Malaysia: The Economy is in bad shape. Thank you, UMNO


September 18, 2018

Malaysia: The Economy is in bad shape. Thank you, UMNO

by Phar Kim Beng@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Najib Razak is Malaysia's best economist

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak should be awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics for his management of the Malaysian Economy. He pioneered the 1MDB method of robbing the Malaysian Treasury.

COMMENT | The Malaysian economy is in bad shape. Very bad.

Revisiting the 2014 magnum opus of the Prime Minister’s new Economic Advisor Dr. Muhammed Abdul Khalid, The Colour of Inequality: Ethnicity, Class, Income and Wealth in Malaysia, we see that Malaysia’s income gap has not changed much from 1957 levels, when the country first gained independence.

Between 1990 and 2018, Malaysians on the whole gained little, except the very rich. Muhammed describes a small breakthrough in 2012, but there is no telling if this was due to fiscal spending to ward off the effects of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

Muhammed’s reliance on the Statistics Department’s Household Income Survey, while illuminating, is not entirely convincing, especially when paired with numbers or assertions culled from Pemandu, the now-defunct government-funded performance delivery unit.

Image result for The poor in kuala lumpur

 

In other words, the actual picture of the Malaysian economy could be worse than what Muhammed actually describes.

Income from the manufacturing sector, for example, has been on the decline, which may be due to the over-reliance on cheap foreign labour – with an estimated 5.5 million migrant workers in the country – which further depresses the cycle of Malaysian wages.

Indeed, Muhammed correctly notes that “90 percent of each ethnic group does not have any liquid savings, and would not be able to survive more than few months in case they lose their source of income or employment”.

Ticking time bomb

This is not a very pleasant picture, even if it is colour blind. Why? The danger lies in the ticking time bomb that cuts across all races and groups. When the income chasm widens, people tend to blame one another for their problems, which in turn accentuates social, political, religious and racial tensions.

While democracy can ameliorate the tensions, it cannot overcome them completely. What democracy cannot structurally and systematically solve, groups of all religious and ideological fancies might rise to plug the policy gaps. When they do so, inter- and intra-ideological or religious pressures will only become more acute.

When political parties refuse to have elections, or postpone them indefinitely, they become blindsided by what the people want, which in turn hastens their own demise, as witnessed with Umno and BN.

Knowingly or unknowingly, as the book was completed well before the May 9 polls in which a kleptocracy was defeated, the above was one of the key takeaways of Muhammed’s simple but sophisticated book.

A bad economy will skew a political party’s fate, even if it well-larded with cash, corruption and connections. Reading the book now, after the 14th general election, it almost seems like a eulogy to UMNO-BN.

Barely a trickle

But The Colour of Inequality is also a sad indictment of how politicians and corporate leaders have steered the mighty Malaysian ship aground.

Image result for the colour of inequality ethnicity class income and wealth in malaysia

As Muhammed (photo, below) notes, most companies simply refuse to pay their workers well. When they don’t, and with less than nine percent of workers unionised, the bargaining power of the workers is overwhelmingly diminished, leaving them to the mercy of their corporate masters.

 

If the book is anything go by, the whole of Malaysia is sputtering to a halt – despite a GDP that “grew from RM5.1 billion in 1957 to RM1 trillion in 2012”. With the national debt now standing at RM1.09 trillion, Malaysia is caught in the vice-like middle-income trap.

The infamous trickle-down economics, for the lack of a better term, is not just non-existent here; wealth seems to be flowing upwards. Given when it was written, The Colour of Inequality references the Occupy Wall Street, where the 99 percent were trying, seemingly in vain, to challenge the grip of the exalted one percent.

In any case, widespread disempowerment is a phenomenon that should not be happening if the state and the market, as is the case in Malaysia, have vouched to work in tandem to help the poor – as reflected in the National Economic Policy and its derivatives.

But although Malaysia as a whole was becoming richer, the income differentials of Malaysians is growing wider. The lethal brew of myriad income determinants and gangly systems of income distribution have conspired to render the middle and working classes disempowered.

As Muhammed puts it: “(As of 2012), the top 20 percent held more than 52.1 percent of all wealth, while the bottom 40 percent held less than eight percent. The distribution of liquid assets was very extreme – the top 20 percent had 95 percent of all financial wealth, while the bottom 80 percent had only five percent.”This shouldn’t be happening

This process of emasculation should not be happening. Especially not after 61 years of independence.

In 1958, there were only 3,000 Malay taxpayers out of the overall of 33,000 taxpayers. A decade later, of the 1,488 students in Universiti Malaya – the only university in the country at the time – who graduated with a BSc, only 69 were Malays. Only four of the 408 who graduated with an engineering degree were Malays.

“During the same period,” Muhammed adds, “only 12 Malays graduated from the medical faculty, representing less than 10 percent of the total medical faculty graduates.”

But while the number of Malay graduates, technocrats and universities between 1970-2018 have risen dramatically, the chasm between rich and poor continues to stay the same, if not widened.

Statistics from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) show that 92 percent of the people are earning less than RM 6,000 a month; four out of 10 Malaysians have no pensions at all; close to 40 percent earn less than RM3,000 per month; 25 percent of Malaysians have no properties to their names; and the money that pilgrims save for the hajj is spent entirely on the hajj, leaving their children with nothing to draw on.

Muhammed adds that it is “estimated that there were only 150,000 inter (-racial) marriages in Malaysia, a small figure in a population of 28 million”. Wealth, or, the lack of it, tends to have the same clustering effects in one group and one race.

An epilogue

One thing that Muhammed does not address at length is the extent to which the state can compel GLCs and GLICs to remunerate their workers well, or at least put a cap on the salary differentials between those at the top and the workers at the bottom.

Additionally, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, the honeycomb, gig, platform and sharing economy has emerged. If more people put their minds together, more bottom-up solutions – as manifested by Uber, Grab, Air BnB and other forms of electronic commerce – can and will emerge.

But are Malaysians ready for this, beyond the template of the digital free trade zone offered by Alibaba? Or will the proverbial cheese of Malaysians once again be consumed wholesale by a flood of new migrants from China, India and the rest of the world?

Come what may, Malaysians have to work together and understand the structural and systemic reforms that are needed beyond the mere creation of a few digital unicorns.

They need to empower themselves through education, especially online education, even if this involves disciplining themselves to start taking self-enrichment courses – including learning management systems such as edX or Class Central.

If anyone is in need of more inspiration, Muhammed’s book is the best place to start.

The Colour of Inequality, if not redressed, will lead to the panic of inequality, in which only the paranoid will survive. Especially because it is only another 20 years or so before Malaysia starts greying, a process that took European societies a century to experience.


PHAR KIM BENG was a multiple award-winning Head Teaching Fellow on China and Cultural Revolution in Harvard University.

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

Fact-checked journalism must endure


August 12, 2018

Fact-checked journalism must endure

Image result for christiane amanpour quote on journalism

“There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.”–CNN’s Christiane Amanpour

 

COMMENT | If the media are to be socially constructive, they must rely on the journalist’s intelligent understanding and reporting of issues. This can only come about if journalists are themselves intelligently informed.

That’s the basic premise of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) seminar on media training in Kuala Lumpur in June 1973.

Journalism has changed radically since then – from the makeup and digital literacy of the readers to the multitasking required of journalists to write for a newspaper and produce an online package for the same story on the same day.

Journalists are no longer the main purveyor of news. Readers are now able to circulate their version of the same story on social media sites, which add another level of complexity to today’s journalism – the tussle between “journalistic truth” and “fluid truth”, “real news” and “fake news”. Do we even care about the truth these days?

The line separating “truth” and “falsehoods” is constantly shifting, depending on who you ask. And, the difference between real and fake news is unclear – so vague that “fake news” has become a catch-all term to mean anything that we don’t like, particularly information that strikes at our core values.

US President Donald Trump (photo) has appropriated the term to demonise the media that are hypercritical of his presidency. Trump has wilfully engaged in deceptive political tweets to mislead and disinform, as do many conspiracy theorists.

POTUS 45 is the Slayer of American Journalism–Putting Josef Goebbels to shame

Rookie and poorly trained journalists are not immune to the fake news phenomenon either. J–ournalists do misinform when they report inaccuracies because they did not do their research or quote a source out of context.

But when sources knowingly circulate false information and dress it up to look like real news to mislead and manipulate, that’s disinforming.

That’s pandering to the inherent biases we hold of particular issues and people. Herein lies the “fake news” menace – to deceive for political ends.

The spread of disinformation has caused the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information (AMRI) to jointly declare on May 10 a framework to stem the flow of “fake news”.

The Poynter Institute has also initiated an International Fact-Checking Network to counter the “fake news” phenomenon .(https://ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org/ )

April 2 was even named as a global fact-checking day. Computer programs are being designed to help readers sieve falsehoods from the “truth”.

Restoring public trust

Image result for Award Winning CNN Arwa Damon in Iraq

Ultimately, fact-checked and research-based journalism must endure, especially in the Malaysian media context. Pakatan Harapan’s ousting of decades of BN rule has given our journalists a shot at doing their job better.

The nascent freedom to speak truth to power, the freedom to critically report and boldly investigate should ideally lead to a positive change in Malaysian journalism. Greater freedom, however, does not necessarily lead to quality journalism.

 

Higher standards can only be achieved if the editorial leadership and newsroom environment are firmly committed to fair, accurate, contextual and investigative reporting. Journalists must be led by the facts. Only then can the mainstream media reclaim what they have lost – their public trust and credibility – during decades of acting as BN’s lapdogs.

Image result for Malaysiakini under attack

Malaysiakini–Malaysia’s Foremost Web-Paper–refuses to be intimidated by Najib Razak’s UMNO-BN Government

Decades of BN’s hold on the media and political affiliations of the top brass in the mainstream media have for too long stifled the advancement of Malaysian journalism. For too long, the mainstream media have aligned its op-eds and narratives with the BN agendas. They have pandered to the interests of those in power rather than address the concerns of the people.

Returning media to people

Which reminds me of what the former rural affairs editor of Indian newspaper The Hindu, P Sainath said about returning the media to the people.

I met Sainath at his home many years ago in Mumbai during one of my research trips. In a 2016 lecture he gave in New Delhi, he said: “We have a media (in India) that is driven by revenue, not by reality; by commerce, not by community; by profit, not by people; by narrow corporate greed, not by news judgement. Media, journalism, art and literature did not come out of corporate investments, they came out of communities and societies, we need to return them to the people.”

To return Malaysian journalism to the people, the first step is to appoint an internal readers’ advocate, or a “public editor” as The New York Times once named it. The advocate will act as an internal media watchdog of fair, ethical and accurate reporting.

 

He or she will receive and examine complaints of unfair reporting from readers and assess such complaints. The news organisation will then publish the assessment in either the letters or op-ed page.

The advocate will write a monthly summary to be published by the respective paper, and at the end of the financial year in the annual report to inform their shareholders. That’s a form of media audit.

The second step is to integrate stringent fact-checking into the daily news reporting and production. True, reporters are expected to check their stories, and have them checked again by their news editors.

With the fast turnover of news, however, this task should be delegated to fact-checkers. Their main job is to check the veracity of statements, claims and opinions of various sources multiple times. Self-regulation in the newsroom is certainly preferred to government legislation – and it works better in raising standards.

Malaysian journalists should also undergo continual professional training to enhance their skills in critical observations and analyses of issues to serve the public interest.

Training should focus on developing proactive reporting or solutions-oriented journalism, probing interviews, fact-checking, data analyses, and in depth research. An in-house training curricula can be designed alongside local and regional media training organisations.

If the mainstream media initiate these internal reform measures, we may see some improvements in the quality of news coverage and analyses. The media will in good time earn back the public trust, and consequently maximise its profitability.


ERIC LOO is Senior Fellow (Journalism) at the School of the Arts, English & Media, Faculty of Law Humanities & Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia. He is also the founding editor of Asia Pacific Media Educator.

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

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Interview: The New Malaysia


July 6, 2018

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Interview: The New Malaysia

The early signs of the New Malaysia, like 1Malaysia, are hopeful and exciting. But I hope Pakatan leaders do not let power  go to their heads. I am personally prepared to give them time since cultural change takes time. 60 years of UMNO–Culture of Corruption and Mediocrity will be difficult to change. That’s why Tun  Dr. Mahathir’s Cabinet comprises young ministers in the majority.

The civil service must be revamped and top civil servants who were associated with the previous corrupt regime should be replaced and the public service should be competent, transparent and accountable. A Culture of Competency and Meritocracy must,therefore,  be the order of the day. The quota system, for example, should replaced so the civil service must not be dominated by one race. –Din Merican

 

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well


July 3, 2018

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well

Image result for chee soon juan

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.

Image result for Democracy in Malaysia

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.

Image result for reformasi malaysia 1998

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.”

Image result for CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Lee Hsien Loong

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.  

Mahathir’s Bersatu– A Reformed UMNO?


June 25, 2018

Mahathir’s Bersatu– A Reformed UMNO?

by S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

“We belong to a plural society and in this society, the Malay-bumiputera agenda must be carried out.”

– UMNO Acting President Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

 

COMMENT | Since I fancy myself as a sort of political Cassandra as opposed to a political Pollyanna, I am always interested in what former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim has to say about Malay politics. His recent comments about how UMNO is not completely destroyed and has to reinvent itself has become a political Rorschach test for people who voted for Pakatan Harapan.

Image result for Najib Razak visits Anwar in Hospital

 

I wrote about this when Prime Minister (then) Najib Abdul Razak visited Anwar when he was recovering from surgery last year – “Despite establishment narratives that non-Malays – the Chinese specifically – seek to supplant Malay/Muslim power in Malaysia, the reality is that this could never happen. Why this is the case is beyond the scope of this article, but since Malay powerbrokers hold the keys to Putrajaya, the sight of Malay political opponents meeting always arouses speculation and yes, insecurity amongst the non-Malay demographic, especially those invested in regime change.”

Add to this, Najib’s telephone conversations with Anwar on the night of May 9, the seemingly never-ending public squabbles of PKR, the narratives of how Anwar “can’t be trusted”, the perception that PKR’s schism is the foundation for collusion with UMNO or PAS, and anything Anwar says is an invitation to vilify the former political operative who laid the foundation for the eventual takeover of Putrajaya.

Image result for Mahathir and UMNO

“It is no longer enough to remove Najib Razak from power. UMNO itself must be defeated”, Dr. Mahathir said. Will he  break up the political party he created in 1985 and abandon the Malay agenda he initiated when he first came to power in 1981 and held to the premiership for 22+ years?

I have always cautioned that this idea that UMNO and all it stands for is a relic of bygone Malaysia is foolish. Race and religious politics are sown into the fabric of Harapan with materials provided by the former UMNO regime. UMNO and PAS, and those that voted for them – comprising about 52 percent of the popular votes in GE-14 – are a formidable base which is currently being ignored by the numerous changes taking place in this country.

Let us forget about the narratives of a possible collusion by elements in Harapan and UMNO for a moment. Some folks have said that the people are the opposition. Great, but who do Malaysians vote for if Harapan does not live up to expectations in the Peninsular?

I doubt Chinese support for DAP will end anytime soon and since the “running dog” narratives take some time take root, it’s all good on their front. But if you are Malay, you got a “reformed UMNO” and PAS to choose from and this is where things get dicey real fast. By “reformed”, I mean an UMNO that is still entrenched in its ideology but with a new coat of paint to regain support from the Malays who voted against Najib.

Bridge between Bersatu and DAP

In all these think pieces I read online, it is PKR that is described as the bridge between Bersatu and DAP. In other words, the bridge between the so-called rural Malays and the urban Chinese. This, of course, is often portrayed as a class issue, but public comments from various Harapan leaders betray the reality that this is a race issue.

Bersatu was supposed to be the UMNO of Harapan – the linchpin for the new deal that would ensure that the races would cooperate in the old alliance way before the dark times of UMNO ‘ketuanan’ hegemony. It did not work out that way. UMNO still commands the Malay base and now PAS is slowly demonstrating that its outlier status is a political advantage in this new Malaysia.

Public comments from certain UMNO leaders – Khairy Jamaluddin for instance – of turning UMNO into a multiracial party could be post-traumatic stress from the recent elections. However, what he does represent even though the old guard of UMNO may not like it, is a leader who balances ‘ketuanan’ ideology with the pragmatism of compromise that is needed to win the cash cows which are the so-called “urban centres” that PKR is supposedly a bridge to. The UMNO meet-up will determine which forces in the party hold sway, of course.

It remains to be seen how exactly Bersatu handles the challenge of reforming the rural polities which was needed to take Putrajaya, or so we are told. And this also involves the greater need to reform the system where dominant race-based Malay power structures rely on to sustain them.

This is important because dismantling the architecture that enables the propagandising of race and religion is needed for the survival of non-Malay power structures in the long run.  Bersatu didn’t win this election for Harapan; it was a former UMNO grand poobah, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who did. Systemic reform without any thought or consideration to reforming structures that enable race and religious imperatives to remain entrenched  is foolhardy.

Take this lowering the voting age to 18 for instance. Great idea but I really hope Harapan strategists are discovering how deep the radicalisation process is when it comes to religious schools and the like. Young Muslims from these types of schools have to wait a few years before voting but 18 is just about the right age when the propaganda and religious delusions are still fresh in their minds and they want an avenue to express them. Not to mention, the years of indoctrination by a system created by the very person who has gained messianic status by true believers.

This is where UMNO or PAS could benefit more than a regime which has to compromise on its racial and religious imperatives – Bersatu – for the sake of the multiracial power-sharing formula that BN never paid much attention to. This, of course, is but one example of the fault lines that exist when making policy.

In all cases, deradicalisation should be central even in the more obvious of policy shifts. Is the Harapan regime up to this? Only time will tell, and there is only a small window of opportunity because personalities are old and the young blood is waiting in the wings.

So how do we combat the grand narratives of Malay supremacy in Harapan and UMNO and PAS? How do we ensure that these narratives are weakened over time? Here are some points to consider.

Decentralisation

Another Malaysiakini columnist Nathaniel Tan talks about regionalism. That is an important starting point I think. Federal power should be decentralised. This halts grander narratives of Malay and Islamic hegemony with local issues that could be dealt with state power. When people have a sense that their state governments can solve their immediate needs, there is no need to kowtow to federal power which brings with it forms of subservience that is detrimental to the democratic process.

This also should extend to local council elections. This brings communities together on issues of needs. If all politics are local, then people from communities rather than political parties determine what is important to them and this also safeguards against political interference.

More importantly, the media should be regional as well. Mainstream media news outlets shape the news often ignoring state level and local community level issues. This creates the impression that federal narratives – those that involve race and religion – are monolithic. This really isn’t the case. This is not something that the state governments or the federal governments should be involved with but rather independent regional media outlets, discussing local issues and ensuring that local politics remains in the forefront.

If you are really serious about people being the opposition – whatever that means – this is a good way to do it, further weakening the grand narratives of race and religion by concentrating on local issues which sometimes have nothing to do with what goes on in the urban polities.

In order to weaken racial and religious hegemony, it is important to diffuse power. The question has always been, is there a coalition willing to do this?

When people ask me who the clear winners are in this election, my answer is always PAS. What PAS has demonstrated is that it can survive definitely without BN and time will tell if it can survive without the Harapan regime. Mind you, the relationship between PAS and Harapan has not been as fraught as it has been with UMNO.

UMNO and PAS, and once the former gets their acts together, could turn out to be a formidable opposition, especially considering that sooner rather than later, Harapan will have to tackle issues concerning race and religion. We have witnessed a distinct lack of commitment among Malay power structures to buck the Islamic and Malay trend when it comes to voting on major issues involving race and religion. Will this change now that Harapan has taken federal power?

It is nonsensical to make the argument that UMNO needs to reform – become multiracial – when the there is a Malay power structure like Bersatu in Harapan chasing the same base. The great fear of UMNO has materialised – that is, the Malays are divided.

What people should be concerned with is the interactions between diffused Malay power structures in this new political terrain, and concomitant to this, the shape these interactions coalesce into.

 

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

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

Looking Back in Time: Malaysia’s Hibiscus Revolution


June 11, 2018

Looking Back in Time: Malaysia’s Hibiscus Revolution that brought Najib’s Political Demise

by Joseph Chinyong Liow ()

https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/power-plays-and-political-crisis-in-malaysia/

Image result for the hibiscus revolution

Malaysia’s  Hibiscus Revolution started in  November, 2007

Read : http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/malaysias-hibiscus-revolution/article2227370.ece

Dark clouds have gathered over Malaysia as a crisis deepens. Two weeks ago, the country witnessed a massive street protest – dubbed Bersih (lit: “clean”) – organized by a network of civil society groups agitating for electoral reform. This was in fact the fourth iteration of the Bersih protests (Bersih also mobilized in 2007, 2011, and 2012), and managed to draw tens of thousands of participants (the exact number varies depending on who you ask). On this occasion, the protest was a culmination of widespread popular indignation at a scandal involving 1MDB, a government-owned strategic investment firm that accrued losses amounting to approximately USD10 billion over a short period of time, and the controversial “donation” of USD700 million funneled to the ruling party through the personal bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

https://i1.wp.com/gbgerakbudaya.com/bookshop/images/books/9789675832642.jpg

All this is taking place against an inauspicious backdrop of sluggish economic growth, the depreciation of the Malaysian currency, and several exposes on the extravagant lifestyle of Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

How consequential was Bersih?

Image result for Nik Nazmi and Din Merican at Bersih 1.0

Read: https://dinmerican.wordpress.com/category/ge13/page/9/

When Bersih first mobilized in 2007, it managed to harness a flood of dissatisfaction in opposition to the government of Abdullah Badawi, and contributed to major opposition political gains at the general election of 2008.

The second and third protests have also been credited as contributing factors to further opposition inroads at the 2013 polls. Assessments of the latest iteration of Bersih however, have been more equivocal. On the one hand, Bersih 4.0 indicated that the movement can still draw huge crowds and give voice to popular discontent, which continues to grow. On the other hand, analysts have called attention in particular to the comparatively weak turnout of ethnic Malays at Bersih 4.0 compared to the previous protests. This is a crucial consideration that merits elaboration if Bersih is to be assessed as an instrument for change.

Given how Malaysian politics continues to set great store by ethnic identity, the support of the Malay majority demographic is integral for any social and political change to take place. By virtue of affirmative action, ethnic Malays are privileged recipients of scholarships and public sector jobs. Therein lies the problem for any social movement agitating for change. Years of conditioning through policy and propaganda have created a heavy reliance on the state, which in essence means UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), the dominant party in the ruling coalition which Prime Minister Najib helms as party president. While it is difficult to say conclusively that this explains the tepid reaction of ethnic Malays during the Bersih protests, it is not far-fetched to hypothesize that at least a contributing factor was the fear among recipients of scholarships and public sector employees that their benefits might be jeopardized (For example, I know that scholarship holders were sent letters “dissuading” them from participating in “political activities.”).

Ultimately though, the most telling feature of the event may not have been the dearth of ethnic Malays but the presence of one particular Malay leader – Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s nonagenarian former Prime Minister and unlikely Bersih participant.

Image result for Mahathir st Bersih

Dr Mahathir Mohamad–Malaysia’s Uber-Politician

Hitherto a supporter of Prime Minister Najib, Mahathir has grown increasingly unhappy with the Prime Minister’s policies. According to Mahathir himself, attempts had been made to share his reservations with Najib in private, but they were rebuffed. Going by this account, it is not surprising that Najib’s alleged snub prompted private reservations to crescendo into harsh public criticism.

By the middle of 2014, Mahathir had assumed the role of Malaysia’s conscience to become one of the loudest critics of Najib. Asked to explain his criticisms, Mahathir reportedly responded: “I have no choice but to withdraw my support. This (referring to the act of privately reaching out to Najib) has not been effective so I have to criticize. Many policies, approaches, and actions taken by the government under Najib have destroyed interracial ties, the economy, and the country’s finances.”[1]

Today, it is Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister who was in office from 1981 to 2003, who is leading the charge to discredit Najib and have him removed from office for malfeasance. What explains Mahathir’s singleness of purpose to have Najib removed from power? Part of the answer may lie in Mahathir’s own record of political quarrels.

What lies beneath Mahathir’s attacks?

Mahathir is no stranger to bitter and bloody personal political battles. His interventions in Malaysian politics throughout his career in office are legion (and many Malaysians might also say, legendary). Longtime Malaysia watchers and critics have assailed Mahathir for his autocratic streak evident, for example, in how he emaciated the Judiciary by contriving to have supreme court judges (and on one occasion, the Lord President himself) removed from office, incapacitated the institution of the monarchy by pushing legislation that further curtailed the already-limited powers of the constitutional monarch, and suppressed opposition parties and civil society by using internal security legislation (and on one occasion, the Lord President himself) removed from office, incapacitated the institution of the monarchy by pushing legislation that further curtailed the already-limited powers of the constitutional monarch, and suppressed opposition parties and civil society by using internal security legislation against them.

Mahathir was no less ruthless within UMNO, where he brooked no opposition. The history of political contests in UMNO has his fingerprints all over it. In 1969, it was his provocations as a contumacious back bencher that precipitated the resignation of the respected founding prime minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman. In 1987, Mahathir weathered a challenge to his leadership of UMNO mounted by political rivals (the then Deputy Prime Minister, Musa Hitam, and Minister for International Trade, Razaleigh Hamzah), turned the tables on them, and had them exiled into political wilderness.

In 1998, Mahathir successfully fended off the ambitious Anwar Ibrahim by sacking him, and later having him arrested, charged, and eventually convicted for corruption and sodomy. Even when not directly involved, he was never content to be a bystander, choosing instead to either instigate or leverage power plays. In 1978, he played no small part in nudging Sulaiman Palestin to challenge then incumbent Hussein Onn for party presidency (a move that many Malaysian analysts agree signaled the beginning of the end for Hussein’s political career even though he managed to fend off Sulaiman’s challenge). In 1993, Mahathir did little to prop his then deputy, Ghafar Baba, who was crumbling under the challenge of a charismatic Malay nationalist and rising star by the name of Anwar Ibrahim. It was Mahathir’s machinations in 2008 that forced Abdullah Badawi, his handpicked successor no less, to resign a year later.

All said, Mahathir had accomplished the signal feat of being involved in some way or other in almost every political crisis that has beset UMNO since 1969. Several observations can be drawn from this record to explain Mahathir’s present behavior. First, Mahathir has long been possessed of a drive to be at the center of power in UMNO and Malaysian politics. Second, he is also in possession of an acute survival instinct that has enabled the über-politician to see off a string of challengers and ensured his political survival at the helm for 22 years. Finally, one can also plausibly surmise that at the core of his recent interventions is the desire – not unlike others who have held any high office for 22 years – to protect his legacy. Therein lie the rub, for it is not difficult to imagine that Mahathir might have deemed his legacy challenged by Anwar in 1998, ignored by Abdullah Badawi in 2008, and now, disregarded by Najib.

Will Najib survive?

A crucial factor that plays in this unfolding drama between two of Malaysia’s political heaveyweights – and which cannot be over-emphasized – is the fact that power in Malaysia ultimately lies in UMNO itself, sclerotic though the party may have become. It is on this score that Najib remains formidable, even for the likes of Mahathir.

Unlike Anwar, who was only a Deputy President when he launched his abortive attempt to challenge Mahathir in 1998 (for which he paid a heavy political and personal price), Najib enjoys the advantage of incumbency. Unlike Abdullah Badawi, who chose to remain quiescent when stridently attacked latterly by Mahathir, Najib has used the powers of incumbency adroitly to head off any potential challenge and tighten his grip on the party. He has done so by out-maneuvering pretenders (he removed his Deputy Prime Minister), sidelining opponents, and co-opting potential dissenters into his Cabinet. These divide-and-rule measures closely approximate what Mahathir himself had used to devastating effect when he was in power. For good measure, Najib has lifted a few additional moves from Mahathir’s own playbook: he has neutralized legal institutions, hunted down whistle blowers, brought security agencies to heel, and shut down newspapers and periodicals that have criticized him. Najib’s consolidation of power has been aided by the fact that there is at present no alternative leader within UMNO around whom a sufficiently extensive patronage network has been created. It bears repeating that the arid reality of Malaysian politics is that power still lies within UMNO, so he who controls the party controls Malaysia. On that score, even if Najib’s credibility is eroding in the eyes of the Malaysian populace, within UMNO his position does not appear to have weakened, nor does he seem to be buckling under pressure.

There are no signs that the enmity between the current and former Prime Ministers of Malaysia will abate anytime soon. Given the stakes, the depths to which ill-will between both parties now run, and how far the boundaries have already been pushed, the rancor is likely to intensify. Mahathir still commands a following especially online where his studied blog musings on www.chedet.cc, a key vehicle for his unrelenting assaults on Najib’s credibility, remain popular grist for the ever-churning Malaysian rumor mill. In response, Najib has defiantly circled the wagons and tightened his grip on levers of power. While Mahathir is unlikely to relent, the reality is that the avenues available to him to ramp up pressure on Najib are disappearing fast. A recent UMNO Supreme Council meeting that was expected to witness a further culling of Najib’s detractors and Mahathir’s sympathizers turned out to be a non-event and an endorsement of the status quo. In the final analysis then, it is difficult to see Mahathir ultimately prevailing over Najib, let alone bend the sitting prime minister and party president to his will.

Joseph Chinyong Liow

Joseph Chinyong Liow

Former Brookings Expert.Dean and Professor of Comparative and International Politics – S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies


[1] “Dr. Mahathir Withdraws Support for Najib Government,” The Malaysian Insider, August 18, 2014. http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/dr-mahathir-withdraws-support-for-najib-government.