Rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia

July 11, 2018

Rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia

by Tan Zi Hao

Tan Zi Hao is a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is also a conceptual artist whose artworks can be viewed at As both artist and writer, he is interested in the arts, language, cultural politics and mobilities.

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Despite the game-changing outcome of the 14th General Election, the spectre of race lingers in Malaysia. Appointing an ethnic Indian and Christian Tommy Thomas as the Attorney General has already attracted some predictable flak. When Hindu Rights Action Force 2.0 (Hindraf 2.0, a Hindraf splinter group) demanded that MARA University of Technology (UiTM) be opened to entry by all races, an online petition was immediately kickstarted and has collected more than 150,000 signatures in the first two days. The new Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng—also Malaysia’s second Chinese finance minister after a 44-year break—was condemned for uploading a Mandarin translation of his statement, even though it was officially released in Malay, and later translated to both English and Mandarin.

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If race remains as a potent category of exclusion, its perpetuation must have an emotional appeal rooted in the realities and assumptions of those who embrace it. However, public intellectuals who wish to do away with racism tend to give a response that is dismissive in nature: sociologist Kua Kia Soong proposes outlawing racism, law lecturer Azmi Sharom considers racists bereft of ideas, Dialog Rakyat committee member and academician Omar Abdul Rahman pushes for a greater collective effort in eradicating racism.

But these criticisms refuse to acknowledge the sentimental affect of racism. Key to most racial thinking is the seductive appeal of imagining one’s own race as a living minority in need of some protection. It enables a majority to be convinced of their own vulnerability, and to live as, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, an “imagined” minority. Without a doubt, the most vocal imagined minorities in Malaysia are the ethnic Malay majority, and the largest ethnic Chinese minority. They are the two “racialised” ethnic groups who succeed in the enterprise of self-minoritisation.

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To be an imagined minority is not only to assume victimhood, but to believe in the appeal that one’s own vulnerability is racially unique and significantly more urgent than that of others. The more vulnerable your “race”, the better your prospects. Unsurprisingly, the most controversial of all race-related debates in Malaysia revolved around the competitive narcissistic posturing of the Malays and Chinese. Actually-existing minorities—such as the Orang Asli, Orang Ulu and Dayak, or Anak Negeri—hardly make the cut.

The Malays and Chinese each have at their own disposal a plethora of rhetoric to foster their brand of imagined minorities. Among this is their special attention directed to tradition and heritage. From national institutions (e.g. Muzium Negara, and the Malay Heritage Museum) to privately-funded Chinese cultural institutions (e.g. the Malaysian Chinese Museum or Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum), in museumising what is in dire need of preservation they are able to articulate better their vulnerability.

Each of these museums emphasises narratives of loss and sacrifice, while de-emphasising narratives of elitism and privilege. Whenever narratives of privilege are presented, they are framed as an overdue accomplishment, an exemplary success whose arrival is the fruit of previous sacrifices. Additionally, while anti-colonial struggles are highlighted and detailed, complicity with colonialism is sloppily summarised and omitted.

Beyond infrastructural facilities, another effort in self-minoritisation is to think through racially-oriented solidarity movements and protests. For the Malays, Muslim solidarity movements with the Palestinians, Rohingyas, Pattanis, or Moros, yield a new awareness of being an imagined minority in places beyond Malaysia; for the Chinese, issues pertaining to the dignity of the Chinese language and the official recognition of Chinese independent high schools offer an avenue through which the imagination of being minorities can be constantly reinvigorated.

These movements are valid political expressions. But it remains crucial to question their almost organic proclivity for attracting only a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group. At the outset, their protests appear as reactionary and racially exclusivist, but in fact the principal premise is strikingly similar: a vulnerable minority against a dominant majority, the powerless against the powerful. The very impossibility of imagining cross-ethnic solidarities in these essentially anti-hegemonic movements in Malaysia is, in and of itself, a testament to how one is more appealed to race (or religion) than to the actual oppression at stake.

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That these solidarity movements only lend credence to identitarianism should compel us to question the limits of solidarity among Malaysians. Can a Malay who antagonise the Israeli occupation of Palestine stand in solidarity with a Chinese who calls for the abolishment of Bumiputra policies in Malaysia? Can a Chinese who insists on the recognition of Chinese independent high schools stand in solidarity with a Malay who demands for the recognition of the Pattanis in Thailand’s deep south?

More provocatively, can a Malay who applauds Indonesia’s assimilationism that had stigmatised and marginalised the Indonesian Chinese minority truly empathise with the marginalised Pattanis?

Truly empathise with the marginalised Pattanis? Can a Chinese who disregards the implicit Chinese privilege in Singapore genuinely lament the prejudicial effects of Bumiputra privilege in Malaysia?

These hypothetical questions, at a cursory glance, have little to do with race, but they bespeak the exclusionary temperaments of racial thinking.

The affect that these protests reveal, or at any rate create, is more fundamental than what the movements advocate. One finds in these ritualistic public demonstrations the highest realisation of imagined minorities: the subliminal emphasis on racial–religious identity over power inequality helps mould the psychological temperament that one is born into victimhood. They become symbolic tokens for self-minoritisation. Whereas the abovementioned museums exhibit narratives of loss and sacrifice, these protests stage and perform them, in public and in action. Under this operant self-minoritisation, it is not too far-fetched to claim that to become a “Malay-Muslim” or a “Chinese” in Malaysia, is to first learn to become a victim and to think like minorities.

“Opponents of racism need to understand that proponents of racial politics do believe in race. We need to listen to and explain these affective temperaments rather than dismissing them outright. It is only by first understanding the appeal of race and the complex imagination it summons that one can begin to find ways of uprooting racism”.–Tan Zi Hao

Many who still question why an ethnic Malay majority requires institutional protectionism miss the point. Recall what Arjun Appadurai provocatively identifies as the “anxiety of incompleteness”, whereby postcolonial ethnic majorities are burdened by an unfinished project of obtaining authenticity: equipped with temperaments of loss, a demographic majority will remain “incomplete”, “inauthentic”, and live as imagined minorities in fear of actually-existing minorities.

What is lost to the Malays in colonialism is lost to the Chinese in migration. Both imagined minorities seek to rectify their “incompleteness” by pinpointing, even racialising, one another as the dominant “imagined majorities” obstructing their attainment of an originary authenticity.

There is a seductive appeal to this track of imagination that liberal analysts and public intellectuals disregard. It is an imagination that is grounded on the fact of being “Malay” and of being “Chinese”.

However unscientific or unfounded these racial categories, the temperaments contained in them are disturbingly honest, intimately personal and subjective. Part of the affect of being “Malay” is to first identify how “Chinese” became the cause of their grievance, vice versa.

Opponents of racism need to understand that proponents of racial politics do believe in race. We need to listen to and explain these affective temperaments rather than dismissing them outright. It is only by first understanding the appeal of race and the complex imagination it summons that one can begin to find ways of uprooting racism.

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well

July 3, 2018

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well

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For decades, Asian values, under the guise of Confucianism, have been used by the region’s autocrats to ward off criticisms, mainly from the West, about their undemocratic ways. This argument’s most artful proponents are Singapore’s former Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysia’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad during his first stint as the country’s leader.

With the region in the thrall of dictatorships – from Korea’s Park Chung-hee in the north to Indonesia’s Suharto in the south – there seemed to be a seductive ring to the uniqueness of the Asian political culture.

But there is nothing quite like a few revolutions, mainly peaceful ones, to debunk the no-democracy-please-we’re-Asians theory. Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Thailand overcame repressive governments to establish democratic systems. The extent of reform may be limited, as in the instance of Myanmar, or has backslid, as in Thailand. But the trend toward democratic change has been unmistakable.

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The New Democrats in Malaysia headed by former Asian Values proponent, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad took over Putrajaya after resoundingly defeating UMNO-BN in GE-14

The most recent example is, of course, Malaysia where after 61 years of one-party rule, Malaysians staged an electoral revolt of their own and sacked the Barisan Nasional government.

So, have Asian peoples jettisoned Asian values and adopted Western ones? Of course not. Remember that for the better part of the last two centuries, much of Asia toiled under the subjugation of Western colonialism, where the concepts of freedom and universal suffrage were as alien as the languages imposed on the natives.

The truth is that, regardless of the part of the world they inhabit, man has always sought to lord over his fellow beings. But it is just as ineluctable that the masses will, at some point, rise up to show despots the boot and claim their freedoms.

To avoid sounding simplistic, however, let me point out that the factors contributing to the demise of autocratic regimes in Asia are varied. Distressed economic conditions in the Philippines and Indonesia contributed massively to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto. In Taiwan and South Korea, it was the burgeoning educated middle-class that grew intolerant of the oppressive military regimes.

Even so, these revolutions were not a result of spontaneous combustion. There were years of relentless campaigning and sacrifice by individuals who saw the need for change and, more importantly, found the courage to stand up and rattle the authoritarian cage. Regional organizations like the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, a body comprising political parties (both ruling and opposition) committed to advancing democracy in Asia, have been keeping freedom’s agenda on the front burner.

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The 1998 Reformasi paved the way for Malaysia’s New Democracy of 2018

Again, take the most recent case of Malaysia. Those who cried reformasi and fought corruption and abuse of power did not just surface during the historic elections this year. It was a struggle that spanned two decades, one which saw the opposition leaders and activists harassed, humiliated, and jailed. In the end, like in the other countries, the democrats prevailed.

The mother of all ironies is that it was Mahathir, the leader of the opposition coalition that toppled incumbent Najib Razak, who wrote in 1995 that Asia’s rejection of democracy came from the “Eastern way of thinking.”

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Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, unwilling or unable to read history, continues this charade. In a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he denied that his administration is repressive. Politics in Singapore, he insists, is the way that it is because Singaporeans voted for it. Of course, he did not mention that he had to change the rules for the presidential elections so that only his party’s nominee qualified as a candidate. There are elections and there are free and fair elections.

The not-so-hidden message for autocrats and democrats alike is that the mood in Asia has irrevocably altered. The idea that democracy is ill-suited to the Asian mind has been exposed for the propaganda that it is.

No wonder the fight for democracy is alive and well.

Chee Soon Juan is the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party and former chairperson of CALD.  

Democracy in Malaysia: Be Wary-The May 9, 2018 Moment may fritter away

July 3, 2018

Democracy in Malaysia:  Be Wary-The May 9, 2018 Moment may fritter away

 Image result for Malaysia The May 9 Moment Malaysia’s May 9 Moment was when Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail became the First Woman Deputy Prime Minister in the country’s history. 

COMMENT | The jingle “Malaysia is truly Asia,” does not have to be completely real or empirical. Asia, with its many indigenous cultures and people, is hard to qualify through the prism of one country anyway, let alone Malaysia.

Malaysia is diverse but not that diverse. This is a fact. India has more ethnic groups and sub-groups. Then, there is China. Another behemoth.

Officially, China has 55 ethnic groups, for instance. While the Han Chinese form 90 percent of the Chinese population, Beijing has the claim to be a truly Asiatic power by virtue of its ability to protect the rights of all ethnic minorities too.

Yet, not unlike India, China is unable to do well on all fronts, as Beijing’s struggle with Tibetan and Uyghur nationalism seems to be showing. In fact, one might add that China is already wrestling with its governance of Hong Kong too, since many locals resent the surge of the mainland Chinese in an already crowded city.

Since neither China nor India can be truly representative of Asia, what more can one say about Malaysia? Nothing. But then, what is the main characteristic of the region? The issue comes down to one.

The lack, or, the absence of democracy. This is why Malaysia should seize the democratic opening on May 9 to advance its unique profile as a democratic country in Asia.

To be sure, only 4.5 percent of people live in full democracies. Of the 15 million Malaysians who went to the polls on May 9, billions more are trapped in a world where “life is short, brutish and violent”, as the classic British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes once put it.

Invariably, Hobbes argued that a strong state, one based on rule of law, which he called a “Leviathan”, was needed to maintain (equitable) structure and order. Indeed, of the 165 countries studied by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 2017, 89 experienced a fall in their democratic experience and score.

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Only 27 democracies improved, while the rest stagnated. In the EIU score in 2018, Malaysia’s standing is bound to improve too. Why?

To begin with, Malaysia has had one of the most dramatic turnovers in democratic governance. The government of Pakatan Harapan, as DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang put it, had ended the reign of “kleptocracy” and “kakistocracy”.

The former was the rule of the ‘crime minister-in-chief’, as some pundits colourfully put it; while the latter was the misgovernance derived from the worst leaders available. With or without any external validation, Malaysians should be proud of May 9,that historic day.

People want a functional government

Be that as it may, the EIU score is based on the scale of 0 to 10. According to Forbes, which tracked the EIU study: “Its criteria encompass civil liberties, the electoral process and pluralism, government functionality, political participation and political culture.” The EIU study is sufficiently telling to give one a hint of what Malaysia can achieve if it aspires to it.

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Pakatan Harapan Leaders–How will they govern now that they have taken over Putrajaya?

Being a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan is by no means perfect. In fact, Liew Chin Tong , one of the many electoral strategists of the DAP, is right to warn that the voters now demand a functional government, not a dysfunctional one.

If Pakatan Harapan lends itself to being a flawed government, the voters would have no qualms to throw it out since the peaceful transition of government has now been seen, and expected by the majority of Malaysians, as a “norm”. Besides, loose electoral pacts appear to be the new norm as well. The relationship between Pakatan Harapan and Warisan in Sabah, for instance, is the benchmark of how Malaysian federalism can work.

Members of Parliament (MPs) from UMNO who have dropped out of their party appear adept at becoming “independents”; a phenomenon that will continue as MPs swivel to Putrajaya as a matter of ensuring their own relevance.

In 2017, Norway was ranked the world’s best democracy, recording the highest score across the above criteria, 9.87. Two other Northern European countries, Iceland and Sweden, came second with scores of 9.58 and 9.39 respectively.

In last year’s study, the United States was downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” and in the 2017 edition, it only came 21st overall, with a score of 7.98.

Malaysia lacks all the financial and institutional resources of Norway, Iceland, Sweden and the United States. Thus Malaysia is starting at a deficit when it comes to touting our democratic credentials.

For example, Malaysia has not become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council again. Thus, it cannot promote itself on the world stage. Nor is Malaysia the chair of ASEAN, unlike Singapore currently. Next year the chairmanship will go to Thailand, after which Vietnam will be the chair in 2020.

Not unless Malaysia requests Hanoi to give way, which was a privilege exercised by Indonesia in 2005, in order to serve as a catalyst of ASEAN Community. Malaysia will lack such region-wide events to promote itself as a “new democratic model of Asia.”

Whatever Malaysia does between 2018-2020 will be vital. First, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad would begin to have the world wondering if the promised handover to Anwar Ibrahim would happen as what had been scripted?

Second, Malaysia would almost be at the halfway line of its five-year tenure. Would it manage to balance the book in order to reduce the national debt? These are unknown unknowns.

But Malaysia now belongs to the top five percent of the global population that enjoys some semblance of democracy. Malaysia is not perfect but it is now a precocious model that can combine the best of Islam and democracy.

Therefore, it must find a way to promote and position itself as the best Asian democracy bar none, combining the best of Islamic political practices that emphasise the importance of honesty and accountability.

PHAR KIM BENG is a Harvard/Cambridge Commonwealth Fellow, a former Monbusho scholar at the University of Tokyo and visiting scholar at Waseda University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game

July 1, 2018

Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game

by Dr. James Chin, University of Tasmania


“Over the next year, expect more UMNO businessmen and opposition politicians to move into the PH camp, all claiming to be closet supporters of PH. The “cari makan” political culture may be the hardest thing to reform in Malaysia—I would say it’s impossible, even under a reformist PH government. It is, at the end of the day, human nature”.–Dr. James Chin


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Missing in Action–The Super Carma (Cari Makan ) Irwan Serigar Abdullah

Over the past several weeks, much of Malaysia’s elite has been playing the game of “pusing” (Malay for turnaround), or as one businessmen told me, learning to “gostan” (Malay contraction of “go astern”). In popular usage, it means to reverse back. This is how it works: many in the Malaysian elite are now claiming to be closet supporters of Dr Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or alliance of hope) coalition. Some claimed to have secretly “sponsored” the campaigns of PH candidates.

In an infamous blog entry, Making Beeline to Curry Favour with Dr M, one of Mahathir’s closest political allies Abdul Kadir Jasin wrote:

“Last evening I was invited for a berbuka puasa with the Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at the Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) in Putrajaya…I saw many familiar faces—men and women—who during good and bad times had stuck with THE man…But I also saw many who had been absent from his berbuka puasa and other functions for quite a few years. I felt no sense of remorse when I greeted them with disdain…When Dr Mahathir was in power they celebrated him as if he was a ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (Chinese diety) and man of miracle. He was lavishly praised and even more lavishly feasted…But when he left office but yet continuing to care for the country, many of these people abandoned him for fear that supporting or just being seen with him would jeopardise their billion-dollar contracts, projects concessions, or subject them to the scrutiny of the Inland Revenue Board…The mere mention of Dr Mahathir caused them to cringe…Their hypocrisy and lack shame put me off. But still I accepted their handshake for the sake civility and common courtesy…”

While crony capitalism is found throughout Southeast Asia (yes, even in Singapore), in Malaysia the cronies never had to “pusing” or “gostan” at such a rapid pace. The assumption was that UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN) would remain in power for the foreseeable future. Thus the 9 May outcome was akin to suffering the first heart attack.

Unlike the West, political hypocrisy and the practice of switching political support for personal gain in Malaysia is often regarded as simply “cari makan” or earning a living. There is no political shame in “pusing” if the ultimate aim is to “cari makan”. In other words, you do whatever is necessary to get the government contract, or better, to get into government. Former prime minister Najib Razak was fond of saying that his political philosophy is “Cash is king”. During Najib’s era, “dedak” was the common term used to describe the use of bribes to buy political support.

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The culture of “cari makan” had such an omnipresence in Malaysian politics that almost all the tycoons you see today in Malaysia are linked either to Mahathir or Najib. It was an open secret which tycoon was linked to each leader, such that the stock market in Malaysia had “political counters”, where certain companies were owned by these tycoons. It is not uncommon for the shares of these companies to move according to the latest rumour regarding the tycoon’s relationship status with the incumbent PM.

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He is still around and adapting to the new politics–Dr. Ali Hamsa

Those who came up in the 1980s and 1990s were handpicked by Mahathir and former Finance Minister and now chair of the Council of Eminent Persons Daim Zainuddin. In the past decade, another group of tycoons came up under the patronage of Najib. It was taken for granted that you could not become a business tycoon overnight in Malaysia without connections to the incumbent PM.

“Pusing” and “cari makan” politics is most acute in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Not only is it done openly at every elections, it is celebrated with a local word “katak” (or political frog), which essentially describes what happens as entire political parties and just-elected individuals move to the winning side on elections night. For political parties, it’s mostly about getting into government. For individuals, it can mean a sudden cash windfall. Sometimes, you can even “katak” twice or more for such gains.

The most recent example of this was on the night of GE14, when it became clear that Parti Warisan were in a position to form a new state government—United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO), a BN-component party, announced it was defecting to Warisan to give it a clear majority to form the next state government. Two days later, four Sabah UMNO state assemblymen defected as well, giving Parti Warisan a clear majority in the state assembly.

In neighbouring Sarawak, two just-elected MPs joined the PH coalition once it was clear PH had formed the federal government. The sole MP from the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) tried but failed to defect to PH.

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Across the sea, Malaya is fast catching up on “katak” politics. Within a few days of PH’s victory, five BN state assemblymen defected to PH, giving the Johor and Perak PH state governments their majorities. More would actually like to defect but they cannot do so now because of the raw feelings generated in the recent campaign. It’s likely when things calm down, more elected BN representatives will move to PH.

While many would see these moves as opportunistic, many of those defecting justify it on the grounds that under the present political system, they can only resolve their constituency issues if they are part of the ruling coalition.

When BN was in power, individual BN MPs were given between RM1 to RM5 million ($337,000 to $1.69 million) to spend on their constituencies. Opposition MPs got zero funding. These funds are spent on any events or projects approved by the MP without the need for another layer of official approval. BN MPs would normally use this slush fund for small projects or events to increase their personal support among their constituents. Opposition MPs see the funds as nothing more than blatant vote buying.

The new PH government has continued the practice but with a slight modification. PH MPs will get RM500,000 ($169,000) while Opposition MPs will get RM100,000, or a fifth of what a government MP gets.

Over the next year, expect more UMNO businessmen and opposition politicians to move into the PH camp, all claiming to be closet supporters of PH. The “cari makan” political culture may be the hardest thing to reform in Malaysia—I would say it’s impossible, even under a reformist PH government. It is, at the end of the day, human nature.

Najib And Rosmah – ‘Over RM100 Billion’ Stashed In Foreign Bank Accounts

July 1, 2018


Najib And Rosmah – ‘Over RM100 Billion’ Stashed In Foreign Bank Accounts

Malaysians have months and months of high profile news to come on the decades of kleptocracy.  The only good news being that with so much potentially retrievable from Najib and Rosmah’s global treasure troves, much of the damage can be repaired and meanwhile UMNO is busy digging its own grave.

by Sarawak Report

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Go to sleep, Mr. Najib while you can before hell on earth comes to you and your wicked wife Rosmah Mansor. Greed and power destroyed you.

The decision of the Malaysian people to vote in Harapan with a reform agenda on May 9th in many ways seemed to close a chapter on past misdeeds.  However, as the daily headlines show, it will be some time before the true scale of kleptocratic looting from Malaysia has been revealed.

Indeed, the one billion ringgit treasure haul, garnered from the Najib residences after the election, appears to represent relative trinkets knocking around the house, compared to the real hoard, safely locked up elsewhere.

Sarawak Report has it on good authority, for example, that two privately chartered jets arrived from Saudi late on the night of the shock election result, courtesy of the good offices of a relative of an executive of PetroSaudi.  Owing to the denial of formal landing rights, they are believed to have departed without the intended primary passengers, Najib and Rosmah.

However, a stash of precious items, including a certain pink diamond, is believed to have been brought on board and accompanied out of the country by senior personnel.

A separate source, with business connections to the couple, has further told Sarawak Report that to their “certain knowledge” deals they have information on amounted to considerably over RM100 billion in profits, which were banked abroad.  The source says they were personally involved in stashing much of the money into mainstream accounts in Hong Kong.

‘We Need To Change”

The exposure that such devastating sums of hot money, travelled into what the source says included major Swiss and German banks, looks set to rock the global financial system for years to come, keeping the issues of Malaysian kleptocracy in the news for the foreseeable future.

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Yet, only for the first time this weekend, have we seen an apparent acknowledgement of at least some guilt on the part of Najib himself. In an extraordinary speech the ex-Prime Minister, after weeks of denials, admitted to the system of ‘money politics’, that he had presided over and suggested UMNO clean up its act.

Najib admitted, for example, that secret sums of cash had been sent out to division heads in advance of the election to buy votes, but complained some had purloined the cash instead:

“Maybe God wanted to teach us a lesson for our weaknesses. We must repent and correct our ways,” ….

“In the last general election, we lost to a party that did not spend much money; we did not know where their divisional offices were, their canopies were the earliest to close, but even when we flocked to our canopies, we still lost.

“There were those who sulked when they didn’t get allocations. There were those who did get money but said they didn’t. Then, there were candidates who received allocations but did not spend it.

“How are we supposed to win when our attitude is like that?’ he added. [Malaysiakni and others]

The fact that the UMNO machine failed to operate ‘as normal’ at GE-14 was one of the key identifiable factors in the loss of the election.  It is also why UMNO leaders in a recent poll blamed Najib above all as the main factor in the defeat.

Confronted with his example, as a leader who together with his wife has blatantly stolen billions, and fearful of the outcome of the elections, it appears that party officials simply opted to keep the cash handouts, instead of spending it on ceramahs and bribes to voters at the polling booths.

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Najib has reaped what he sowed in that respect, yet he still had the brass neck to condemn the freezing of UMNO accounts as an ‘assault on democracy

The remnants of that party have just relected Najib’s appointed former Deputy as leader, a man who was not only prepared to support a kleptocrat by covering up blatant thefts and the unconsitutional sacking of his predecessor and Attorney General, but also to lie and pretend he had met the fictitious ‘prince’, who allegedly provided Najib with the 1MDB stolen cash.

The choice is hardly surprising, because only 1% of those remaining UMNO members in a recent poll considered “honesty and trustworthyness” of importance in deciding their next leader!

Malaysians have months and months of high profile news to come on the decades of kleptocracy.  The only good news being that with so much potentially retrievable from Najib and Rosmah’s global treasure troves, much of the damage can be repaired and meanwhile UMNO is busy digging its own grave.

Dissecting the 2018 Election in Malaysia

June 28, 2018

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Dissecting the 2018 Election in Malaysia: The End of Cronyism?

Left to Right: Asia Centre co-founder and Chairman, Board of Directors Dr. James Gomez; Dr. Victor Karunan; Mr. Lutfi Hakim; Prof. Dr. Mohd Azizuddin bin Mohd Sani; Mr. Scott Edwards; Asia Centre co-founder and Executive Director Dr. Robin Ramcharan

The key challenge of undoing six decades of cronyism, patronage and money politics was a central point highlighted during Asia Centre’s Roundtable discussion on the Malaysian elections held in May 2018. Despite the political earthquake, the end of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule in Malaysia after 61 years and the defeat of former Prime Minister Najib’s government, fundamental change is not guaranteed.

All speakers at the roundtable, held on 22 June 2018 at Asia Centre, observed this critical point. It remains to be seen if the new government of Pakatan Harapan (PH) can usher out the politics of ‘money, race and patronage’.  After all, PH is led by a member of the old guard, 92-year old PM Mahathir, who had mentored former PM Najib  and helped to build up that system.

PM-in-waiting, 70-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, has forged an alliance of convenience with his former mentor and tormentor, Mahathir. Should Anwar be designated PM, is he likely to bring fundamental change?

The desire for change among a large percentage of the youth was raised as a factor tipping the balance in favour of PH, which appeared on the political scene at the perfect time. Another key immediate factor was the disaffection of voters with the well-documented corruption scandals rocking former PM Najib, which resulted in a drift towards authoritarianism and harassment of political opposition to his Government.

Creeping authoritarianism, including recent attempts to stifle freedom of expression through hastily passed ‘fake news laws’ prior to the election, was a noticeable feature of the Najib’s rule over the past decade, amidst other longer term factors affecting the election. Already in the 2013 election, it became apparent that minority groups, notably Malaysian Chinese,were less willing to accept the national affirmative action plan that has privileged the Bumiputra. Indigenous peoples, such as the Orang Asli, also have become wary of their routine treatment by politicians as ‘second class’ citizens.

Splits in the BN coalition had begun to appear well before May 2018. In addition, the new administration will need to contend with an economy that has featured rising costs of living in recent years.

Resolute action to tackle these deeper problems will be a drawn out affair, especially in the uncertain leadership transition that is set to take place in two years, with Anwar assuming the mantle of Prime Minister, while his family presumably gives way as he succeeds.

The rich discussion was moderated by Dr. Robin Ramcharan of Asia Centre. The discussion was animated by expert commentators from Malaysia and the UK: Dr. Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani (PhD), Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM); Mr. Lutfi Hakim, independent consultant and an associate of IMAN Research, where he was previously a research lead; Dr. Victor Karunen, lecturer and former UN official with UNICEF; and Mr. Scott Edwards, doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Cooperation, Conflict, and Security (ICCS).

The Roundtable set the scene at Asia Centre’s third anniversary celebrations, where Asia Centre announced its new branch in Malaysia. The second Centre in Johor Bahru will be rolled out over 2018-2019. All expressions of interest for collaboration in Malaysia can be sent to



Photos from the event are available here. This event was held with the support of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.