KAMPUNG BUKIT, KEDAH, MALAYSIA — With police investigating him under Malaysia’s new anti-“fake news” law, Mahathir Mohamad, the nearly 93-year-old former prime minister turned opposition frontman, says his country faces its dirtiest election on Wednesday. The governing coalition “will cheat like mad, they will steal votes, but still I think we can win,” Mahathir said in an interview with The Times, stepping off a makeshift stage and into a nearby BMW waiting to take him to yet another campaign rally. Defying his age, Mahathir had just wrapped up a half-hour stump speech in this farming area about a 20-mile drive from Aloh Setar, the capital of Kedah state, his home base. Kedah has typically been a government stronghold, although the green flags of Malaysia’s Islamist party also flutter along its roadsides. Mahathir wants to swing the state, and enough rural Muslim Malays across the country, to his four-party opposition grouping known as the Alliance of Hope.
GEORGE TOWN — Not many people give Malaysia’s opposition much hope of ending the Barisan Nasional’s 13 election winning streak, when the country goes to the polls next Wednesday May 9th. “For a government to rule for 60 years in a democracy, it shows there is something wrong with the country,” said Harindra Singh, a volunteer canvasser with the Democratic Action Party, the biggest of the 4 parties that make up the opposition coalition. The Barisan Nasional, or National Front, has governed Malaysia since independence from the UK in 1957. In the last elections held almost 5 years ago to the day, the Front lost the popular vote by 3% but still won enough of a majority of parliamentary seats to once again form a government.
MELAKA — “Fun” is a subjective concept, as is the even more nebulous “culture.” As for “heritage,” it is a debatable term too, but can be more or less quantified by the range and antiquity of buildings and monuments that make up a place. But how about cruising through a UNESCO World Heritage site in a garish Pokemon or Hello Kitty-decor trishaw, a speaker blaring Taylor Swift from the roof and exhorting passers-by to “Shake It Off,” as a wizened driver struggles to pedal a cartload of tourists along a cobbled street toward the ruins of a 16th century church? Fun?
KUALA LUMPUR — He remains Malaysia’s longest-ruling prime minister and was one of 20th Century Asia’s most outspoken political leaders. Now Mahathir Mohamad cannot even meet opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former colleague-turned-rival. The two are back on the same side, but prison authorities refused to allow the men to meet as planned on Wednesday, because “there was no official request,” according to Nurul Izzah Anwar, an opposition lawmaker and Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter.
KUALA LUMPUR — Denying Mahathir permission to meet Anwar was another reminder of what the opposition sees as a rigged status quo. “We have been governed by an autocratic and unfair system for many years,” said Nurul Izzah Anwar, who pointed out that Prime Minister Najib Razak was allowed meet her father. During the last elections held in 2013, the opposition coalition — then known as the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) — won 52% of the popular vote but gerrymandered rural constituencies meant they finished with only 40% of seats. If Mahathir does somehow replace Najib, he will be world’s oldest head of government. Although he has no problem speaking at a podium or walking the streets meeting supporters – in age terms it would be like Americans electing George Bush Senior in 2016. It is not just Mahathir’s age that make him a surprise choice. An authoritarian prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he implemented many of the rules that will make it difficult for him to return to office.
SHAH ALAM — More than a month into the murder trial in one of the most brazen, cunning and perplexing assassinations seen in a long time, defence lawyer Gooi Soon Seng was on the front foot. “When was the first time you identified them, when was the first time you saw the CCTV footage?” Seng asked Wan Azirul, a police investigator and prosecution witness. The lawyer was referring to 4 North Korean men seen on footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13 this year. That morning, Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was poisoned with VX, a chemical weapon, while waiting at the airport to board a flight to Macau. The grainy security camera videos could be key to the case against the only two people standing trial in the case, which is being tried In a small courtroom about 20 miles from the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
SHAH ALAM — The two defendants appeared in court with scarves wrapped around their heads, partially obscuring their faces. One of the young women spoke animatedly, hands awhirl as she bantered with her lawyers during a recess. Her relaxed demeanor belied the charges against them. Since Oct. 2, Siti Aisyah, a 26-year-old Indonesian, and Doan Thi Huong, a 29-year-old Vietnamese, have been on trial in a Malaysian courtroom for what prosecutors consider a brazen assassination. The court has seen the closed-circuit camera footage from Feb. 13 at the airport in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur — aired on TV worldwide — that shows the two women sidling up to a portly, middle-aged man and appearing to rub their hands in his face. The man, who turned out to be 46-year-old Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, died shortly afterward from what an autopsy concluded was exposure to the lethal nerve agent VX.
KUALA LUMPUR — For fifth time in less than a decade, thousands of yellow-clad supporters of an electoral reform movement called Bersih (Malay for ‘clean’) jammed streets in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday in their latest demonstration seeking change. But for the last year and a half, the group, which is backed by Malaysia’s opposition parties, have been seeking change at the top – the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak over lurid corruption allegations involving a state development fund called 1MDB. Najib is accused of trousering around $US700 billion allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB, public money that was supposed to help Malaysia meet its target of becoming a developed country by 2020 but which allegedly ended up in the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. Najib claimed the money was a Saudi Arabian donation, most of which was repaid. As well as being cleared of wrong-doing by the attorney-general, the prime minister has parried all comers so far, including his own deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was fired after criticizing the boss over the allegations of financial impropriety.
KUALA LUMPUR – The rally was a show of strength by Najib’s opponents but looked unlikely to shake his hold on power, which has weakened amid allegations that around $700 million in public money was deposited into bank accounts in his name. The scandal over a state development fund Najib set up in 2009 has drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies from around the world. The Justice Department alleged in July that “an international conspiracy” helped siphon $3.5 billion from the fund, known as 1MDB. Some of the money is alleged to have been used to set up a Hollywood production company led by Najib’s stepson that made, among other films, “The Wolf of Wall Street” – a story of financial corruption. Najib, who was in Peru on an official visit, has said he never took money “for personal gain” and called the deposits a donation from Saudi Arabia that he mostly repaid. The corruption scandal has gripped a country that has otherwise been a bulwark of political stability in Southeast Asia, long embraced by the West for its moderate brand of Islam. Stung by the criticism, Najib has recently played up Malaysia’s growing ties with China and castigated Western powers for interfering in former colonies. In recent months, as calls for his resignation have grown louder, several leading opposition politicians have been charged or jailed on a variety of offenses including sedition and breaches of communications laws. Among those facing prison was Rafizi Ramli, an opposition parliamentarian who joined the demonstration, saying Najib “will try to cling to power because [otherwise] he will go to jail.”
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Like its bigger neighbor Indonesia, Malaysia has mostly had the reputation of a Muslim-majority country that does not oppress its religious minorities. Its live-and-let-live disposition is far removed from the rigors faced by Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where churches cannot be built nor Mass said; or Pakistan, where Christians are expected to adhere to a strict anti-blasphemy law that critics say favors Islam over other faiths; or Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled war and ensuing attacks by Islamist militias. At St. John’s Cathedral and other churches in Kuala Lumpur, a modern and lively city of around 2 million people, worshippers gather every Sunday for Masses in English and in Tamil, the main language of Malaysia’s 7% minority descended from South-Asian settlers who migrated during British colonial rule, as well as in Tagalog, the language of many of the tens of thousands of Filipino migrant workers living in wealthier-neighbor Malaysia. But despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s praise for Malaysia in late 2015, during an official visit to the country, describing it as “a majority-Muslim country that represents tolerance and peace,” there are signs of a growing Islamization in politics in this country of 30 million people, where around 60% of the population is Muslim. Non-Muslims have been barred from using the Arabic term “Allah” to denote God, with authorities confiscating Bibles containing the proscribed word, after the local Catholic Church lost a legal challenge to allow non-Muslims to keep using the word, which was a long-established linguistic practice.