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Malaysia’s Political Clown Show
Politics sinks ever lower
Arguably the only useful outcome of the 22-month Pakatan Harapan coalition that ruled Malaysia until February 2020, was court proceedings instituted against former Prime Minister Najib Razak and Zahid Hamidi, United Malays National Organization party president. Najib has been convicted and sentenced for massive fraud. Zahid Hamidi’s trial is underway for similar chicanery. The public now sees sworn witness testimony in court about power abuse, and the entitlement impunity of the Malay ruling class. It confirms everything they have long suspected.
Both Najib and Zahid are desperate to stay out of prison, and impatient with the UMNO coalition headed by junior party vice-president Ismael Sabri. Sabri was swiftly endorsed by both for prime minister after they withdrew party support for Muhyiddin Yassin. But he is not saving them. They want to retake power via an accelerated GE15 which is not due till May 2023. Sabri lacks the political authority and incentive to protect them and they would like to get rid of him in exchange for someone more malleable.
Najib was found guilty by the High Court in July 2020 on all seven charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering. He misappropriated MR42 million from SRC International (former subsidiary of 1MDB).
The Appeal Court judges in December 2021 unanimously upheld his conviction, a RM210 million fine, and 12-year concurrent jail sentence. Najib is challenging the Appellate Court ruling at the apex Federal Court, which set 15-26 August 2022 for the hearing. That is his last legal resort. If he fails here, Najib will have to pay the fine and serve jail time.
US authorities confirmed that US$4.5 billion was stolen from the government-backed investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, of which nearly US$700 million found its way into Najib’s personal accounts.
Nonetheless, Najib remains popular on Facebook and with UMNO troopers, as he struts around town with police escorts despite his conviction. He led the campaigns for three local elections which UMNO won. No other UMNO leader can rouse the party faithful. Najib is seen as a vote winning machine, with the considerable largesse at his disposal and his po-faced shamelessness.
Meanwhile, Zahid faces 45 charges of corruption, abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, totaling RM114 million. Zahid had ample scope as deputy prime minister and home minister to amass wealth. Najib Razak attends Zahid Hamidi’s trial to lend moral support.
The prospect of being jailbirds hangs over both. They have been hyperactive in lobbying UMNO and pressuring Sabri to bring the 15th general election forward. The rumor mill has GE15 advancing to August, prior to when Najib’s final appeal to the Federal Court is heard, and while Hamidi files for appeal, if found guilty. The election commission machinery is being activated.
Ismael Sabri has no reason to call an early GE. The UMNO party president decides nominations for seats, not Sabri. Coalition partner Parti Islam Se-Malaysia is not eager either, to lose its unearned federal ministerships, and unmerited policy influence. Can Zahid sack Ismael Sabri from the UMNO supreme council as he recently did Ahmad Tajuddin? The prime minster is formally appointed by the Agong, or king, not UMNO. Zahid may not wish to tempt fate.
A royal pardon is the last hope should the courts send these senior Malay politicians to jail. During the end-of-fast national celebrations, Razak shared the high Table with the Agong at the palace, later posting pictures on Facebook, although many regarded his presence as most inappropriate. In any case, Najib can seek a royal pardon only after being incarcerated, if the Federal Court concurs with the Appeal Court.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad vaporized the ruling Pakatan Harapan government by abruptly resigning without consulting his cabinet, in February 2020. He had dispatched his Bersatu deputy earlier to hold secret talks for a Malay coalition to dislodge the multiracial PH – with himself riding on as PM. Muhyiddin Yassin then snatched leadership of the new coalition and prime ministership, dumping Mahathir from Bersatu as well. It was brutal.
From the start, Mahathir was uneasy as head of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, pressed to fulfil his pre-election promise to hand over the premiership to Anwar Ibrahim, his one-time acolyte. He judged Anwar unfit to be PM. Furthermore, the PH manifesto pledged to undo the counterproductive excesses of the Malay agenda he had railroaded as the country’s strongman for 22 years. PH won overwhelming non-Malay support in GE14 for equitable governance based on need, not race. It won progressive Malay voters too, thanks to Mahathir, to turf out the rotten UMNO-dominated government headed by Najib and Zahid that had enjoyed unbroken rule from 1957.
The PH planned to directly channel development funds to the majority Malays who needed it most. The ruling elite parasites and their cronies would have lost their privileged access to hijack contracts, subsidies and programs, meant to help the poorest. That has been the tragic UMNO governance distortion and big political con of the past four decades.
The elites grip power by scaring the Malay heartland about existential threats to race, religion, and royalty (the 3Rs). These are emotive triggers easily played. The educated next generation is seeing through that lie. No one is threatening the Malays. Many Malays have lost faith in the cynical elites, as they endured Covid-19 clampdowns and mismanaged flooding, that trapped them in their homes, hoisting white flags in a plea for food. They were left to fend for themselves as the elites holidayed in luxury abroad.
The bulk of UMNO branch chiefs and supreme council policymakers euphemistically label themselves bumiputra businessmen. UMNO used to be a party of schoolteachers and village headmen. It has now become synonymous with divisive racism, systemic corruption, ostentatious lifestyles, mistresses, chunky gold watches and leadership rot at all levels, from the federal cabinet to villages.
Mahathir grafted a corrosive Islamic bureaucracy onto the civil service in 1997, to counter the influence of the rural Islamist party PAS. He erected a huge circus tent to absorb otherwise unemployable Islamic graduates. His ploy was to keep them salaried and loyal to UMNO. But such dense religiosity inside the civil service has not blessed governance or promoted ethics, morality, and spiritual renewal.
Instead, it fostered towelhead scrutiny of skirt lengths in government offices and scowling moral policing of Muslims everywhere. This is yet another case of Mahathir being too clever by half. His legitimation of the clerics boomeranged on the civil service, armed forces, police, public hospitals, education system, government, politics, and all citizens. The clerics cannot be questioned as they invoke divine authority.
PAS is now a key part of the federal government by default, for UMNO to cobble a fractious Malay coalition. PAS has naturally grabbed the Islamic steering wheel inside government that Mahathir engineered to keep them out. What supreme irony. He handed them what they could not have dreamed of achieving, for the next half-century, by themselves.
The states of the north-east ruled traditionally by PAS are the most economically backward, with abundant madrassah schools, the highest unemployment, youth drug abuse, child marriages, incest, divorces and family strife. What PAS brings to the national government is a record of abject governance failure. Najib Razak inducted the PAS leadership into the joys of Mercedes cars, gold Rolex watches, luxury holidays abroad, and ostentation. They have not looked back since.
PAS leader Hadi Awang concocted pseudo-religious theory to justify corruption as not hurting anyone if two willing parties collude. After all, claimed Hadi, it is Allah who enables desires in people beyond their financial capacity. Go figure. Malaysia ranks as the world’s most corrupt to conduct business, in the recent Transparency International index.
The country is a global basket case for graft, institutionalized racism, economic mismanagement, reckless public debt, wanton destruction of rainforest and utter lack of national vision. No one knows where the country is heading. Its leaders are too busy thieving its treasury and public assets at speed.
On closer examination, these problems are almost exclusively Malay, not Malaysian. The other races are outside the ring fence of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy).
Anybody in charge?
Two weak prime ministers squatted sequentially from March 2020 after each convinced the Agong of majority house support in Parliament. Anwar Ibrahim, the putative Opposition chief, signed a pact with the second, Ismail Sabri, not to destabilize his bloated 70-member cabinet with no-confidence motions. Sabri’s obscenely wasteful budgets to please his motley cabinet were allowed to pass without fuss.
Anwar had foolishly rejected the comprehensive co-option and electoral reforms offered by Muhyiddin Yassin, the first house-headcount PM. That deal was painstakingly negotiated by Tony Pua and Ong Kian Ming of the DAP (Democratic Action Party). It was a miss that lost the country transparency and accountability in governance. Muhyiddin was desperate, so he conceded. The Opposition wasted a golden chance.
Anwar Ibrahim’s default post as Leader of the Opposition was upgraded to senior minister rank, with commensurate salary, allowances, and perks, as Muhyiddin handed off to Ismail Sabri of UMNO in August 2021. Recently-sacked UMNO supreme council loose-cannon, Tajuddin Abdul Rahman alleged that party president Zahid Hamidi and Najib Razak had forced statutory declarations from UMNO MPs, to support Anwar Ibrahim for prime minister, in 2020.
That ruse emboldened Anwar to dramatically blurt “I have the numbers” twice in 2020. He could not produce the name list for the Agong, and so was turned away to abide by constitutional procedures. What happened there? Why did he not have the name list? Were Messrs Zahid Hamidi and Najib Razak holding out for written commitments on their situation? What stymied the ambitious Anwar Ibrahim?
There have been persistent leaks about the PH government engaging in underhand contract abuses too. Former finance minister Lim Guan Eng is on trial now, charged with bribery during his term as chief minister of Penang, for roads and an undersea tunnel project worth RM3.6 billion. Prosecution witnesses alleged fake invoices of dormant companies, and envelopes of cash, as inducement for contracts.
More than anything else, Malaysian voters were badly let down by the PH government’s failure to implement core promises of electoral reform and fair governance. They wonder why Mahathir was allowed to overrule the cabinet on no-brainer issues like hate preacher Zakir Naik, and to stall on the promised handover to Anwar. Why did everyone, including Anwar, accept inaction, and allow the canny old fox free run?
Member participation rate in the recent PKR elections was so low, it is an alarming red flag. PKR members are disaffected and disinterested. That speaks volumes about Anwar Ibrahim’s failed leadership. Does that auger well for wider non-party support? Rafizi Ramli avoided challenging Anwar Ibrahim, even though he had him checkmated. Everybody is walking on eggshells waiting for Anwar to cancel himself, as it is “not the Malay way” to challenge the wobbly leader.
Rafizi announced grand plans to repeat his whistle-stop truck tour of 2018, to tell the country why it should vote PH again. Voters at GE15 will wonder if this mob can ever get its act together to rule competently, when it cannot even clean out the deadwood “I have the numbers” man, and the haughty Lim Guan Eng, who made himself unacceptable to heartland Malays. Without effective fresh leadership, the failed PH has nothing new for voters. In politics, self-destructing losers are rarely offered a second go.
Cyril Pereira is based in Hong Kong and is a long-time contributor to Asia Sentinel