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I was born in the British colony Malaya (as it then was), and was a child there when it achieved independence in 1957, leaving when I was a teenager in the 60s to finish my education in the UK.
I have visited Malaysia frequently in recent years, and it is no longer the sleepy backwater of my youth. The tin mines have now gone, and the rubber plantations have given way to the environmentally disastrous palm oil, the latter (unlike the rubber trees) providing no kind of canopy for animals which now face extinction from a loss of habitat.
Malaysia today belongs to the second tier of the so-called Asian Tigers– the first tier comprising Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and of course China.
Joining Malaysia in the second tier are Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, with Malaysia being at the top of this tier.
The difference between the two tiers is stark, while of course tolerating some overlaps if these are deemed mutually beneficial .
Symbolically, first-tier Japan has Sony, Mitsubishi, Honda and Toyota; South Korea has Samsung and Hyundai; Taiwan has ASUS; Singapore projects itself as Asia’s equivalent of Switzerland where financial services are concerned; and China has Lenovo and just about everything else.
The second-tier Asian Tigers basically assemble what’s made in their first-tier counterparts, or they make toothpaste, chain-link fencing, electric cables, and so forth.
The leader responsible for Malaysia’s ascent into this second-tier is Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister from 1981-2003.
Mahathir’s time as prime minister was marked not only by considerable economic success, but also by a ruthless authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent. Political opponents were thrown in jail, the judiciary was stacked with Mahathir puppets, the media was stifled, and the policy of “affirmative action” for the Malay majority was concretized. This policy served already well-off and mainly urban Malays much more than it did their more numerous impoverished ethnic counterparts in rural areas. It also turned the Chinese and Indian minorities into second-class citizens.
The highwater mark of Mahathir’s hatred of dissent was his treatment of his deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, when they disagreed on a response to the IMF’s proposals for dealing with the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The IMF, as always, recommended its always counterproductive tighter fiscal controls and reduced public spending, which Mahathir ignored while Anwar wanted to hew to the IMF line. Mahathir’s Keynesianism was vindicated when Malaysia recovered more quickly than other Asian countries, but this disagreement led to a bitter falling-out between the two.
Anwar was sacked from his cabinet post, expelled from the ruling party, and jailed for corruption and sodomy after a trail that failed in the eyes of many to meet the standards of due process.
Mahathir retired in 2003, but wielded considerable power behind the scenes.
He criticized his first successor, the somnolent Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, for poor economic management. The sluggish Badawi once had a group of politicians come to his office to deliver a pillow as a gift to Badawi (after the media had been tipped-off in advance about the soon to occur gift-giving).
Mahathir also supported Badawi’s successor Najib Razak in the 2013 elections.
Mahathir turned against Najib when the latter became implicated in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1MDB state fund, created to promote economic development, and headed by Najib himself.
According to the US Justice Department at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB. Najib denied any wrongdoing.
Despite his denial, Najib did everything to obstruct an investigation into the missing funds.
The attorney general in charge of the investigation, who seemed on the verge of charging Najib with corruption, was sacked and replaced by a Najib crony who promptly cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Two minsters critical of Najib’s handling of the scandal lost their positions, and several media outlets were shut down for their reporting on Najib and the missing money. Political opponents critical of Najib were arrested and detained.
Mahathir made repeated calls for Najib to resign, before founding his own political party in 2017. In an astonishing development, Mahathir entered into a new political alliance, named Pakatan Harapan (PH), with his former enemy Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) (People’s Justice Party). Anwar was now in prison for a second time after Najib had him charged with sodomy in tainted legal proceedings.
Anwar’s status as a felon meant he could not engage in political activity, so PKR was officially led by his wife Wan Azizah.
The recent general election turned out to be a watershed in Malaysia’s history. The ruling party Barisan Nasional (BN) had been in power for 61 years since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
Najib, mindful that ceasing to be prime minister would remove the shield he had against the resumption of an investigation into his part in the 1MBD scandal, indulged in a further bout of gerrymandering (always a routine BN practice in any event) and offered inducements all round in a bid to buy votes.
None of this worked this time, and the Mahathir-led PH won the election.
Najib did not concede immediately, and offered money in an attempt to peel MPs away from PH. He also argued that since PH was a coalition and not a single party (a piece of brazen cheek since his own party, BN, was itself a political bloc consisting of a Malay, a Chinese, and an Indian party), the decision to form the government should be left to the king. His thinking here may have been guided by the fact that Mahathir, during his time as prime minister, had been successful in getting parliament to reduce the power of the 9 sultans who took turns to be king for a 5-year period. The sultans ostensibly had no reason to do Mahathir any favours.
However, Mahathir prevailed, and PH became the government, with Mahathir as prime minister and Wan Azizah as his deputy. An agreement was made in which the king would be asked to pardon Anwar in order to allow him to reenter politics, and Mahathir would hand over the premiership to Anwar after two years. Anwar’s royal pardon was issued within days.
Najib and his wife tried to leave the country, but were intercepted at the airport. His residences have been raided by the police, and the investigation into the missing 1MDB funds has resumed. Six other countries are trying to trace the missing money.
According to The Independent, the raids on Najib’s properties have so far yielded 284 designer handbags and 72 suitcases stuffed with cash and jewellery. Najib’s wife Rosmah is widely ridiculed on social media for being a doppelganger of Imelda Marcos.
Police are still trying to crack open a safe in one of the residences.
It is only a matter of time before Najib is in the dock for corruption, and he must hope he receives a fairer trial than the two that were inflicted on Anwar.
So far, so good. But optimism about Malaysia’s political future has to be guarded.
First of all, the PH coalition was united primarily by its opposition to Najib. Now that he is out of the way, can other ways be found to maintain its unity? If not, the coalition will surely unravel, another general election will have to be called, and if turns out to be indecisive, Malaysia may be on the road to having Asia’s equivalent of Italy’s age-old political circus.
Then there is Mahathir himself, the mercurial 92-year-old autocrat, who will now have to work with his former enemy, and find a way to rein-in his despotic impulses and so far undimmed zest for political brawling.
This may require a personality transplant, since Dr M, as he is known, has never been able to work with anyone unless they subordinated themselves to him completely– the American saying “It’s my way or the highway” will probably be the epitaph on Dr M’s tomb.
Moreover, Dr M’s time in office had its own shadowy aspects—in addition to his authoritarianism, there was cronyism and nepotism (Mahathir’s successors did not invent these!) and a lot of shady dealing. Everything had to yield to economic development, and the environment has suffered greatly, and inequality increased.
Non-Malay Malaysians, discriminated against, started leaving the country in droves, and Malaysia has undergone a massive brain drain. The brain drain will not be reversed unless the discriminatory policies against non-Malays are ended. This will be very difficult to accomplish because deeply entrenched patronage networks based on these policies will be threatened by such a reversal, and the push-back from those who benefit from these networks will be intense.
For now, there is justified hope in Malaysia, but as a well-known French Marxist philosopher once said: “the future lasts a long time”.