Malaysia Preps for Polls Likely to End Reformasi for Good

Unbridled ambition between foes Anwar and Mahathir wrecks reform chances

Barring unforeseen events, Malaysia is likely to have a national snap election in the next few months that could culminate with a return to power of the deeply corrupt United Malays National Organization joined by the rural islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia headed by the current prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Thus, two years after what was described as a “political earthquake” that brought a reform government to power, reformasi has collapsed primarily because of the rivalry between and the ambitions of the 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad and his 74-year-old adversary, Anwar Ibrahim.  

“They are both fighting with each other for power,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based businessman. “Even if [the disgraced former premier] Najib Razak were to run for PM, I am not going to vote for Mahathir or Anwar. They are just useless. People are so angry, all of us went out of our way, I gave them money, I risked myself, a lot of people took risks, they totally screwed it up. No more.”

Since Mahathir resigned as prime minister at the end of January, bringing down the Pakatan Harapan government in the midst of a squandered attempt to establish an all-Malay ruling coalition, the Pakatan coalition has been riven with squabbling for power between the two.

In the meantime, the 73-year-old Muhyiddin has been jockeying to stay in power with the help of Home Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainuddin, who critics say has been using his office to intimidate and harass opponents, taking the country back to the UMNO days of the 1980s and 1990s. Good-government organizations, NGOs and the press have been hit with a scorched earth policy against those who speak up.

For instance, Cynthia Gabriel, the director of the independent Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, was among eight people summoned for questioning over criticism of the government.  Malaysiakini, the popular news site, and its editor Steven Gan have been sued for contempt of court over a letter from a reader that had been removed from the site long before. At least one book has been banned and intimidation of critics is increasing. 

But Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi, which has only 13 members of parliament, is in a shaky coalition that gives him 113 seats, a bare two above the minimum to stay in power and quelling dissent is essential. Ironically, the party was established by Mahathir with the sole purpose of bringing down Najib’s government in the wake of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history, with at least US$4.6 billion lost to mismanagement and theft.  Najib himself, on trial on charges of having stolen US$681 million, has denied wrongdoing, saying it was all Penang-born Chinese financier Jho Taek Low’s fault. Jho Low has in turn said he knew nothing, was only following orders.

Although hundreds of millions in jewelry, property and other loot have been recovered by the US Justice Department in what officials called “the biggest kleptocracy case in history,” Najib remains free to rebuild his reputation and has waged a wily campaign against the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which includes Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, and Amanah, a moderate Islamic party.

UMNO was so deeply tarnished, with dozens of members of parliament having taken bribes from Najib to keep him in power and with cronyism so rampant in state-owned companies and government-linked companies, that it appeared unlikely it could ever return to power.  Muhyiddin, with his bare two-vote majority,  believes an election is necessary before October because a six-month moratorium on repayment of loans and installments because of the Coronavirus ends and there are predictions of economic disaster, with as many as 15 percent of the population out of work.

Now, however, a confluence of events may make an election necessary. Parliament is to meet on July 13, Muhyiddin successfully having kept it out of town to avoid a no-confidence vote. The speaker of parliament reportedly will be replaced with a more loyal figure, another step in staving off a no-confidence vote.

Perhaps Muhyiddin’s most perilous problem is that UMNO and PAS believe that, with the help of a loyal Sabah party, they can with their own election without Muhyiddin’s relatively tiny party by appealing to Malay fears of Chinese dominance of the political sphere as well as the economic one, a concern that has remained fresh for 51 years, since bloody race riots swept the country in 1969, and which have been refreshed since the 2018 election with the emergence of the powerful Democratic Action Party in power and controlling the economics portfolio.

Last September, UMNO and PAS formalized what had been an unofficial marriage of convenience since before the 2018 election, a dedication to Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay nationalism and the religious primacy of Islam. By eliminating competition between the two, they believe they can win at least 97 seats in Peninsular Malaysia, based on voting patterns from previous elections.

With the outsize representation from the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, which UMNO controls, and the possibility of wresting back Sabah after the attorney general freed the politically powerful former state chief minister from corruption charges, a return to power looks likely. It is hard to see any possible return to power of Pakatan Harapan.

But for now, the PAS-UMNO-Parti Pribumi coalition holds.  Sometime over the next few weeks, according to political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, jockeying over seat allocations between the three will take place. At least two meetings have already been held to thresh out the details.

So the final question is the fate of Najib Razak, the engineer of both the 1MDB disaster and the 2018 election debacle. According to a well-informed source, he has told his family he expects to go to jail later this month. And, once he is sentenced, even if he remains free on appeal in a process that could take two years, he is no longer eligible to stand for parliament. Despite his post-election arrest and disgrace, and the publicity over the millions of dollars in cash and jewelry and other items in his home, he has remained unofficially in charge of the party. He has campaigned energetically in by-elections – six of them, the latest last week – winning them handily for his forces and humiliating the Pakatan Harapan coalition. But, with his remaining hundreds of stolen millions, he will remain a kingmaker, perhaps with his sentence reduced by the incoming coalition.