In Malaysia, nothing succeeds like succession – ISN

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A former minister says ‘democracy is looking bleak’ as scandal-tarnished prime minister takes office,  Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.


'Selamat Jalan'. Abdullah Badawi leaves office (Saeed Khan, AFP/Getty)

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” He was giving directions to his house in New Jersey, but Yogi Berra’s famous malapropism gets right at what is happening in Malaysia these days.

With newly crowned United Malays National Organization (UMNO) leader Najib Razak set to become prime minister any day now, it seems his party, which dominates the omnipresent Barisan National (BN) ruling coalition, is trying to take both roads.

Speakers at the handover conference, including Razak and outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, made ominous warnings to the delegates about the party’s future: “We must come to our senses,” Badawi warned, blaming corruption and complacency for the party’s flagging fortunes.

The outgoing prime minister added that UMNO would perish if it continued to silence critics, jail opponents and discriminate against minority Chinese and Indians. (Malays, who are defined as Muslims by law, make up around 60 percent of the population, with Chinese and Indians comprising most of the remainder.)

After 1,000 Malaysians – mainly ethnic Chinese – were murdered in 1969 race riots, the politically-dominant Malays instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP), intended as an affirmative-action system to boost Malays economic status, by giving them preferential access to education, business grants and the like.

In recent years, however, Chinese and Indian Malays have argued that the NEP is long past its sell-by date, with Malays already attaining the social and economic benchmarks set under the deal.

The NEP is unlikely to be shelved anytime soon, leaving Badawi to pass the baton to Najib with some sweeping but vague advice – “UMNO faces a life and death situation – one that concerns our future and survival.”

Winds of Change, or hot air?

UMNO has effectively ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence, pitching in with Chinese and Indian parties to ensure at least a veneer of inter-ethnic fraternity in the Malay-dominated BN coalition.

However, after a tumultuous couple of years marked by racial tension (and a much-reduced Chinese/Indian vote for BN parties), sectarian rabble-rousing and the worst electoral result in the party’s history, UMNOs affectations of change must be seen for what they are.

Firstly, with three by-elections due for 7 April, these pledges are being made with voters in mind – especially since UMNO lost an apparent safe regional seat back in January. Should Razak lose his first electoral contest to the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, it would immediately undermine a premiership that has been controversial from the get-go.

Secondly, the comments can be partly taken as a slight on Mahathir Mohammad, the 84-year- old eminence grise of Malaysian and UMNO politics. Mohammad, renowned for his acid-tongued criticism of the West, ruled from 1981 to 2003 and is still considered a massively influential figure in UMNO. However, his son lost out to Badawi’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, in the race to be named UMNO youth leader, doubling the slight. Mahathir once made a contrived exit from UMNO in protest at what he saw as Badawi’s weaknesses, but it all looked more like a stunt aimed at the latter. Thus, Khairy’s win was perhaps Badawi’s quasi-Oedipal payback, for UMNO father-figure Mahathir’s constant sniping.

Thirdly, the pledges are an attempt to divert attention from government clampdowns. On 23 March, police fired tear gas on a rally in Kedah as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was speaking to the crowd. Reporters from popular online media, including Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider, were denied credentials by the party to cover the UMNO party congress.

Most worryingly, last week the government shut down two opposition party newspapers. The ban is for three months – long enough to get past the 7 April by-elections for three parliamentary seats, which if won by the opposition, would mar Razak’s succession. The ban also takes in an expected verdict next month on a sensational murder trial involving French submarine contracts, shady intelligence characters and a Mongolian model-cum-interpreter killed in a forest outside Kuala Lumpur.

The opposition links Najib to the scandal. Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad was elected to the Selangor state assembly in March 2008 for Anwar’s People’s Justice party. He told ISN Security Watch: “No other prime minister in Malaysia has come to power with so much baggage as Najib [Razak]. There are too many questions surrounding defense procurements worth billions of dollars as well as the murder of Altantuya Shariibu, the Mongolian model linked to his aides that continue to affect his credibility. It would take a miracle for Najib to function as a viable PM.”

Najob’s response was carried on international news wires in recent days. “They are malicious, baseless lies. I have given my replies but they persist because it a ploy by the opposition. Give me a chance, judge me by my actions, don’t judge me on rumors and baseless allegations” , he said,

Actions already taken, while Razak was deputy prime minister, include dubious moves against the opposition parties in Perak, where it recently persuaded three state parliamentarians to switch alliances, thereby shifting the state government’s balance of power in UMNOs favor. The sultan of Perak validated the move, the opposition contested it and a court case is under way. But a lawyer who said the sultan’s decision was unconstitutional and suggested he might sue the sultan, was himself charged with sedition last week.

Razak is thought to favor a return to Mahathir-type controls, after Badawi’s tenure saw a loosening of Malaysia’s stodgy-to-overbearing media regime and freedom of speech rules. Now, rather than examine their party’s own performance, some UMNO backbenchers see the liberalization as catalyst for some of the recent electoral losses.

Bleak House

The selection procedure for Razak was par for the course: Only one other candidate tried to run against him – former finance minister Razalagh Hamzah – but failed to get enough nominations. The procedure was almost certainly gerrymandered to ensure Razak’s succession, as under party rules, prospective leaders need to secure endorsement from division chiefs, who in turn owe their position to party grandees.

Such an opaque process has not gone unnoticed. A recent national voter survey conducted by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research showed that 79 percent of voters say that “UMNO delegates must take into consideration the views of ordinary Malaysians in determining [the] UMNO leadership line-up as it influences national politics.”

Only 16 percent of voters are happy with UMNO maintaining full ownership of leadership decisions, which is probably fair enough, given the party’s long-standing predominance.

Badawi’s much-vaunted promises to end corruption and bring about racial equality yielded few results. One of those who was involved in the anti-corruption and racial equality projects was Zaid Ibrahim, appointed by Badawi last year as a minister tasked with cleaning out the country’s scandal-ridden judiciary. However, Zaid was forced out by UMNO rivals.

“The recent clampdown on opposition newspapers showed his desperation. The already limited space of freedom is further curtailed. Democracy in Malaysia is looking bleak,” he told ISN Security Watch.

Back to the future

The country’s trade-dependent economy is being hit hard by the global recession. GDP growth is forecast to contract this quarter after growth of just 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and unemployment is rising. As western demand slumps, the export-driven Malaysian suffers.

During the UMNO conference, Razak acknowledged the political implications of the downturn. “Economic progress and better education have directly resulted in the birth of a class of voters who are better informed, very demanding and highly critical,” he said.

“If we do not heed this message, their seething anger will become hatred, and in the end this may cause them to abandon us altogether.”

Razak put his name to an op-ed in the Wall St Journal recently, outlining his economic proposals. Some opposition politicians have decried his strategy as deficit spending for the sake of it, with more contracts for corporate cronies linked to UMNO elites, and little by way of innovative or creative thinking to help Malaysia see out the downturn.

Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysia expert at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told ISN Security Watch: “Najib comes in at a time when the party is on the slippery slope, so he does not have the luxury of time, and he needs to act decisively to turn things around. I only hope he will choose the soft way, and not the hard way.”

But regression to Mahathir-era repression – only this time in a polarized political environment with religious and ethnic overtones – seems imminent. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, its a bit like deja-vu all over again.

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