Gwynne Dyer: Malaysia's Najib Razak in trouble

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      “There's no more rule of law,” said Mahathir Mohamad, the 90-year-old grandee who was prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years. “The only way for the people to get back to the old system is for them to remove this prime minister.” 

      Mahathir has been openly criticising the current prime minister, Najib Razak, for the past year although they both belong to the same political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). What made it special this time was that he said it at a two-day mass demonstration in the centre of Kuala Lumpur.

      Mass demonstrations are normally attacked and dispersed by the police in Malaysia despite its formally democratic system, but this time the police remained peaceful. There were the usual disputes about how many people were there, with the organisers claiming 300,000 and the police saying 20,000, but the important thing was that Mahathir showed up and gave it his support. 

      There’s certainly good reason to demand Najib Razak’s resignation as prime minister. In July the Wall Street Journal published a report that $700 million had been transferred into his personal bank accounts in 2013 by the deeply indebted 1MDB state investment fund, which he created in 2009 shortly after becoming prime minister. He remains chairman of the fund’s board of advisers even today. 

      At first Najib just denied it all. He fired his deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, for criticising his handing of the affair, and also the attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail, who was leading the the investigation into the scandal.

      Then, when it became impossible to deny that the money had appeared in his accounts, his advisers began claiming that it had come not from 1MDB but as a “political donation” from unnamed Middle Eastern sources.

      Whether it was really looted from the 1MDB investment fund or just given to Najib by a “wealthy Arab family”, its purpose was clear. It was not to enrich Razak personally. It was to swing the outcome of the 2013 election, which Najib’s party was in danger of losing.

      In a normal democracy, accepting the better part of a billion dollars from foreigners to win an election would be just as serious a crime as stealing it from a national investment fund, but Malaysia is not a normal democracy. It has been effectively a single-party state since independence in 1957, because the great majority of ethnic Malays vote for UMNO and its allies in order to retain their special privileges in the country. 

      Malays, who are almost all Muslims, were the original population in most of the country and still account for 60 percent of its people. However, large-scale immigration by Chinese and Indians in the 19th century shifted the balance: Chinese Malaysians now account for about a quarter of the population, and people of Indian descent for around one-tenth. 

      Moreover, it is the Chinese who dominate the country economically, a fact that led to the bloody race riots of 1969. Since then, Malays have enjoyed cheaper housing, priority in government jobs and business licenses, and in practice (though no longer in theory) better access to university courses, in order to help them catch up economically with the Chinese and Indian populations.

      The policy has had some success: average household incomes have converged, with Malay families going from about 40 percent of Chinese family earnings in 1970 to around 70 percent in 2009. Most Malays nevertheless feel this institutionalised favouritism is still necessary, and vote UMNO to protect it—while a majority of Chinese and Indian Malaysians undoubtedly feel that half a century of extra privileges for Malays is enough. 

      That’s why the great majority of protesters at last weekend’s demonstration in Kuala Lumpur were ethnically Chinese or Indian. Najib's financial misdeeds provided a justification for the protest, and even many Malays want to see the back of Najib, but the Malays stayed away because they detect a deeper agenda in the protest movement.

      Matters are further complicated by the fact that all Malays are Muslims whereas practically nobody else is. Mahathir was exploiting the demo in order to further his campaign to unseat Razak in an internal conflict within UMNO, but he certainly does not want to end the Malay-Muslim domination of the country’s politics or dismantle Malay privileges. 

      “What is 20,000 (demonstrators)? We can gather hundreds of thousands,” said Najib after the demonstration. “The rest of the Malaysian population is with the government.” Or at least most Malays are, especially in rural areas, and that’s probably enough for him to ride out this crisis unless Malaysia’s economic situation worsens.

      The Malaysian economy has slowed down dramatically since Chinese demand for imports and the price of oil both began to collapse. Malaysia’s currency, the ringgit, is in free-fall. If it gets bad enough, Najib will have to go. 

      Whatever the injustices involved, it’s probably better for everybody that the ethnic can of worms stays firmly closed for a while yet, so UMNO should be thinking hard about a successor who will be acceptable to everybody.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

      Comments

      7 Comments

      I Chandler

      Aug 31, 2015 at 5:52pm

      DYER: "Mahathir has been openly criticising the current pm, Razak, although they both belong to the same party, the UMNO. "

      Jeremy Corbyn has criticized Tony Blair, although they both belong to the same party: "All those responsible for the illegal Iraq war should stand trial for war crimes." ...Tony's advisers remarked that it would all be forgotten in a few weeks: https://youtu.be/d6VEKVHu2mY
      After five years, Tony Blair's Chilcot report has still not been released. Families of soldiers who died are threatening legal action against Chilcot.

      DYER: "In July the Wall Street Journal published a report that $700 million had been transferred into his personal bank accounts"

      A commission might clear Razak's name. It worked wonders for Brian Mulroney's pasta business: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airbus_affair#Oliphant_Commission_Report

      DYER: "Chinese dominate the country economically, a fact that led to the bloody race riots."

      Thousands of ethnic Chinese were also killed (and expelled) in Indonesia. The CIA denied active involvement in the killings. It was later revealed that the American government provided extensive lists to death squads. There was a consensus at the highest levels of the American and British governments that it would be necessary "to liquidate Sukarno," as related in a CIA memo.

      Arman

      Sep 1, 2015 at 1:25am

      I Chandler,
      Another post that has nothing to do with the original article? Why don't you start your own blog and get off this site if you have nothing to contribute on topic?
      I enjoy Dyer's analysis of world events, even though I may not agree with all of his interpretations.
      I suggest you check out this site, another interesting perspective, but possibly more more in tune to what you are seem to be passionate about http://ericmargolis.com/

      Anonymous

      Sep 1, 2015 at 10:32am

      Najib is the most useless Prime Minister ever in the history Malaysia. A man highly suspected of involvment in two murders - Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa - a Mongolian beauty and Hussain Najadi - a Banker that reported the US$700 million deposited into his account. An absolute disgrace to the country of Malaysia. It is very sad and distrubing that our Provincial and Federal politicians wants to do business with this man.

      IH

      Sep 2, 2015 at 9:58am

      There's a distinctly cynical tone to punditry and general political zeitgeist this year. Year of the real-politic, perhaps.

      "Revolution" in Syrian and ISIS with their lunatic theocratic empire aspirations? Just team up with "moderate islamists" that don't behead blashphemers and apostates until after after the trial. Intervention? No, intervention will only make things worse. Israeli-Arab peace? No, not practical. Lets just try to prevent the next mini-war.

      Overthrow of democracy in Thailand? Ah.. the democratically elected leader was just as corrupt. Military dictatorship counter revolution in Egypt? Well.. arab democracy is blah. They voted for the MB, FGS.

      Another generation of institutionalized racism in the largest muslim democracy? Best not touch the ethno-religious can of worms just now.

      I'm not saying I disagree, but this inarguably a dark tae on things.

      Uncle Jack

      Sep 4, 2015 at 5:25pm

      @ Chandler
      Pay no notice to Arman and other hard core Dyerites,you are doing a good job on this platform.

      Mosby

      Sep 6, 2015 at 7:13pm

      "In a normal democracy..."

      Are there any examples of "normal" democracies anywhere in the world today? Is there a country whose politicians actually represent the interests of the general populace? Or are they all in it (to varying degrees) for themselves and their corporate "friends"?

      doconnor

      Sep 8, 2015 at 7:31am

      @Mosby I've heard good things about Iceland since the crash. The Pirate Party currently leads the polls.