By David Pilling
April 17, 2015
Is Malaysia falling apart? The very idea seems absurd. After all, is it not one of southeast Asia’s wealthiest and most stable countries, with regular elections and a solid middle class?
Unlike Thailand, presently under military rule, Malaysia is not prone to coups. Civilians have run the country since it won independence from Britain in 1957. Unlike Indonesia, which has only just graduated from low-income status, it has long been relatively prosperous. It is praised for being a moderate majority Muslim nation; 60 per cent of its 30 million people are Muslim, predominantly Malay, with about 25 per cent ethnic Chinese and the rest Indians and other ethnic minorities. The race riots of 1969, in which many Chinese were killed, are a distant memory.
Scratch below the surface, however, and Malaysia is undergoing a slow-motion political crisis. True, you could plausibly have said much the same at any point since 1998 when Anwar Ebrahim, the mercurial leader-in-waiting, fell out with Mahathir Mohammad, who ran the country for two decades until 2003. Since then, although the United Malays National Organisation has extended its run to almost six decades, the political system has been inherently unstable. Last year, a three-party coalition led by Ebrahim won just over 50 per cent of the vote, which brought it close to power although the system is stacked in favour of the incumbents.
If something has been rotten in the state of Malaysia for some time, this year, the sense of crisis has come to a head. First, in February, Ebrahim was convicted on politically motivated charges. He received five years in jail after his appeal was rejected in court. He has already served six years, ending in 2004, on a similar count. Now 67 and banned from office for five years after his release, his conviction appears to spell the end of his political career.
Ebrahim is by no means a straightforward figure. He has flirted with radical Islam and was a champion of the system of positive discrimination towards Malays that he now favours dismantling. Still, his removal neutralises the country’s most gifted politician, creating a dangerous vacuum.
Second, Malaysia is engulfed by a scandal involving a national development fund that has racked up $11.5 billion (Dh42.29 billion) in debts. The advisory board of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund is chaired by none other than Najeeb Razak, the Prime Minister. Worryingly, 1MDB has switched auditors twice since 2009. Razak has attempted to kick the issue into touch by ordering the auditor-general to look into 1MDB’s accounts. The fund is seeking to repair its balance sheet by spinning off some of its power assets. Yet, the affair has cast a pall over the Razak government, which has presented itself as fiscally responsible and reform-minded.
Third, 89-year-old Mahathir, who still wields considerable if waning influence, has come out explicitly against Razak. He has said the prime minister, whom he helped install six years ago, does not have what it takes to defend the interests of Malays or to ensure another Umno victory. Yet, in the absence of an obvious successor, his intervention has left Umno scratching its head as to who could come next.
The confluence of events has had a deeply destabilising effect. The opposition is in even worse trouble than the government. With Ebrahim gone, his coalition is in danger of splintering. The largely ethnic Chinese Democratic Action party has fallen out with the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, which has imposed a form of Sharia in one northern state, a policy it would like to extend nationwide. The danger for Malaysia is that, in order to shore up the majority Malay vote, Umno will shift to more overtly Islamist ground.
Moderates already detect growing intolerance in everything from banning Christians from using the word Allah to a clampdown on traditional (un-Islamic) dancing. This month, a prevention of terrorism act and amendments to the sedition act were passed, which many fear could be used to quash the opposition. Human Rights Watch said the laws would have “a chilling effect on freedom of expression”.
Razak and his party must resist the temptation to polarise the country or to clamp down on its freedoms in the cause of narrow political interests. James Chin of the University of Tasmania fears Malaysia is drifting from its moderate roots towards radical Islam — from which, he says, there will be no return. That may be too pessimistic. Yet, Malaysia is certainly drifting. If that continues for too long, things will not end happily.