Malaysia’s ‘strongman’?


BY BRIDGET WELSH

As Malaysia’s premier Najib Tun Razak holds onto power the crisis surrounding the country’s sovereign development fund, 1MDB, has deepened.

In preparations for the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) General Assembly next month, there are moves afoot to purge critics from the party. It had become apparent that Najib will do everything to stay in power.

Short-term Najib has increased his chances for political survival, but in the longer term he has weakened his political foundation by narrowing his base of political support and undermining the political fortunes of his own party.

The following examines several key features that distinguish Najib’s management of the 1MBD crisis from those of earlier premiers. Responses to the scandal suggest that Najib has weakened his leadership.

Past crises

Political crises in Malaysia are not new. The most damaging ones have arisen from within UMNO, the political party that has controlled national government since independence.

From 1969 to 1999, each crisis has seen challenges arising from declining leadership confidence, fierce personalised battles for position, selective arrests of critics, damage of political institutions including the judiciary and the police as well as rises in racial tensions.

Crises have often led to increased authoritarianism, as leaders use their control of the executive office and levers of power to contain challengers and rebuild support; 1MDB is no exception. The recent Human Rights Watch report on the attacks on critics details one of these features, as the past two years has witnessed broad use and interpretation of draconian laws to arrest and charge individuals critical of the Najib administration.

There are elements of the current 1MDB crisis that differentiate it from earlier crises. The 1MDB fund extends beyond Malaysian borders, involving extensive investments and investigations outside. It also involves record amounts of money that make earlier corruption allegations pale in comparison.

Malaysia’s economy is dependent on investment and 1MDB has severely negatively impacted these flows. Money from 1MDB also goes to the heart of political legitimacy in Malaysia as they are alleged to involve funding for the 2013 general election. Perhaps most different of all, is that the crisis involves Najib whose response to 1MDB has shaped its evolution. Here are five key differences in this regard and their implications.

Normalising scandal

More than any premier in Malaysia’s history, Najib has been dogged with scandal and political baggage. From Port Dickson meetings to Altantayu’s murder, his leadership has been clouded in allegations and innuendo.

The scandals extend to his family, especially his wife Rosmah Mansor, whose powerful unelected political role is unprecedented, and in some quarters deeply resented.

Unlike a Teflon phenomenon, where scandals have not scathed leadership, the opposite dynamic has emerged in Malaysia. In sponge-like fashion, Najib has absorbed the scandals, reducing their shock and dampening their toxic effects.

Scandals have become so common place in Malaysia that they have lost the impact to remove leaders from office – at least for now.

Shattering leadership confidence

These scandals have left a serious imprint on the political landscape. Malaysia has long been known for its feudal politics, with leaders followed and respected. Over time, challenging leaders has become more common, with the 1999 scandal involving Dr Mahathir Mohamad a watershed in this regard.

Najib’s leadership has broken records in eroding public views of national leaders. His move from the 1Malaysia to 1MDB brand has taken a premier who failed to win a majority of the electorate in 2013 to the low of less than a third of public support.

Not only does the premier have the lowest popular support on record in public polling, large shares of Malaysians are ashamed of their leader with some expressing ridicule and hatred. The initiatives to go after senior UMNO leaders, will only narrow Najib’s base further as the foundation of his support remains largely die-hard UMNO members.

While Najib’s fall in confidence spills over into governance and government, it also leaves an imprint on Malaysian politics as a whole in that it undercuts faith in the overall political system.

Personalising political institutions

Malaysia’s executive dominates other political institutions. Both Najib’s father Tun Razak and Tun Mahathir expanded powers in this branch of government in the wake of earlier political crises.

In Najib’s case he has been building the power of his office since he assumed office, raising the budget allocations to RM20.6 billion in the 2016 budget (equivalent of 7.6 per cent of the entire budget), increasing its decision-making power and broadening oversight.

One area where Najib’s powers have expanded is in the control of government-linked companies and bodies by using personal loyalists as appointees, such as 1MDB. Najib relies on his office to a greater extent than any other leader.

To date, the 1MDB scandal has negatively affected the parliament, judiciary and attorney general’s office, the police force, Bank Negara (Malaysia’s central bank), anti-corruption bodies, government-linked bodies and more. Najib has yet to respond to the call by the rulers for resolution of the 1MDB scandal.

What distinguishes Najib’s relations with political institutions is that they have been seen to be in his interest rather than serving the country. More than any premier – including Tun Mahathir – Najib is seen to be undermining institutions for his own personal survival. Scant attention is being paid to the damaging precedents that are being set and how they will affect governance in the future.

Weakening BN and UMNO

Two weakened institutions in particular deserve special mention. The first is the Barisan Nasional (BN), or the National Front 13-party coalition that officially governs Malaysia.

The BN has been dying a slow death since the 2008 elections, when the non-Malay component parties failed to deliver their ethnic communities for the incumbent coalition. Non-Malay component parties have lost credibility, and autonomy of their own political decisions. The strongest coalition members are in Sabah and Sarawak, states that provide the needed numbers for UMNO to stay in office, and these allies have demanded more for their loyalties.

During 1MDB, Najib has illustrated how weak the non-Malay component parties are. A pivotal moment in this regard was the dismissal of their concerns over the racialised Malay chauvinist red shirt rally in September.

Najib has even opted to sue the former president of the Malaysian Chinese Association Ling Liong Sik for defamation, while failing to take similar action toward international dailies over the scandal. These actions only serve to illustrate how ineffective the coalition is at inclusive representation and will further erode its support base.

A similar negative trajectory has affected UMNO.

Traditionally, party members are sacked and made ‘outsiders’ before they are targeted. This has not been the case with 1MDB, as divisive lines have hardened within the party toward ‘critics’. Najib has also widened the gap between the party elite and its grassroots.

To manage 1MDB he has used patronage directed toward the 500 elites in the party, notably division chiefs, party office holders and elected representatives. This has showcased the hierarchy of benefits in UMNO. Little has gone down to the base of the party itself, creating resentment and anger.

At the same time there has been minimal direct accountability to members. Najib’s style has been to use others to manage the UMNO grassroots. These dynamics have come at a time when the party’s reputation remains low, and it is not in a position to win power without a broadly popular leader.

This will have serious implications for the party as it moves toward the next elections.

Deepening divide and rule

Traditionally, there has been a pattern in responses to political crises. Initially leaders rely on race to shore up support in UMNO and to instill fear to strengthen their position. Then leaders reach out across divides through policy initiatives and dialogue to broaden their base.

In 1MDB, this pattern had taken on a different trajectory in that division has predominated over inclusion. Najib has grown more reliant on mobilising race and religion to stay in power since 2013, as evident in the rhetoric and policy.

With 1MDB this came to the fore with the red shirt rally, but it is also evident in the expansion of affirmative action policies and programs. Najib has also widened the divide over those who benefit from his government, with ordinary people paying a much higher price for governance failings in the past, through GST, higher tolls, transportation costs and subsidy reductions. The BR1M cash transfers do not offset the costs being imposed. These costs would have been reduced with more accountable governance and concerted efforts to reduce graft and corruption.

The 2016 budget extends the pattern of unevenness in policies, with its targeting of benefits to key constituency groups rather than fostering broad and inclusive national economic growth. Najib has opted to rely on division to stay in power, with little regard to how race, religious, class and other cleavages are tearing at the national fabric.

As Najib remains in office during the 1MDB scandal, he is being called Malaysia’s new ‘strongman.’ Some even go on to predict he will stay in office longer than the 22-year tenure of Tun Mahathir. Study of the measures he is taking to stay in power point to a different picture.

The damage being caused by 1MDB and the responses to the crisis will have an impact on the political terrain. Najib remains much weaker than he has even been, and his responses have undermined rather than strengthened his leadership, making national outreach and inclusive governance unviable if not impossible.

** Bridget Welsh is Professor of Political Science at Ipek University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center, and University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.

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  1. #1 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 9:40 pm

    They love to attack other call them ‘pendatang ‘.
    Well follow is the record at UK Parliment minutes at May 1949
    Malayan citizenship is not a nationality, and does not affect or impair the status of British or other nationals who become Federal citizens. Citizenship may be acquired either automatically or on application. The following persons are automatically Federal citizens:

    (a) Any subject of the Ruler of a Malay State.
    (b) Any British subject born in either of the Settlements of Penang and Malacca, who is permanently resident (that is say, has completed a continuous period of 15 years’ residence) anywhere in the territories comprised in the Federation.
    (c) Any British subject born in any of the territories comprised in the Federation whose father, either
    (i) was himself born in any of these territories or;
    (ii) has resided therein for a continuous period of not less than 15 years;
    (d) Any person born in any of the territories comprised in the Federation, who habitually speaks the Malay language and conforms to Malay custom.
    (e) Any other person born in any of these territories at any time, both of whose parents were born in any of the territories and have been resident in them for a continuous period of not less than 15 years; and
    (f) Any person whose father is, at the date of that person’s birth, a Federal citizen.

    The provisions regarding the acquisition of citizenship by application are as follow:

    §
    The High Commissioner may grant a certificate conferring the status of a Federal citizen on any person who applies and satisfies the High Commissioner—

    (a) that either—
    (i) he was born in any of the territories comprised in the Federation and has been 1011 resident in any one or more of the territories for not less than 8 out of the 12 years preceeding his application; or
    (ii) he has been resident in any one or more of those territories for not less than 15 out of the 20 years immediately preceding his application.
    (b) The applicant must satisfy the High Commissioner that he is of good character, possesses an adequate knowledge of the Malay or English language, has made a declaration of permanent settlement in the prescribed form, and if his application is approved, that he is willing to take the citizenship oath. An applicant for citizenship must be of the age of 18 or over.

    In the case of any person over the age of 45, who has been resident in any of the territories comprised in the territory of the Federation for 20 years, and who applies for citizenship within two years from the appointed day, the language qualifications will be waived.

  2. #2 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 9:44 pm

    UK Parliment minutes at April 1949

    May I turn now to the question of Malaya? I would like to preface my remarks by referring to a recent broadcast of Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, the Commissioner-General. Referring to self-government he said: “This is a promise which we shall not break; our purpose is to unite and gradually transfer rule, and we shall support with all our hearts any movement seeking to associate Malays, Malayan Chinese and others owing undivided loyalty to Malaya in a brotherhood of all peoples inspired by common patriotism.” Naturally we all agree with those sentiments. But a very interesting comment was made in one of the leading vernacular newspapers Utusan Melayu. It described this statement as “A promissory note on which the date for payment of the loan has been left blank.” That, surely, is the whole crux of this matter. What does the writer of that article expect? Does he expect what I might call a Mountbatten date to be put on the promissory note? Do we really want, as Lord Killearn has warned, a second Burma? Can we really put down a blank date as to when we hand over power? Surely the date which we write in for handing over control in Malaya is the date when the Malayan peoples have shown themselves, to themselves, to us and to the world at large, as ready to rule themselves peaceably and efficiently. They know they cannot do it yet. As the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, said, they have a war on there. That has to be cleared up.

    Furthermore, the relationship between the Malays and the Chinese themselves has to be resolved. I am glad to say that in the last few months rapid strides have been made in this respect. Malay-Chinese good-will committees have been set up, but the establishment of one committee was immediately followed by the throwing of a grenade at Tan Cheng Lock, a prominent Chinese, by one of his own compatriots. But Malay-Chinese organisations are being organised on a Federation basis, and I trust that the Government will do everything they can to welcome and further these organisations and do everything else they can to solve this difficulty.

  3. #3 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 9:45 pm

    UK Parliment minutes at April 1949

    May I turn now to the question of Malaya? I would like to preface my remarks by referring to a recent broadcast of Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, the Commissioner-General. Referring to self-government he said: “This is a promise which we shall not break; our purpose is to unite and gradually transfer rule, and we shall support with all our hearts any movement seeking to associate Malays, Malayan Chinese and others owing undivided loyalty to Malaya in a brotherhood of all peoples inspired by common patriotism.” Naturally we all agree with those sentiments. But a very interesting comment was made in one of the leading vernacular newspapers Utusan Melayu. It described this statement as “A promissory note on which the date for payment of the loan has been left blank.” That, surely, is the whole crux of this matter. What does the writer of that article expect? Does he expect what I might call a Mountbatten date to be put on the promissory note? Do we really want, as Lord Killearn has warned, a second Burma? Can we really put down a blank date as to when we hand over power? Surely the date which we write in for handing over control in Malaya is the date when the Malayan peoples have shown themselves, to themselves, to us and to the world at large, as ready to rule themselves peaceably and efficiently. They know they cannot do it yet. As the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, said, they have a wa r on there. That has to be cleared up.

  4. #4 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 10:17 pm

    UK PARLIMENT minutes at March 1951

    sked the Secretary of State for the Colonies what are the conditions of citizenship in Malaya which will allow the seven out of eight non-Federal citizens in Malaya to register as Federal citizens.

    MR.J.G.
    Nearly all Malays, who comprise about half the total population of the Federation of Malaya, are automatically Federal citizens. About one-quarter of the non-Malay population are also automatically Federal citizens; the conditions under which the remainder of the non-Malay population could acquire Federal citizenship are contained in the Federation Agreement of 1948 and I am sending my hon. Friend a copy of the relevant clauses.

  5. #5 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 10:29 pm

    Migration Statistics
    HC Deb 29 November 1950 vol 481 cc1141-2
    1141

    §
    31. Mr. T. Reid

    asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies the amount of Chinese, Malayan and Indian immigration into Malaya since the end of the war.

    §
    Mr. Dugdale

    With my hon. Friend’s permission, I shall arrange for a table of migration statistics for the period January, 1947, to June, 1950, to be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Statistics for the post-war period before 1947 are not available.

    1142

    §
    Following is the table:
    MMIGRATION
    — Malays Chinese Indians
    1947 11,540 126,203 43,614
    1948 11,809 121,115 37,319
    1949 29,126 96,449 31,770
    1950 (January—June) 34,642 40,421 16,634
    87,117 384,188 129,337
    EMIGRATION
    — Malays Chinese Indians
    1947 10,914 130,242 54,856
    1948 13,098 144,440 45,039
    1949 28,399 128,884 38,033
    1950 (January—June) 36,767 36,730 21,506
    89,178 440,296 159,434
    87,117 384,188 129,337
    Excess of Emigrants over Immigrants, January, 1947, to June. 1950 2,061 56,10 30,097

  6. #6 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 10:35 pm

    UK PARLIMENT minutes at November 1950

    Migration Statistics
    HC Deb 29 November 1950 vol 481

    Mr. T. Reid
    asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies the amount of Chinese, Malayan and Indian immigration into Malaya since the end of the war.

    Mr. Dugdale
    With my hon. Friend’s permission, I shall arrange for a table of migration statistics for the period January, 1947, to June, 1950, to be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Statistics for the post-war period before 1947 are not available.

    Following is the table:
    MMIGRATION
    — Malays Chinese Indians
    1947 11,540 126,203 43,614
    1948 11,809 121,115 37,319
    1949 29,126 96,449 31,770
    1950 (January—June)
    34,642 40,421 16,634
    87,117 384,188 129,337
    EMIGRATION
    — Malays Chinese Indians
    1947 10,914 130,242 54,856
    1948 13,098 144,440 45,039
    1949 28,399 128,884 38,033
    1950 (January—June)
    36,767 36,730 21,506
    9,178 440,296 159,434
    87,117 384,188 129,337

    Excess of Emigrants over Immigrants, January, 1947, to June.
    1950 2,061 56,10 30,097

    THIS IS Migration Statistics of Malaya – our history

  7. #7 by worldpress on Monday, 9 November 2015 - 10:40 pm

    Migration Statistics
    HC Deb 29 November 1950 vol 481

    IMMIGRATION
    — Malays Chinese Indians
    1947 11,540 126,203 43,614
    1948 11,809 121,115 37,319
    1949 29,126 96,449 31,770
    1950 (January—June)
    34,642 40,421 16,634
    87,117 384,188 129,337
    EMIGRATION
    —— Malays- Chinese- Indians
    1947 10,914. 130,242. 54,856
    1948 13,098. 144,440. 45,039
    1949 28,399. 128,884. 38,033
    1950 (January—June)
    —–36,767.- 36,730.-21,506
    ——9,178 -440,296. 159,434
    —–87,117. 384,188. 129,337

    Excess of Emigrants over Immigrants, January, 1947, to June.
    1950 2,061 56,10 30,097

    THIS IS Migration Statistics of Malaya record by British Administration November 1950

  8. #8 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 10 November 2015 - 8:33 am

    On one hand Najib says we are not pendatang and on the other Perkasa says its historical fact. What Lee Kuan Yew said is the ultimate final say – its pointless to argue it because the fact is most of us are even the Malays are pendatang. The fools are the one still talking about it.

    The fact is Tun Ismail is on record to believe in ultimate, Malaysia and Singapore will merge again on their own free will – proving that ultimately this country, the nation, legally and the intangibles that make it, was founded by all three groups equally…

    What is the issue is that the intangibles including the legal, have been destroyed – NOT by the so-called pendatang mine you..So what is there to argue about something destroyed?

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