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US Influence in Malaysia’s Coming State Elections
Skewing democracy: Should Malaysia be free from foreign political influence?
By: Murray Hunter
The extent to which the United States pokes its nose into the politics of other nations is playing out in Malaysia, where state elections are expected to take place at the end of this week and where the US government feels it has a vital interest in keeping the country in its camp in the growing contest for control of the South China Sea.
Malaysia is hardly alone. The US has been heavily involved for decades in grassroots politics across the world, most recently in Thailand where US agencies provided assistance to the youth-oriented Move Forward party, which scored a political earthquake by winning 151 seats in the parliament, pushing aside such longtime political parties as Pheu Thai, headed by Thaksin Shinawatra, which got 141 votes.
These US organizations were also heavily involved in the Hong Kong democracy movement, which took to the streets for much of the past decade to attempt vainly to force China to adhere to the principles of the basic law agreed between China and the UK in 1997 to provide universal suffrage and the ability to select the territory’s own chief executive. Other hot spots have included Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the MENA nations during the Arab Spring, with mixed amounts of success.
The International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit founded in 1983 and funded and supported by the US government, its board drawn from the Republican Party, is one such organization, helping political parties to identify issues, seeking to drive up citizen participation, and working to increase the role of marginalized groups in the political process, including women and youth in an astonishing 82 countries across the world, according to its website. The IRI acts in collaboration with the US-based and funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and USAID which are both funded by the US government. The IRI has a Democratic Party counterpart, the National Democratic Institute.
Sources around Malaysia have indicated the IRI is enabling a number of programs related directly to the current state elections in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan, focusing on enabling the youth vote to support the ‘unity government’ headed by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in the state elections.
The IRI has provided millions of dollars for local youth groups including UNDI18 and Ypolitics to carry out political activities on school campuses, and to attract more college students to vote for the unity government. It has recruited student leaders of universities in Terengganu, Kedah, and Kelantan, which are traditionally safe seats for Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), and uses their influences to manipulate young voters’ choice. IRI also has dispatched several American campaign experts to Malaysia to conduct seminars to teach leaders of the Pakatan Harapan coalition leaders and candidates how to attract young voters through social media.
The IRI, in association with the NED, has provided a great deal of support over the years to help PH come to power and to make Malaysia an ally of the US. This became important to the US, after the Najib regime pivoted towards China.
The INVOKE connection
From 2019 to 2023, IRI provided millions of dollars in campaign funds for organizations affiliated with Pakatan Harapan, including INVOKE, Cent GPS Research, LEAD, NDI, Merdeka Center and IDEAS. The IRI conducts focus groups and polls before elections, which can help PH learn about public opinion and constantly improve their campaign strategies. The IRI has frequently engaged with Komuniti Muslim Universal since 2022 in order to outreach to Malaysia’s Muslim community, through various programs. The NED and USAID, sometimes through intermediaries like DAO Global, have provided millions of dollars to NGOs around the country.
The IRI also releases poll results in favor of PH to influence public opinion and help PH take office. This can be very clearly seen through Rafizi Ramli’s predictions for the coming state elections. Through local partners, the IRI has provided capacity building programs for PH, teaches campaign skills and helps PH candidates win elections. The IRI provided training sessions for PH just before the 2022 general election, with more than 500 trainees, mainly political leaders and members of Parliament. INVOKE’s structure is shown below.
Another IRI-funded project
In addition, the IRI has been working with NGOs in Malaysia to carry out political activities in schools including training in activism and disseminating information through campus radio and social media.
“At the state level, IRI provides state legislative assembly members from across the political spectrum technical assistance on effective constituent outreach, messaging, communications, policy development, consensus building and negotiation skills” – IRI Website (Malaysia page)
The IRI/NED continues to fund and enable media, NGOs and political parties to promote ideologies and policies compatible to the US agenda for the region. It first did this to assist the then former opposition government which took power in November 2022. Now the IRI/NED is assisting the governing coalition in maintaining and consolidating power, and has been focusing upon the state elections.
Anwar himself is no stranger to the NED. He was Foundation for the Future chairman, a US think tank funded by the US State Department and neocons in Washington DC. He regularly participated in events organized by the NED as a speaker, panelist, or guest. Anwar was an adviser to the World Bank and IMF. The document below details funding for ABIM, the youth organization that was his vehicle to political prominence in the 1980s.
But there are questions about how effective the US effort has been across the world despite the money spent. The youth movement in Thailand delivered what has been called a political earthquake in the number of parliamentary seats it won in the general election in May period. HOwever, Move Forward and its youthful leader ran into heavy going and it appears that Thaksin and his forces, aided by the courts, have outmaneuvered Move Forward in the quest for power.
Whatever forces the US put in play in the tumultuous years with the democracy movement in Hong Kong clearly have been thwarted by the Chinese government, which forced the territory to swallow a draconian national security law and which has jailed scores of protesters and pro democracy advocates, including the entire opposition wing of the legislature, the Legislative Council.
It remains to be seen how successful US aid to Pakatan Harapan will be in the upcoming weekend in the states at play. But transparency of political funding is an important and necessary reform needed in Malaysia. Pakatan Harapan has been publicly asked to explain its funding from the NED/IRI, but to date has not given any public explanations. The US could be faced with what the spooks call blowback.
A version of this appears on Murray Hunter’s blog.