In a stunning upset that virtually nobody saw coming, Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition has soundly trounced the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that has held power for six decades, raising the possibility that Prime Minister Najib Razak, who heads the United Malays National Organization, could be prosecuted for a series of massive scandals.
The vote was also a rare victory for democracy in Southeast Asia, where there are dictatorships in Cambodia and Thailand, an authoritative government in Singapore, a government that looks like it has failed in Myanmar, a rigidly Communist government in Laos and an increasingly menacing one in the Philippines.
The opposition won at least 122 seats in the 220-member parliament, with only 79 for the Barisan Nasional. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which has been informally alzigned with the Barisan, won another 18 and now will govern in two rural east-coast states on the peninsula. Besides retaining Penang and Selangor, Pakatan Harapan won Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Johor, the birthplace of UMNO. Mahathir said at a press conference that the eastern Malaysia state of Sabah has also fallen to the opposition although officially that has not been announced.
Electoral chicanery didn’t work
Najib and UMNO attempted to engineer the May 9 election, the country’s 18th, in their favor with a redistricting plan that compressed as many as 150,000 opposition votes into a single district while leaving some of their own constituencies with as few as 5,000. The government’s controlled press blanked out all favorable opposition news and social media, on which millions of Malaysians depend for news, were placed on watch with a “fake news” law that threatened up to six years of imprisonment and massive fines for whatever the government deemed to be fake news.
The Barisan spent lavishly on handouts to voters. Top opposition figures were threatened with sedition and other law violations and their leader, Anwar Ibrahim, remained in prison on sexual deviancy charges that human rights organizations said were trumped up to keep him out politics. Mahathir told reporters the new government, whish is expected to take power soon, would work to pardon the 70-year-old Anwar and free him.
“Najib took the rural Malays for granted, thinking money would do the trick,” said Din Merican, a Malaysian academic now teaching at the University of Cambodia and whose critical blog was blocked by Malaysian authorities prior to the election. “He was wrong in underestimating the power of [former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad] over the Malays. They are grateful to him.”
Mahathir the driving force
Nonetheless, when the dust settled, it was the 92-year-old Mahathir who led the opposition to a convincing victory in a furious, hard-driving campaign accusing Najib and UMNO of massive corruption and calling them a “government of thieves.” It was the third prime minister he has brought down in his career. Mahathir is expected to be named premier again when the parliament reconvenes, although the understanding is that Anwar will take over when he is released from prison, which should be almost immediately. That is likely to require another election for him to join the parliament.
There were rumors that Najib and UMNO leaders were attempting to rally the police and army into declaring a national emergency and martial law. But, one source told Asia Sentinel, both institutions were split and in the end Najib was forced to cede power.
Now, when the dust settles, it will be necessary to rebuild virtually all of the country’s institutions including the parliament, whose leaders have existed on bribes from the prime minister to keep him in office. The courts have functioned to repress the opposition and to exculpate the guilty among the leadership. The police have investigated only the opposition on political matters. The mainstream press is in the hands of the government-aligned political parties and uses its monopoly to clout the opposition and protect the establishment.
The religious establishment – the leaders of Islam, the major religion in the country — have backed the leadership when needed, loading onto the people a fundamentalism that most do not espouse. The opposition has been emasculated by sedition charges, police pressure, intimidation, hammering by a kept press, and gerrymandering.
Race card kept UMNO in power
Political dynamics – a fear generated among ethnic Malay Muslims that ethnic Chinese would come to dominate the political sphere as well as the business world – along with gerrymandering is largely what kept the Barisan in power during Najib’s nine-year reign. The opposition won the popular vote in 2013 but was kept from power by Malaysia’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system and stringent gerrymandering.
However, he was precluded from playing the race card in this election with Mahathir, once the leader of UMNO and the country for 22 years as a Malay supremacist, ending his own reign in 2003.
Nonetheless, an unpopular but necessary goods and services tax, a perception of rising prices, the endless string of scandals involving Najib and a widespread dislike of his grasping wife, Rosmah Mansor, led rural Malays to sour on UMNO and the prime minister. “They lost the Malays,” one observer told Asia Sentinel.
“There is much to do,” said Americk Sidhu, a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer who has been a prominent foe of Najib. “This is just the beginning. There is much to fix. The first thing the new government needs to do is completely revamp the election commission so that all future elections will be run fairly, which will mean UMNO will never form the government again. And of course we have to create a free, independent and impartial judiciary.”
Opposition members want Najib’s head
Ominously, among the first orders of business could be a move to prosecute Najib and other UMNO leaders on allegations of criminal activity going back to 2006, although Mahathir told reporters that Pakatan Harapan wouldn’t seek revenge on Najib.
However, Najib is the subject of a French investigation into the sale of submarines by the French munitions maker DCNS to the Malaysian government, along with Najib’s close friend Abdul Razak Baginda. It included the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a then-28-year-old translator and party girl who was killed by two of Najib’s bodyguards for reasons that have never been explained. The woman’s death and events surrounding it, including a massive bribe to UMNO to buy the submarines, was the subject of a prize-winning series of stories in Asia Sentinel in 2012.
An even bigger scandal blew out in 2009 with the creation by Najib and a financier friend, Low Taek Jho, of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. a development fund that Najib and his family, Jho Low and others used as a personal piggy bank, looting it for billions. At least RM39 billion (US$9.83 billion at current exchange rates) was said by the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism to have been lost to fraud and mismanagement. A US investigation, which was called the biggest kleptocracy probe ever brought by the US Justice Department, concluded that more than US$2 billion was stolen, with at least US$681 million disappearing into Najib’s own pockets.
The US by now has confiscated more than US$1 billion in property and other assets connected to the Najibs and Jho Low, including the proceeds from movies made by Red Granite Productions, a Hollywood production company partly owned by Reza Aziz, Najib’s son-in-law and Rosmah’s son. Justice Department officials have recently been in a Bali court, trying to get their hands on a 300-foot yacht, the Equanimity, that Jho Low has been doing his best to keep on the high seas. Although they had seized the US$250 million vessel, a Jakarta court ruled the seizure was unlawful. The US is now petitioning once again to seize it.
In addition to Altantuya, two other mysterious murders remain to be solved, including the death of AmBank founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi in 2013. Najadi’s son, Pascal, has repeatedly charged that his father had complained about UMNO financial irregularities at the bank, which was the repository of Najib’s US$681 million which US prosecutors say was funneled from 1MDB. The second is the 2015 murder of Deputy Public Prosecutor Kevin Morais, whose body was found in a cement-filled oil drum in a river. Morais, who played a major role in a suppressed report on 1MDB by the Malaysian Attorney General, was believed to be a whistle-blower passing on information about the case to the critical Sarawak Report, edited from London by Clare Rewcastle Brown. Both Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel have been blocked by the Malaysian communications and media ministry from readership in the country.
Perhaps the biggest question is Mahathir himself, whose authoritarian 22-year reign put in place many of the circumstances that resulted in widespread corruption. He emasculated the judiciary all the way up to the Federal Court after it ruled against him in matters involving UMNO, and for booting two Asian Wall Street Journal reporters out of the country in 1966. He announced that Islam was the official religion. He created the crony capitalism that resulted in a class of rent-seeking Malays who came to depend on inflated government contracts, many awarded under suspicious circumstances. He was largely responsible for taming the press.
Nonetheless, he is revered by the Malay countryside for building the Petronas Towers, which at one point were the two tallest skyscrapers in the world, for bringing the Malaysian Formula 1 race, for the development of Proton, which built the now-ailing national car, and for many other initiatives that pulled Malaysia into the modern world.
Could he change his spots at 92? He has apologized for many of the excesses of his reign — especially when he discovered the courts, the press and other institutions were being used against him in what is expected to be his final act.