Floating on a tide of money, facilitated by a popular chief minister and aided by a squabbling and ineffective opposition, Malaysia’s ruling national coalition handily won Sarawak state elections on May 7.
The polls, which delivered 72 seats in an expanded 82-member state assembly to the Barisan Nasional, led in the East Malaysia state by Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, or PBB, hands Prime Minister Najib Razak a crucial vote of confidence and sets up possible sedition charges against former PM Mahathir Mohamad, his most implacable foe. Najib is caught in the coils of a gigantic scandal over the indebted state-backed 1MDB fund.
A source with close ties to Najib’s United Malays National Organization said Najib’s newly fortified position could also result in forcing rebel former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir, Mahathir’s son, to be drummed out of the party. Najib has been contending with unrelenting criticism from the three for months. Although Muhyiddin and Mukhriz have been stripped of their positions as deputy premier and Kedah chief minister respectively, they have remained in the party.
In particular, the urban Chinese in Kuching and other cities abandoned the opposition Democratic Action Party, turning back to the Sarawak United People’s Party, the Chinese-dominated component of the ruling coalition, and the PBB, led by Chief Minister Adenan Satem. The DAP, which crested with 11 seats in the 2013 election, gave five of them back.
The opposition was never expected to come close to winning. Even if it had the electoral muscle, which it didn’t, the state is so effectively gerrymandered that the Barisan only needed 32.7 percent of the 1.1 million voters to win a majority of the state assembly, according to Asia scholar Bridget Welsh, writing in the Australia-based scholarly website New Mandala. Instead, it won 87.8 percent of the votes.
But the magnitude of the loss partly reflected the popularity of Adenan, who took over from the previous chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, in 2014 after Taib allegedly looted the state’s rich timber, property and oil resources to make himself a billionaire several times over. Adenan has played an adroit game, seemingly seeking to rein in the Chinese timber barons, proclaiming Sarawak’s relative independence from the federal government in Putrajaya and demanding 20 percent of the oil revenues that now go to the national government.
A seriously divided opposition weakened itself with component parties fighting for the same seats. However, the Barisan left little to chance. The opposition’s most telegenic leaders were denied visas to visit the state to campaign, while Najib and top UMNO leaders showed up in force, helicoptering across the country to barnstorm in remote villages and counter the DAP’s own attempts to garner the rural vote. Selangor Chief Minister Azmin Ali and the leaders of the DAP were not allowed allowed to enter the state to campaign, raising outraged protest across the 600 km of open water that separate the two parts of Malaysia.
Copious federal development funds were made available to the Sarawak government, including Rm20 billion, RM16 billion part of a multi-year project to construct the Pan-Borneo highway. Other funds came from the education, defense and rural development ministries. That is in addition to what Sarawak Report called a blizzard of RM50 notes passed out to villagers.
It is on the Malaysian peninsula, however, where arguably an even more profound effect will be felt. The Sarawak victory is being touted as a surrogate victory for the Prime Minister’s policies. He flew to Sarawak and put his personal popularity on the line in the face of the burden of arguably Malaysia’s biggest-ever scandal in the missing RM42 billion lost from 1Malaysia Development Bhd. The sovereign development fund is being pursued in five countries to account for billions that disappeared in money laundering in Switzerland and into allegedly phony accounts in the Cayman and British Virgin Islands. Najib himself and his family are being pursued by the US Attorney in New York on allegations of money rifled from 1MDB that went into expensive properties in New York and Los Angeles as well as for funding the blockbuster movie Wolf of Wall Street. Najib himself is under fire for the mysterious appearance and disappearance of US$681 million into and out of his personal accounts in 2013, and of his wife’s spectacular profligacy in the purchase of jewels, watches and handbags, among other accoutrements,
His most implacable domestic pursuer has been former Prime Minister Mahathir, who has accused him of outright crookedry and requested that the five nations pursuing charges against 1MDB make those charges and results public. He has requested a “grand coalition” including Lim Kit Siang, the longtime leader of the DAP, former Justice Minister Zaid Ibrahim and other luminaries that would work to bring down Najib and UMNO. That coalition now has gathered 400,000 signatures, according to Ambiga Sreenevesan, a prominent lawyer and human rights leader in Malaysia.
Given Mahathir’s stature as a former 22-year leader of the country, Najib has mainly suffered in silence at Mahathir’s increasingly vitriolic open attacks. The former premier, who left office in 2003, and Muhyiddin Yassin have been traveling the country, attempting to appeal to rank and file UMNO members to rebel against the 191 district chiefs who have consistently backed Najib, allegedly because of a cornucopia of bribes, rent-seeking contracts and make-work jobs.
The police have questioned Mahathir but so far have chosen not to use the sedition statute, which now has been used against 14 individuals in 2014 and 91 in 2015 by authorities in the effort to keep the lid on criticism over the scandal. Mahathir has refused to be intimidated. The Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, said in April that the 90-year4-old Mahathir faces the possibility of four separate investigations including a sedition rap after his statement that foreign intervention is needed to oust Najib.