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.

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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.”

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


“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.

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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.

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“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.


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 ()


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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.


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.

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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.


Political Change in Malaysia: A View from India

June 5, 2018

Political Change in Malaysia: A View from India

“The importance of real democracy to ensure the welfare of people at large cannot be overstated. Though economic growth can be achieved with `limited’ or `no’ democracy, such a situation can lead to severe corruption, political highhandedness and restrictions on individual and political freedoms. What is needed is not merely formal democracy but an intensely competitive democracy.”

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I have written a book narrating a possible story of long-term political transition in different countries in 2014[i], and I have used that framework recently to discuss the political situation in South Africa, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela here.

The recent political developments in Malaysia fit well with the framework of the book. Let me narrate the story and the connection with Malaysian case briefly here.

Let us take the theoretical argument first. Desirable political change requires the mobilization of almost all sections of people (and not only the elites or middle-class). Moreover there should be adequate competition in politics. Each of the competing party/coalition should have a reasonable chance of coming to power. In the absence of such a competitive politics, there can be a number of issues even if the majority is mobilized politically, they participate in elections and governments are elected through formal democracy.

However there are barriers against the emergence of a competitive politics in certain situations. This may happen when the majority is mobilized on the basis of an ethnic/religious identity. Then there would be competition in politics only when the majority gets divided into two competing political formations.

The emergence of the competitive politics may be delayed or retarded when left-of-centre (for example, communist) parties have the support of the majority on the basis of their class-position. These parties may use different strategies to suppress the opposition in politics.

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We can use this framework to understand the political transition in Malaysia. The majority in Malaysia was mobilized politically by using the identity of ethnicity. Here ethnicity, religion and nationalism are mixed together. It is interesting to note that the main political party -United Malays National Organization (UMNO) uses three words (Bongsa- which is close Vamsha in Sanskrit- to denote ethnicity, Agama – religious ideals; Negara –nation) to project its ideological position.  This mobilization on the basis of Malay identity was also driven by the perceived need to control migrants (mainly from China and India) economically and politically.

Such a mobilization was successful in capturing the power, and changing the allocation of resources in favor of Malay people to some extent. Due to the support of the ethnic group which constitutes the majority, this political party/coalition could rule the country for a long time. The UMNO was in power under a coalition called `Barisan Nasional’ (BN) for 61 years.

Given this monopoly control of the government and the ideology and effectiveness of a leader (Mahathir bin Mohamad) who ruled the country for more than two decades until 2003, market-oriented and private-sector driven economic development could be facilitated in a top-down manner without much opposition. The majority benefited from this economic development too.

However, there were restrictions on democratic freedoms due to the monopoly of this party in government. In fact, the leader (Mahathir) was justifying openly the restrictions imposed on democracy. For him, such a control on democracy was in tune with Asian cultures and values. He used the majority and the lack of an effective opposition to make changes in laws which led ultimately to a certain concentration of decision-making power in the office of the Prime Minister.

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This is a general problem in democracy. The party in power wants to see a decline of the strength of the opposition. The current ruling party in India wants to create an India which is free from the major opposition party. However, people benefit from a democracy where there is an intense opposition. This is a case where there is a divergence between the interest of the ruling party and that of the people at large.

The lack of real competitive democracy and the monopoly of one party in the government (which may translate into the control of one leader) have also led to a kind of political highhandedness in Malaysia. The Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was fired and tried for what could be called `immoral actions’. It is not sure whether he got a fair deal in the trials against (and the punishments meted out to) him under different governments in the past. The trial might have been used to suppress dissenting voices within the party and government. There was a highhandedness on the part of the government in dealing with popular agitations too. The media was also controlled (over-regulated) by the government and ruling coalition. The government intervention has suppressed the views of opposition in different forms of media.

In summary, the monopoly of one party in the government has led to an arbitrary use of power and political highhandedness and finally severe restrictions on democratic freedoms.

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Such a situation can facilitate corruption by the top leadership of the government. There could be non-corrupt leaders during certain times, but that need not be the case always. When there is corruption at the top, it can trickle down easily to lower levels. Hence the corruption allegations against the previous Prime Minister in Malaysia (Najib Razak), if these are found to be correct, are hardly surprising. The political environment was facilitating such corruption. In fact, some of the changes made by Mahathir when he was in the government has strengthened the hands of the Prime Minister and his office, which in turn could give the person holding that position a relatively free-hand to indulge in corrupt deals. The allegations of corruption against the top leader of the government can affect the prospects for economic growth too, as experienced by the people of Malaysia in recent past.

Such a situation can be corrected only when the majority (which has been mobilized on the basis of the ethnic identity in this case) gets divided, or when there is another political mobilization representing sections of this ethnic majority. Though Anwar Ibrahim has started a political party, it could not get that much support until recently (even in the form of coalition with a few other parties).

However the serious corruption allegations against Najib Razak, and the decision of Mahathir to put his weight behind the opposition have given it certain credibility. This has led to an effective division of votes coming from the ethnic majority and that has enabled the voting out of the government.  Hence Mahathir is re-elected as the Prime Minister, representing a coalition which has campaigned against UMNO-BN that he has led more than two decades.

The recent experience in Malaysia should encourage Mahathir and other such leaders to change their views on democracy. [It looks that Mahathir has changed his views on democracy to some extent after his (first) retirement from politics.] Though some of them may see the virtues of a not-so-democratic republic for the economic development of the country, the same political situation may breed corruption and political highhandedness. Anwar Ibrahim should know the cost of such highhandedness and the majority of people in Malaysia know the cost of corruption on the part of top leadership. They should strive to sustain a fairly competitive democracy if these ills have to be mitigated in the long-run.

The UMNO or BN which has been ruling until recently needs to adopt strategies to enhance its credibility. Its internal mechanisms should be robust enough to control or remove the top leader who becomes corrupt. This is a struggle which African National Congress (ANC) of the South Africa has gone through recently (and somehow they could remove the leader and reinstate a new one). Internal accountability mechanisms of UMNO needs to be tightened and it may require a new and credible leader.

The reinvigoration of UMNO (and BN) is needed to strengthen the competitive democracy in Malaysia. Otherwise, there is no assurance that the current dispensation under its future leaders may not indulge in corruption or suppress political opposition.

The competitive democracy will also give a voice to the ethnic minorities in Malaysia. The intense competition between the two competing parties (or a narrowing of their margin of victory) may encourage each of these parties to listen and respond to the demands of these minorities. That would also be in the interests of Malaysia in the long-run.

The importance of real democracy to ensure the welfare of people at large cannot be overstated. Though economic growth can be achieved with `limited’ or `no’ democracy, such a situation can lead to severe corruption, political highhandedness and restrictions on individual and political freedoms. What is needed is not merely formal democracy but an intensely competitive democracy.

There is a similarity between UMNO in Malaysia and the BJP in India. Both attempt to represent the majority in these countries. However BJP may not get that kind of monopoly power in governance in India due to the active presence of other political formations and also the internal dissensions within the Hindu majority along caste and regional bases.

[i] Santhakumar, V. (2014) The Roots of Ill Governance and Corruption, Sage, New Delhi


End of UMNO Era: A Chance for Change in Malaysia

May 29, 2018

End of UMNO Era: A Chance for Change in Malaysia

by Editorial Board, East Asia Forum


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Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor–The Price of Defeat

Even in the days just before Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE-14), few foreign observers believed that Malaysia’s unpopular but organisationally formidable Barisan Nasional (BN) government was headed for defeat. Because of large scale gerrymandering, the incumbent party theoretically could have won with just 16.5 per cent of the vote. While change was in the air, and former Prime Minister Najib’s fate somehow seemed sealed regardless of whether BN won or lost, we did not foresee the decisive electoral outcome.

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Then, in the early hours of 10 May, it became clear that the will of the Malaysian people had overwhelmed a manipulated electoral system, with the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition gaining enough parliamentary seats to form the first non-BN government in the country’s history.

There is plenty of uncertainty about how the Pakatan Harapan government will perform, but the opportunity to breathe new life into Malaysia’s democracy and public policy created by a change of management is itself worth celebrating.

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Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad–Re-setting the Agenda for Malaysia

And habits that shape how Malaysia is run. Nothing sums up some of the contradictions inherent in the new government better than its leader: the newly-installed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Having Mahathir lead the charge against Najib made sense, as he was able to draw on nostalgia for the Mahathir era, to make Pakatan Harapan competitive in the Malay heartland. But unless new leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim, who is newly released from prison and touted to take over from Mahathir as Prime Minister, are determined to bring about fundamental institutional reforms, Malaysia’s decrepit political system could remain unchanged.

In a lead article, Dan Slater zeroes in on Mahathir’s ambiguous role in the opposition’s victory and as Prime Minister in the new government. He also examines what the Malaysian election result might portend for the correlation between national wealth and democracy.

Mahathir threw his weight behind the opposition after falling out with Najib, his former ally and protege. Doing so meant an unlikely reconciliation with Anwar Ibrahim, the former UMNO Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister who Mahathir threw in jail on trumped-up sodomy charges after a falling out between them over Malaysia’s response to the Asian Financial Crisis. Last week, Anwar walked to freedom after Mahathir secured a royal pardon for a second sodomy conviction engineered by Najib. If all goes to plan, he will take over as Prime Minister next year or the year after.

The relationship between these two equally charismatic — and equally self-confident — figures and their parties (which are now coalition partners) will be crucial in shaping the character of the new government and Malaysia’s democratic future. Whereas Anwar is respected worldwide as a democrat and liberal Muslim intellectual, Mahathir made his political name as a Malay nationalist and unapologetic authoritarian. Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) party is a home for many pro-democracy activists and civil society figures, whereas Mahathir’s BERSATU party is not much more than a splinter party of the main opposition UMNO designed to capture an anti-Najib protest vote in the Malay heartland.

Can Mahathir’s second term as Prime Minister be the redemption tale that so many want to see? Certainly, he needs to demonstrate that his return to politics was truly in service of a more democratic and better-governed Malaysia — not just the outcome of personal animus towards Najib. While Mahathir certainly helped the opposition make inroads into the all-important rural Malay electorate, the opposition’s victory was also due to the overwhelming support of urban voters fed up with BN corruption and bad policy; as Slater writes, ‘Mahathir is but foam atop this long-swelling opposition wave’.

These voters won’t have much patience with Mahathir if he attempts to establish a BN-lite government. One test against which Mahathir’s performance might be scored is how well he implements the institutional reform agenda that Pakatan Harapan promised the Malaysian people in its election manifesto.

Early signs are encouraging. After some confusion, Mahathir has reaffirmed that the government will repeal a widely criticised ‘anti-Fake News’ law. Pakatan Harapan’s economic agenda was more obviously geared towards winning votes than satisfying policy purists, but the presence of experienced technocrats on a policy ‘council of elders’ convened after the election gives hope that sound ideas will get a fair hearing, except perhaps the populist promise to remove the GST. Successful economic rejuvenation and cracking through the ‘middle income trap’ will be a further test of Slater’s ‘unbreakable global correlation’ between democracy and wealth.

Most gratifyingly of all for ordinary Malaysians is that a full accounting for the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund scandal seems to be getting underway. It is important for the rule of law that those who misappropriated taxpayers’ money are brought to justice; naturally, at the same time it is also essential that Najib, his family and his associates are dealt with fairly and afforded due process, lest investigations be seen merely an act of political revenge.

But while the Shakespearean elements to the elite-level struggle in GE-14 have captured the world’s attention, its result shouldn’t be reduced to a clash of personalities. As Slater writes, it is the product of determined campaigning ‘over the long haul by men and women — those with the courage to translate socioeconomic transformation into a freer politics for their countrymen and countrywomen. This victory is theirs.’ The hope is that the new Prime Minister and the Prime Minister-in-waiting will make the most of it.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Dan Slater’s article:

Malaysia’s Modernisation Tsunami (Hibiscus Revolution?)


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GE-14 : Malaysia’s–Hibiscus Revolution?

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Credit for GE-14 should go to the tireless activists and opposition politicians who began braving the iron claws and filed teeth of the Mahathir regime in the late 1990s, and in some cases even the late 1980s. Unlike actual tsunamis, modernisation tsunamis are made over the long haul by men and women — those with the courage to translate socioeconomic transformation into a freer politics for their countrymen and countrywomen. This victory is theirs.–Dan Slater, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


Democratisation scholars hate modernisation theory as much as anybody. From a modernisation perspective, so-called ‘developing countries’ are on some sort of uniform track toward a liberal and democratic future, as if some imagined unity called ‘the West’ had already laid it down for them.

This notion has long been discredited and is even considered offensive in most academic circles. As countries like China, Malaysia and Singapore have gotten rich while remaining authoritarian, the contrary perspective only seems to become more obviously correct: that there are multiple pathways to the modern world, many of them illiberal and undemocratic.

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Dr. Mahathir Mohamad solidified Pakatan Harapan coalition against defeat a formidable, well funded and organised Najib Razak-led Barisan Nasional

The most sophisticated quantitative research consistently confirms the unbreakable global correlation between national wealth and levels of democracy. Still, scholars of particular countries and regions tend to dismiss the idea that democracy becomes much likelier as a country becomes much richer.

But then something happens like Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE-14). Malaysia has been getting richer for decades, yet the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that it commands have continued to fend off its opponents in undemocratic election after undemocratic election. GE14 was no more democratic than its recent predecessors, with the playing field tragicomically skewed in the BN’s favour.

Nonetheless, an eclectic assemblage of opposition parties led by the People’s Justice Party (PKR), which has been leading the charge for democratic reforms since the reformasi movement began in 1998, swept to a decisive victory, seizing 122 national parliamentary seats to BN’s 79.

Virtually all dedicated Malaysia-watchers professed themselves shocked by the result. But if leading modernisation theorists like Seymour Martin Lipset or Samuel Huntington were still alive — even in their fusty 1950s and 1960s guises — they wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest.

Naturally economic growth leads to a larger and more educated urban middle class, modernisation theorists have long argued. This middle class will resent the kind of grand corruption that outgoing Prime Minister and scoundrel-in-chief Najib Razak engaged in alongside his pantomime villain of a spouse, Rosmah Mansor — so egregiously in the 1MDB scandal as to reach moustache-twirling levels of cartoonish absurdity. They will be less vulnerable to ethnic and religious appeals or to the kinds of petty blandishments that can win over poorer voters in the countryside. They will want equality, freedom, the rule of law and public goods. Their vote cannot simply be coerced.

Nobody thinks it is impossible to maintain authoritarian domination as a country undergoes decades of rapid socioeconomic change. But as Najib and Rosmah can now tearfully attest, it gets harder and more expensive. It takes a whole lot of money to buy electoral love in a society with a mushrooming middle class.

GE-14 was thus not the ‘Malay tsunami’ that incoming (and returning) Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad so irresponsibly called for. Nor was it a ‘Chinese tsunami’, as Najib dubbed BN’s 2013 loss of the popular vote in such an incendiary fashion. It was more like a modernisation tsunami. And, like a real tsunami, modernisation has its most powerful sources at deep levels, where nobody in particular can command it.

Not even as commanding a figure as Mahathir. His adoring fans are bestowing credit upon him for the electoral win in tones smacking of feudalism and hero worship more appropriate to an absolutist sultan than a democratic leader. This echoes the credit they have long given him for Malaysia’s economic development.

Yet in both instances Mahathir relied more on luck than on skill. On the development front, he was lucky to inherit a strong and developmentally capable state apparatus that he sadly chose to use autocratically and brutally with devastating long-term consequences.

As for the election, Mahathir was lucky to hitch a ride on Malaysia’s modernisation tsunami just as it was cresting. Visible as he may be, Mahathir is but foam atop this long-swelling opposition wave. The opposition didn’t need Mahathir to deny the BN its two-thirds majority in 2008 or to win the popular vote in 2013. The only time UMNO has seen its election performance improve this millennium was in 2004, when voters were freshly rejoicing at Mahathir’s overdue resignation in late 2003. And of course he wouldn’t have been victoriously surfing the wave of GE14 at all unless rightful opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim were still in prison, where Mahathir so cravenly shunted him in the first place.

Mahathir is not merely an oppositional Johnny-come-lately; he is the biggest obstacle to democratic opposition’s development that Malaysia has ever seen. Credit for GE-14 should go to the tireless activists and opposition politicians who began braving the iron claws and filed teeth of the Mahathir regime in the late 1990s, and in some cases even the late 1980s. Unlike actual tsunamis, modernisation tsunamis are made over the long haul by men and women — those with the courage to translate socioeconomic transformation into a freer politics for their countrymen and countrywomen. This victory is theirs.

Dan Slater (@SlaterPolitics) is Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the Weiser Centre for Emerging Democracies (WCED) at the University of Michigan. He was previously a professor for twelve years at the University of Chicago.