July 17, 2015
The ageing dictator thinks the decay in Malaysian politics is all about personal failings.
On Eid al-Fitr, the most festive day of the Islamic calendar in South-east Asia, Nurul Izzah Anwar should be celebrating with her family and visiting her famous father in jail. But Malaysia’s politics are now so combustible, and the name of Anwar Ibrahim so potent, that the family has been barred from resuming its conversation about the future of Malaysia until the fifth day after the breaking of the fast.
But Nurul Izzah, like the rest of middle-class Malaysia, already knows exactly what her father thinks.
“For the first time in our history, a sitting prime minister is under investigation for the misappropriation of funds,” said her father in a statement released by his lawyers this week, referring to a report that showed how $920 million was siphoned from a sovereign wealth fund into a bank account in the name of Prime Minister Najib Razak. “From behind these prison walls, I feel a great concern and worry for my country,” said Anwar Ibrahim. “Corruption, abuse of power, arrogance and appallingly poor governance has brought Malaysia to this state. The utter collapse of the Greece economy is a warning of what can yet happen.”
Post-colonial, multi-racial Malaysia has dragged itself from poverty to prosperity and become one of the most successful nations in south-east Asia. Prime Minister Najib is an urbane Anglophone and an ally of Australia on all key national security questions. For these reasons the Abbott government has gone to great lengths to protect its friendship with Najib, including by shielding it from the fallout of Australia’s largest corruption probe.
But Najib’s Malaysia is now being sucked into a vortex of repression and corruption on a scale that would have made Suharto wince. Some of the corruption scandals have been revealed by Fairfax. One of them, exposed by The Wall Street Journal, is potentially large enough to fund an entire political machine. And it’s not only direct political rivals who believe that Malaysia’s ruling party, which has reigned since 1957, is entering the final stages of regime decay.
Just ask Mahathir Mohamad, the father of modern Malaysia, and the man who brought Najib to power.
“There are so many wrongdoings,” said Mahathir in a video that he posted on his blog a fortnight ago. “And because of that I feel that if Najib continues to stay in power, the country will deteriorate, will be in trouble and unstable and no longer a place where we can live comfortably.”
In Mahathir’s eyes, Malaysia’s problems are all about the personal failings of those who have succeeded him. At times he has come close to saying that Prime Minister Najib and his most famous political prisoner, Anwar Ibrahim, should be trading places. “Anwar should have been the Prime Minister of Malaysia today,” writes Mahathir, in his memoir.
Like so many successful dictators, Mahathir was never able to decide between competence and loyalty and so ended up with neither. The resulting succession feud makes Australian Labor Party politics look meek.
Najib denies taking government money “for personal gain” and has recently returned fire upon his former patron for leaking “grossly defamatory” stories to Fairfax Media and The Wall Street Journal. Mahathir, in turn, traces the problems back further, to 2003, precisely a fortnight after he left office. “I thought the party might use me, ask for my views,” laments Mahathir, in an interview with author Chris Wright for a new book, No More Worlds to Conquer: Sixteen People Who Defined Their Time – And What They Did Next.
Mahathir’s first hand-picked successor, Abdullah Badawi, “who basically I elevated to that position”, had the temerity to exercise his independent judgment. The disregard for Mahathir’s advice was so treacherous that it amounted to “an abuse of power that I could not tolerate so I had to come back”. The old “recalcitrant” leader responded by destroying Badawi and replacing him with another hand-picked protege, Najib Razak, in 2009.
But the Najib experiment didn’t work out either. “I had great hopes for him,” says Mahathir in Wright’s book. “Unfortunately, for the first six months he totally ignored me.”
The word “irony” does not begin to describe the spectacle of the ageing retired dictator lamenting that Anwar Ibrahim is in jail and Najib is prime minister, and not vice versa. Anwar’s courage and competence have never been questioned. And that, of course, is why Mahathir ensured long ago that Anwar would never get his job.
Mahathir sacked his then-deputy and anointed successor and then jailed him on the medieval charge of sodomy at the height of the Asian financial crisis, in 1998. Anwar had just brought in outside auditors to vet a crony oil deal involving Mahathir’s son.
But Mahathir is finding it much harder to unseat Najib than he did with Anwar, Badawi, and several others he destroyed before. The problem is that Mahathir made the position of prime minister virtually impregnable. He destroyed the independence of the police, judiciary and media and gave the prime minister almost unbridled financial powers. Moreover, Najib has worked tirelessly to build his own financial war chest, beyond the webs of Mahathir patronage, albeit at significant political cost. And so, after Anwar Ibrahim was released from jail, and nearly pulled off an extraordinary victory at the 2013 elections, Najib used the dictatorial powers that Mahathir bequeathed to him and threw Anwar in jail on a second lot of sodomy charges.
It’s not hard to see that the decay at the heart of Malaysian politics is no longer about personalities, but institutions, which Mahathir did his utmost to destroy.
That’s why Nurul Izzah Anwar, herself a political star, in the footsteps of both her parents and her grandmother, is willing to forgive the man who jailed her father and will keep the family apart at today’s Eid al-Fitr celebrations. As she told me: “Najib is just an outcome of a system that has been festering for years.”
John Garnaut is Fairfax Media’s Asia-Pacific editor.