Spring in the East?

May 23, 2018

The Western media greeted the unexpected defeat of Malaysia’s governing coalition in the general election held last week with a mixture of surprise and delight. The opposition multi-party ‘alliance of hope’ (Pakatan Harapan) had democratically triumphed over seemingly insuperable odds.

Until last week, Malaysia, since decolonization in 1957, had endured uninterrupted one-party rule dominated by the United Malay National Organization’s (UMNO) led Barisan Nasional (BN- National Front) coalition. Initially conceived as an unequal alliance between the elites of the majority Malay and non-Malay (mainly Chinese) communities, over its long governmental tenure, the BN leadership concentrated economic and political power in the UMNO party executive and the office of the prime minister at the expense of parliament, the media, the federal system and the judiciary. The ruling coalition held regular elections (this year’s was the fourteenth since independence), but routinely rigged constituency boundaries, bribed the electorate, controlled the media and, after 1998, perennially imprisoned charismatic opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, on trumped-up charges of sodomy.

Not surprisingly, western commentators hailed the political upset as a welcome triumph for democracy and a lesson to autocrats everywhere. The Guardian declared it ‘a game changer in South East Asia where democracy’s claims have long been resisted’. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Fraser Nelson considered the outcome ‘a kind of Malaysian spring’. But is it?

Certainly, the cheering crowds in Kuala Lumpur welcomed the overthrow of Najib Razak’s regime. Najib had done his utmost to conceal the manner in which he and his cronies siphoned off the state sovereign wealth fund that he established on assuming office in 2009. That said, Najib could act with such kleptocratic impunity only because former Prime Minister, current opposition leader, and now successor, Mahathir Mohamad, had established the groundwork.

A former autocrat turned democrat in his dotage strikes any seasoned observer of the Malaysian political scene as at best unlikely, at worst a façade. Mahathir’s political career is therefore worth careful examination. The nonagenarian Mahathir first came to political prominence in the 1970s as a Malay ‘ultra’ nationalist in the aftermath of inter-ethnic riots in May 1969 that led to ethnic Malay political dominance at the expense of the large urban Chinese and Indian communities. As he caustically observed in 1971, Malaysia’s internal politics were ‘racial politics’ and its evolving democracy a limited and elite guided one “to ensure that the mutually antagonistic races of Malaysia will not clash.”

This was the social contract outlined by Mahthir in The Malay Dilemma (1971) and initially executed by Najib’s father and Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak., Promoted by Razak, Mahathir became the developing nation’s fourth prime minister in 1981. Over his long tenure, (he only ‘stepped down’ in 2003) Mahathir sought to overcome Malay weakness through a policy of affirmative economic action and by engineering a state-led, Malaysia Incorporated, development model. To create his Vision 2020 of a fully developed economy required the autocratic guidance of the medically trained doctor. In 1983, he succeeded in removing the King’s power of veto over parliamentary bills. In 1988, he altered the constitution to render the High Court subject to parliament and sacked five supreme court judges. Elsewhere, he expanded the draconian powers of the Internal Security Act that dated from the colonial era Communist insurgency to intern opposition leaders and muzzle the press. By the 1990s, Chandran Muzzafar noted that ‘parliament, the judiciary and the royalty have been forced to surrender their powers to the UMNO executive…to which everything else in the country was subservient’.

The new Prime Minister, then, is no liberal democrat. In fact he has expressed contempt for ‘western values’, which he observed in The Challenge (1983) continued, in a post colonial after life, to be ‘inflicted … on the East’.

Mahathir’s authoritarian personality revealed itself spectacularly during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Predictably, he blamed the crisis on western, mainly semitic, hedge fund speculation. Moreover, when his then deputy and annointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim, criticized the cronyism, corruption and nepotism that informed the Malaysia Incorporated model and call for Reformasi, Mahathir summarily dismissed him. Arrested on a charge of ‘abuse of power’ followed by an additional charge of sodomy, in 1998, Anwar spent most of the next two decades in and out of jail.

First freed in 2004 Anwar formed the charismatic focus of a broad based Malay, Chinese and moderate Muslim opposition to UMNO rule. Anwar’s multiracial coalition the Pakatan Rakyat achieved an electoral breakthrough in the 2008 general election. In its wake, however, he again found himself accused of sodomy. A series of court cases led to a further five-year jail term in 2014 that effectively neutered him as a political force.

In curtailing opposition after 2009 and imposing his own distinctive brand of autocracy and peculation, Najib merely adapted the Mahathir playbook. Politics, Malaysia style, as many observers acknowledge, is ‘a dirty business’.

Factors outside his control, however undermined Najib’s grip on the levers of power. Firstly, he failed to suppress the mounting scandal involving the 1-Malaysia development fund he launched in 2009. The levels of corruption revealed by the London based Sarawak Report led to financial investigations in New York, Singapore and Switzerland . At the same time, Mahathir’s rage at seeing his legacy trashed and his and his politically ambitious son Mukhriz’s position in the UMNO state undermined, led to his surprising political rebirth at the expense of elite unity. He returned to politics in 2017 in alliance with parties and politicians he had previously condemned, sued or imprisoned.

Recent history casts a somewhat surreal light upon last week’s elections. Those familiar with South East Asian politics know that all politics is a shadow play (wayang kulit) ultimately controlled by a puppet master. Rather than a democratic breakthrough, the dramatic result might only be the precursor to another round of factionalism that periodically shatters the unity of the Malay political elite. In 1969, inter-ethnic riots following another bitterly contested election saw Malaysia’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman replaced by Najib’s father. During Mahathir’s first tenure in office the party split into two opposed camps between 1988 -1990 and in 1997 the financial crisis led to the Anwar factions political marginalization. As his daughter, Nurul Izzah, an MP and Vice President of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) observed, ‘It’s not easy trusting a former dictator’.

In the current wave of democratic euphoria, it is perhaps too easy to overlook the fact that the only issue that unites the alliance of hope between Anwar’s PKR, the Chinese Democratic Action Party and Mahathir’s new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is their shared antipathy to Najib. Malaysia’s political culture is both communal, elitist, factionalized and clientalist. The Malay peninsula hosts nine Sultans who share the monarchy in rotation. Relations of dependency shape the Malay way in business and politics. Elite politics is also familial and dynastic witness Mahathir’s promotion of his sons and Anwar’s of his wife and daughter.

It may of course be the case that, as one Malay commentator observed, ‘the people now know that they have the power to change government’. Mahathir may, as he has promised, hand over power to his former deputy Anwar in two years time. However two years is a long time in politics, and especially in a state as ethnically and religiously divided as Malaysia.

Commentators, especially those with a continuing enthusiasm for a democratic end of history, tend to take a long view of the future and a short view of the past. Yet if the past is anything to go by and Mahathir retains anything of his former self, this Malay version of A Game of Thrones might still have a long way to go. Let’s hope the rakyat (people) ‘don’t get fooled again’.








Mahathir Mohamad “Problems of Democratic Nation-Building in Malaysia” Solidarity 6,10 October 1971 p.15.

M. Mohamad, ‘Introductory Remarks’, Malaysia’s Vision 2020 Pelanduk, Kuala Lumpur 1993. See also his The Malay Dilemma Times, Singapore, 1970

See M. Rajendran Mahathir Mohamad Prime Minister of Malaysia IBS Buku, Petaling Jaya, 1993 p.45

Chandran Muzaffar Far Eastern Economic Review 11 February, 1993

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