end of collaboration between the former alliance parties.

“In the absence of a formal coalition some cooperation still seems likely, in particular for the Selangor state administration where the three parties have similar representation,” says Funston. “But this will not make for a unified administration, and further efforts by PAS to implement hudud might imperil even this.”

With elections due in 2018, the demise of the alliance will significantly reduce the opposition’s prospects of successfully challenging the government. And if PAS does end up building an alliance with UMNO, this also does not bode well for Malaysia’s non-Malay parties.

“Some opposition members have mooted a grand alliance against the ruling coalition, drawing on support from moderate Malay NGOs, and perhaps headed by UMNO veteran Tengku Razaleigh,” says Funston.

“Such a realignment would be difficult to accomplish, though some movement in this direction is possible if the PAS professionals align more closely with DAP and PKR, and other Malay moderates continue to join these two parties.”

Meanwhile Barisan Nasional are going through their own potential divorce, with an ongoing clash between former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir and Najib sending the ruling party to the brink (read this New York Times piece for a good overview of the back story involving the PM’s wife’s spending sprees and the murder of a Mongolian model).

The upshot is that Mahathir has called time on Razak, saying his many failures, including that of sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, means he must go.

“The 90-year-old Mahathir is relentless, and has an outstanding record of bringing opponents down,” says Funston. “He may well continue until he succeeds in this case.

“Najib has responded vigorously, and benefits from the fact that there is no obvious successor. But he has not mounted a plausible defence against Mahathir’s charges, and momentum could move against him quickly if party leaders come to accept Mahathir’s claim that UMNO will not win the next election while Najib remains in charge.” With three years until elections, the drama is only set to build.

James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala.

Malaysia’s opposition comes unstuck

June 19, 2015

The Economist

Politics in Malaysia

The trouble with trebles

Malaysia’s opposition comes unstuck

NY Times: Power Struggle in Malaysia

June 18, 2015

Power Struggle in Malaysia Pits Former Premier Against a Protégé

by Thomas Fuller and Louise Story

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia — Malaysia’s governing party is at war with itself, embroiled in a power struggle that is destabilizing the country and threatening the party’s nearly six-decade stretch of uninterrupted governance.

The battle has revealed itself publicly in a nasty spat between two political titans. Mahathir Mohamad, a former Prime Minister who turns 90 next month, is the chief architect of a political insurgency aiming to oust the man he helped put into office six years ago, Prime Minister Najib Razak.

NY Times article by T FullerThe Man of the Moment

Having lost none of the combativeness honed during more than two decades in power, Mr. Mahathir is pressing allegations of malfeasance in a sovereign wealth fund, criticizing the “lavish” lifestyle of the prime minister’s wife, and has resurrected troubling questions about the murder of a Mongolian woman, the mistress of a former top aide to Mr. Najib.

“I’ve had quite a long time in government, and I’ve learned a few things,” Mr. Mahathir said in an interview at his office on Wednesday in Putrajaya, the administrative capital he built from scratch when he was Prime Minister.

Mr. Najib “wants to leave his own legacy,” he said. “But what he does is verging on criminal.”

Mr. Najib has denied allegations of abuse of power and urged patience while the country’s auditor general completes a report on the transactions of the sovereign wealth fund. “If there is any misuse of power, we will not shield anyone,” he told a Malaysian television channel in April. The report is due at the end of the month.

The political combat has transfixed this nation of 30 million people, an officially Muslim country with one of the most developed economies in the region.

The latest round took place early this month when Mr. Najib was scheduled to address a public forum on the questions swirling around his leadership.

When Mr. Najib failed to show up, Mr. Mahathir took the stage. But he had just begun to speak when the police shut him down, cutting off his microphone and escorting him off the stage.

This is the third time in Mr. Mahathir’s career that he has turned on his former protégés, and he succeeded in sidelining the first two. Another former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, is in prison on charges of sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia. Mr. Anwar’s five-year prison sentence, affirmed by the country’s highest court this year, was the culmination of trials that began when Mr. Mahathir fired Mr. Anwar as his deputy prime minister in 1998, declaring “I cannot accept a man who is a sodomist to become the leader of this country.”

The second time was nine years ago, when Mr. Mahathir came out of retirement and lashed out at his successor, Abdullah Badawi, for what he said was poor economic management. Mr. Abdullah resigned, and Mr. Najib took over as Prime Minister.

Mr. Najib’s approval ratings have plummeted over the past year amid bleaker economic prospects and higher living costs, and Mr. Mahathir says he fears that the party will lose elections if Mr. Najib remains at the helm. But he also expressed little faith in the long-term prospects of the party, the United Malays National Organization, which has led coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.

In the interview on Wednesday, Mr. Mahathir said that the party he led for decades, known as UMNO, lacks vision and talented people, and that it has become a repository of patronage-seeking politicians seeking to monopolize the spoils of power.

“The little Napoleons in UMNO try to keep out people who are more intelligent than themselves,” he said.

Government Ministers and Members of Parliament have been pressed to declare their allegiance in the dispute, and many have been cagey, afraid to alienate either their current leader or the next one if Mr. Mahathir gets his way.

For now, the divided opposition poses little threat. Its leader, Mr. Anwar, is in prison, and the unwieldy three-party coalition he led appears to have dissolved this week.

The political imbroglio comes on top of economic problems. About a third of government revenues comes from oil and gas production, whose prices have fallen steeply, and the government has been forced to pass an unpopular sales tax to make up for the loss.

Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the country’s political troubles “could hardly come at a worse time.”

“The Prime Minister is focused on political survival when the country’s economy is slowing due to low oil prices and falling exports resulting from China’s economic slowdown,” he said. The combination, he said, is “giving pause to the foreign investors Malaysia is seeking to court.”

The sour economy has also thrown into relief what Mr. Mahathir and others describe as the Najib family’s jet-setting lifestyle of shopping trips in world capitals and the buying of expensive real estate in the United States.

Mr. Mahathir criticized Mr. Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, for her “lavish lifestyle” and for acting “almost if she was a prime minister.”

Mr. Mahathir has also dredged up questions related to the case of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian model who was murdered by two of Mr. Najib’s bodyguards in 2006. While the bodyguards were convicted, Mr. Mahathir has demanded to know who gave the orders.

But at the heart of his dispute with Mr. Najib is Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, which has debts running into the billions of dollars and is overseen by Mr. Najib, who is  Chairman of its Board of Advisers.

Mr. Mahathir says the fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, is missing “huge sums of money” that Mr. Najib has been unable to account for.

The fund has been criticized for the last several years for taking on expensive debt as well as for some of its investments, which opponents say have benefited supporters of Mr. Najib’s political party. “He has never been able to explain how the money was spent,” Mr. Mahathir said Wednesday. “They give a list of payments, but nobody believes it.”

Mr. Najib did not respond to requests for comment emailed to his spokesman.

The fund has also drawn controversy for its close relationship with a financier named Jho Low, a friend of Mr. Najib and of his stepson. Mr. Low has been involved in the sale of tens of millions of dollars of luxury real estate to the stepson in the United States.

Though Mr. Low holds no official position with 1MDB, he has acknowledged advising the fund, and several of his friends have held senior positions there. In recent months, documents have been published by The Edge, a Malaysian newspaper, and Sarawak Report, a British blog, showing that Mr. Low was instrumental in a deal between 1MDB and a Saudi oil company, PetroSaudi International. The newspaper also said the documents show that a company, Good Star Limited, was controlled by Mr. Low and received hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB as part of the oil deal.

Mr. Low did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement to The New York Times this week, 1MDB said that Good Star was owned by PetroSaudi and noted that PetroSaudi had confirmed that 1MDB said it had provided information about these transactions to the Malaysian authorities that are investigating the sovereign fund.

The payments by 1MDB are attracting attention in part because the fund is floundering. In recent weeks, the government announced a restructuring plan that involves the fund’s acceptance of money from the International Petroleum Investment Company, an investment fund affiliated with the Abu Dhabi government that has also made numerous deals with Mr. Low.

1MDB has issued statements disputing the notion that it is being bailed out. “This is a business transaction, not a loan, not any kind of debt and not a bailout,” the fund said in its statement to The Times.

Mr. Mahathir’s criticisms of the management of 1MDB, which he makes in regular blog postings and in public comments, are closely followed in Malaysia. But they have also been greeted with cynicism by those who say that money politics and bailouts of government-linked companies were very much a part of Mr. Mahathir’s 22 years in power.

“Mahathir is being disingenuous,” said Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling company. “What we are seeing today did not happen overnight. It’s been heading this way for decades.”

Still, the concerns over 1MDB seem to have gained traction.

“We have been talking about and highlighting 1MDB for the last five years, and although it slowly gained momentum as a national issue, things changed the moment Mahathir picked 1MDB as an issue to bring down Najib,” said Rafizi Ramli, an opposition Parliament member. “For the first time, a government scandal has reached the attention of both sides of the political divide. In fact, it’s a bipartisan issue.”

Mahathir Mohamad-2014

Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, turns 90 next month. He is forcing his way back into the center of Malaysian politics with a fire hose of criticism for the man he helped install in office, Najib Razak, the current Prime Minister.

In an interview, Mr. Mahathir lashed out at Mr. Najib for what he described as wastefulness and lavish spending. But he also broached a host of other topics, questioning the tenets of modern democracy and calling for a boycott of Myanmar over its persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority there.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

On the splintering of Malaysian politics:

The reason why Malaysia has managed to remain stable and to grow economically was because there was one big coalition of parties. But now you can see there’s a breakup. What will happen in the next election is that no one will be able to gain a majority. This, of course, leads to instability.

On the current Prime Minister:

I had always supported Najib. I was in a way instrumental in his becoming Prime Minister. [But] the apparent disappearance of huge sums of money. This is not good. He has never been able to explain how the money was spent. He wants to leave his own legacy. But what he does is verging on criminal. He’s going to lose in the next election.

On the prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor:

She projects herself too much. Normally, the wife of the Prime Minister should be in the background supporting the husband.

On Western-style democracy in Asia:

If you look at the history of democracy, initially it was all about the right of the people to choose their own leaders. Since then, we have added more things to democracy. You must have this freedom and that freedom. I know what is wrong about democracy. It is when people interpret it wrongly. And they seem to think that liberty, freedom is absolute. It’s not.

On the use of detention without trial:

Running a country is not just about being nice. Sometimes you have to be nasty to people who have evil intentions.

Farah Ann Abdul Hadi

On a Muslim Malaysian gymnast who was criticized by religious leaders for wearing what they described as a revealing outfit:

I feel that these people are interpreting the religion in the wrong way. The religion is not wrong. It is these people who interpret it to suit their own purpose.

On how to deal with conservative Islamists:

You have to reply to them in the language of the religion. But if you say, ‘This is not constitutionally right,’ it’s not going to work.

On Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya:

The Rohingyas3

This country claims that the Rohingya are not their people. They’ve been there for 800 years, much longer than the Chinese in Malaysia. The atrocities committed are terrible. They killed and burned people, they beat people to death. In this day and age, people should not behave like that. AASEN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] should do something. If necessary, I think I would expel this country. It’s terrible. The whole world should boycott this country.

On the reasons he has turned against his anointed successors three times:

They all looked good to me before they held power, but they don’t seem to manage power. They seem to think that power is to satisfy their own ambition. Power is there to serve the people. It’s not for enriching yourself and living a high life.

On turning 90 next month:

I never thought I would reach 90(July 16)