Is Malaysia’s Single-Party State Starting to Crack?

Meet the unlikely alliance trying to take down Malaysia’s embattled prime minister.

<> on April 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
<> on April 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — For embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, the coalition trying to unseat him, and the local independent media outlets trying to report on the corruption scandals shaking this country, the past nine months have not been an easy ride. “It’s like we are on a speeding bus without any brakes,” said Steven Gan, the founder and chief editor of Malaysiakini, one of the country’s best-known independent news websites.

Ever since the Wall Street Journal first reported in July 2015 that nearly $700 million found its way into Najib’s personal bank account from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state-owned development fund chaired by the prime minister, political tensions have simmered in this repressive Southeast Asian nation of roughly 30 million people. Kuala Lumpur said the money was a donation from a member of the Saudi royal family and that most of it had been returned; both Najib and 1MDB have denied wrongdoing. The scandal may keep widening: On April 18, Najib’s brother, the financier Nazir Razak, announced he will take a leave of absence from his chairmanship of the bank CIMB Group Holdings while it looks into what he did with almost $7 million he received from the prime minister. Ongoing financial investigations, including in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates, among other places, may uncover new revelations — as may the leaks associated with the Panama Papers from the law firm Mossack Fonseca.

A foreign jurisdiction is highly unlikely to indict Najib — or, for that matter, any sitting head of state — for financial crimes, while domestically, Najib controls the judicial system. But if the prime minister loses the support of his party – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has dominated Malaysian politics since independence – he will probably lose his grip on power. And a newly formed group is working to achieve precisely that.

If the corruption scandal were the only thing troubling the 62-year-old Najib, he’d probably weather this storm. Prime minister since 2009, Najib comes from a family that has long ruled this majority Muslim nation: he is the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister since independence from Britain in 1957 and the nephew of the third. Najib maintains a tight grip on the UMNO with strong support among ethnic Malays, who make up more than half the population. (Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent make up most of the rest.) Some UNMO members who have showed signs of disloyalty have been purged; the anti-corruption commission has been weakened, and in July 2015 Najib replaced the deputy prime minister and the attorney general. Popular protests organized by a coalition of anti-graft activists after the 1MDB revelations — an alliance known as Bersih, or “clean” in Malay — brought thousands onto the streets in August 2015 but failed to unseat, or even noticeably weaken, Najib.

But what might actually cause Najib real problems is the unlikely coalition that has been forged among opposition politicians, anti-graft reformists, and even former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, whom Najib sacked in July 2015. The leader of this unlikely alliance, known as the Save Malaysia campaign, is former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the divisive former strongman who ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003. It’s not a party designed to compete against the UMNO, but a movement focused on forcing Najib from office.

The group has been preparing for a tour of Malaysia’s rural states in a bid to wrest the support of ethnic Malays from the prime minister. The 90-year-old Mahathir is most likely gambling that he can convince powerful figures within UMNO, such as Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, that Najib’s position is untenable and that they should try to arrange a face-saving exit for him before the next general election, which must be held before 2018. “A potential threat may come from disgruntled elite figures that have been removed from their post and that will turn against [Najib] publicly,” said Michael Buehler, an expert in Southeast Asian politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

Even opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir jailed in 1998, has offered support for the alliance. Zaid Ibrahim, a former law minister and ex-UMNO member, says Mahathir’s alliance will gain traction for “better leaders and for better government” as the campaign moves toward its goal of gathering 1 million signatures calling for Najib’s ouster. Insiders say, however, that the coalition is wary of overplaying its hand by engineering mass protests for fear of provoking a draconian government response.

“We don’t want to go to jail if we can avoid it,” Zaid Ibrahim said. That may prove tricky. When Najib was first elected prime minister, he won praise from reformists for allowing some suspended newspapers to reopen and relaxed a law prohibiting students from joining political parties. But by July 2015, “the point at which the 1MDB Titanic hit his office, he started to pull back on all those reforms,” says Syed Saddiq, a prominent student leader and supporter of Save Malaysia.

Malaysia’s determined independent media fear Najib will use Malaysia’s ambiguous sedition laws to go on the offensive against dissenters. And the government’s use of the country’s Sedition Act, passed in 1948, has increased: A January report by the rights group Amnesty International found that Kuala Lumpur utilized it at least 91 times in 2015.

That’s not the only problem Malaysian media faces. State-owned government mouthpieces like the New Straits Times dominate Malaysia’s media landscape, and while journalists are safer than in some other Southeast Asian nations, censorship is frequent and extensive. In July 2015, the government suspended the Edge Weekly and the Edge Financial Daily, two well-known local publications, for their reporting on 1MDB. In mid-March, two journalists from Australian network ABC’s “Four Corners” news program were arrested for trying to doorstep Najib. Days later, the Malaysian Insider, an independent online news publication, announced it would cease operations due to commercial considerations — advertisers bolted after the government blocked the publication for reporting that the anti-graft agency held sufficient evidence to charge Najib. In Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 press freedom index, Malaysia ranked 146 out of 180 countries, behind Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

Gan’s Malaysiakini, which means “Malaysia Now,” works in that fraught space. The site employs about 60 journalists who publish stories in four languages. (Besides the national language, the newspaper publishes in English, Chinese, and Tamil.) Many of the stories are on the 1MDB affair — a subject that is conspicuously absent in state media. Denial of service attacks has obstructed Malaysiakini, according to Gan, while suspiciously organized comments belittling the reporting often appear below stories about the 1MDB scandal. Gan expects the government could block access to the website at any time. “We have no idea what story we report will result in a block, and we are not altering our way that we are reporting,” Gan says. “We will just continue on the way we have been doing all these years.”

Despite pressure from Mahathir’s new alliance, Najib has the upper hand. Najib does worse in the cities — his governing coalition even lost the popular vote in the 2013 election — but because of gerrymandered districts, the countryside is what counts. Mahathir’s best-case scenario is building enough momentum so that UMNO drops Najib and replaces him with another UMNO member.

There’s also the possibility that Mahathir’s fragile alliance will crack before it achieves its aims. Some who have joined aren’t just interested in seeing a change at the top of the government; they’re demanding the rollback of the divide-and-rule ethnic policies practiced for decades by the ethnic Malay-dominated government. (The civil service is staffed almost entirely by Malays, for example, and admission to state universities is subject to quotas by ethnicity.) But many of Mahathir’s allies suspect he is interested only in orchestrating Najib’s downfall.

“Any prime minister who has $681 million with him is not doing something right,” Mahathir told Bloomberg in a February interview, referring to the money Najib received from 1MDB. His bet is such allegations will be sufficient to bring the Malaysian prime minister down. But there’s reason to doubt, regardless of the name of his movement, whether that will be sufficient to save Malaysia.

Image Credit: MOHD SAMSUL MOHD SAID/Getty Images

Harry Jacques is a regular contributor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and has written news and features for the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Nikkei Asian Review.

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