For the first time since independence, Malaysians have voted decisively – and unexpectedly – for a shift in government. But Nicholas Nugent wonders how different the political landscape will really be
The victor in Malaysia’s May 9 election is a previous five-term prime minister representing the very political party he has now defeated decisively is a most remarkable come back. The electorate voted to oust the Barisan Nasional coalition and its dominant party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which have ruled the country since independence in 1957. UMNO is an ethnically Malay party which dominated the coalition that includes parties representing the country’s Chinese and Indian communities.
The Pakatan Harapan – Alliance of Hope – that defeated UMNO is led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was himself UMNO’s leader and prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003. For a former UMNO leader to defeat the current leader is something of an earthquake for a nation that has never known another party in charge.
A medical doctor now aged 92, survivor of several heart attacks, Dr Mahathir contested the election with the intention of ousting his one-time protégé, Najib Tun Razak, 64, scion of a princely family, son of a former prime minister and nephew of another, who has ruled since 2009 as UMNO’s, and Barisan Nasional’s, leader. Dr Mahathir’s intention now is to ‘restore the rule of law’, a reference to scandal involving the disappearance of $4.5billion from the country’s sovereign wealth fund 1-Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) in which Mr Najib is embroiled. His own bank account gained $681 million but he denies this came from 1MDB, saying it was a gift from an unnamed Saudi prince and that most of the money has been returned. As prime minister, Mr Najib had himself cleared of corruption with the help of a pliant attorney general.
The tale of corruption was first reported in 2016 by the Wall Street Journal after US banks noticed unexplained money transfers from Malaysia. Lawsuits subsequently brought by the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) allege funds from 1MDBwere used to purchase paintings by Monet and Van Gogh, properties and businesses in New York, California and London and a private jet, to a total value of $1.7billion. The DoJ indictment refers to a key figure in the investigation as ‘Malaysian official 1’.
US investigators say stolen money probably helped finance the Oscar-nominated film ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, the true story of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort who was jailed after cheating investors out of millions of dollars. Mr Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, was one of the film’s sponsors.
And the US is not the only country investigating. In Singapore where banking is tightly regulated, the authorities have seized assets said to have come from 1MDB and Swiss and Canadian regulators are also carrying out investigations. The US DoJ said it ‘looks forward to working with the Malaysian law enforcement authorities’.
After his victory at the polls, Dr Mahathir moved quickly to reactivate an investigation there into the scandal, appointing a new team of police, bankers and anti-corruption officers. Mr Najib, who was prevented from flying abroad on holiday, was called to give evidence to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
Police took away 350 boxes and suitcases from Kuala Lumpur properties linked to the former prime minister, which were said to contain ‘a huge trove of cash, jewels and luxury items’, including a large number of designer handbags owned by his wife, Rosmah Anwar, prompting comparisons with the so-called ‘kleptocracy’ of former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-collector wife, Imelda. Meanwhile Mr Najib continues to deny corruption allegations, telling his constituents days after his election defeat: ‘I did not steal the people’s money.’
There can be little doubt that it was these allegations that were the main reasons the electorate turned away from Mr Najib and put their trust instead in Dr Mahathir, who has become the oldest ruler of any country now that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, 94, is out of the competition. Malaysia’s new prime minister says he is not seeking revenge, though his actions suggest that punishing his former protégé is high on his list of priorities. The prime minister’s office spoke of wanting to restore ‘the dignity of Malaysia that has been tainted by the 1MDB kleptocracy scandal’.
Another vote-winning promise swiftly put into effect by Dr Mahathir was the lifting of an unpopular goods and service tax introduced two years ago, which was said to hit the poor particularly severely, though he announced at the same time that the country’s debts had reached a record $250 billion.
Dr Mahathir is clearly in a hurry and has promised ‘within two years’ to hand power to another former protégé, then a rival, Anwar Ibrahim. A former UMNO youth leader, Anwar became Dr Mahathir’s deputy in the 1990s but they fell out and Anwar was jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy which he claims were politically motivated. The two have now made up.
In many respects, this election victory was Mr Anwar’s since his party took four times as many seats in the national parliament as Dr Mahathir’s. Mr Anwar, 70, was himself prevented from contesting because he was once more serving a prison sentence on similar charges, this time instigated during Mr Najib’s premiership. Dr Mahathir’s first act after the election was to gain a royal pardon for Mr Anwar, who is apparently ready to stand for election to parliament at the earliest opportunity.
It may seem as if a great deal has changed in a short space of time – which is true to an extent. But Malaysian politics are still dominated by ethnic Malay parties led by elderly men. There has never been a Chinese or Indian prime minister and is unlikely to be as long as Malays have the advantage of the ‘bumiputra’ policy, which gives certain privileges in society to the 69 per cent of the population who are Malay or from other indigenous races, such as Dayaks and Ibans. Mr Anwar, who has a reputation as a reformer, is believed to be less wedded to this discriminatory policy.
Nor has a woman ever taken the top job though Dr Mahathir’s appointment of Anwar Ibrahim’s wife as deputy prime minister, keeping a seat warm for her husband, is seen as a step forward. Overall the political change is not considered as significant as it might have seemed, since UMNO or former UMNO figures continue to dominate political life.
Malaysians are wondering whether another politician may soon occupy the prison cell recently vacated by Anwar Ibrahim. Also, whether a sequel to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ could be in the making, involving a rather different wolf.