Malaysia: Mahathir’s or Najib’s War of Attrition?


King

Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, King of Malaysia

Partyforumseasia: So far, Prime Minister Najib Razak has managed to weather the months of heavy political head winds with remarkable cold blood. His former mentor turned nemesis, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, so far, has been the driving force in a sort of “Oust-Najib-Movement” and recently brought together a group of Najib enemies described in the Malaysian media as “strange bedfellows”, especially because Mahathir’s earlier victim, Anwar Ibrahim, has joined from behind bars. He has been imprisoned under Mahathir and is now serving a five year term under Najib, again for alleged sodomy and again perceived as politically motivated.

Last Monday, 7th March, in a speech at the opening of parliament, Malaysia’s 88-year-old King, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, “told Malaysian legislators that they should stop playing politics of narrow interests, as this has gone on for so long that it has become stressful for the people and the government.” (Asia One).  Given the circumstances of the entrenched war between the PM and his domestic foes, the king’s admonition sounds rather in support of Najib and very probably won’t end the war of attrition by Mahathir and partners including the opposition. But Mahathir has a credibility problem himself. Many Najsee him guilty of starting the level of money politics he is accusing Najib of, only that Najib with the hundreds of millions in his private accounts has pushed it to unprecedented levels and triggered international suspicion.

Money politics under Najib: If the king may not wield much political influence, there are other strong arguments for the Prime Minister’s supporters in the UMNO party hierarchy to keep the number of defectors relatively small. “He didn’t invent the system but Najib has perfected the art of sleaze”, writes the AsiaSentinel on 2 March (Link), and continues with very concrete figures:

“Once a month, each of the 191 loyal district chiefs that make up the hierarchy of the United Malays National Organization receives RM50,000 for “expenses.” It doesn’t come from Malaysia’s fiscal budget. It comes from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts at Ambank in KL. Multiplied out, that totals RM114.6 million annually (US$27.498 million). It is a system that has sustained party loyalty through several premiers for 35 years, if Najib is to be believed, and it points to the deep, long-running corruption of the entire Malaysian political system. It is just part of what keeps Najib in power against the combined investigations of five countries on allegations of money laundering, fraud and bribery.”

The Wall Street Journal is also in the forefront of questioning PM Najib’s personal finances by publishing beginning of March new estimations that he has more than a billion US$ in his personal accounts and that much of it originates from the mismanaged and debt-ridden 1MDB investment fund whose board of advisers happens to be chaired by Mr. Najib.

In regional comparison money politics and patronage are common and sophisticated. Members of parliament as well as local office bearers of political parties are expected to “help” their voters, from waving parking tickets to funding businesses. But it seems that relatively rich Malaysia has reached levels which a majority of voters is no longer prepared to condone. Najib seems to be in control so far, not least because the opposition is divided, but the scandals may change the public mood so much against UMNO that Najib will be more of a liability than until today.
Strategy-wise, though, Najib follows the (immoral) textbook prescriptions: Business as usual, deny everything until you can’t deny it any more and in thin slices, attack the attackers, and eliminate your internal enemies.

Malaysia’s UMNO Convention: What Keeps Najib In Power?


Partyforumseasia:One important advantage of democracy  over all other systems is the possibility to exchange an unsuccessful  government against a new team and new hope for the voters. Sometimes it happens after internal power struggles like the recent transfer from Abbot to Turnbull in Australia, sometimes it is growing unhappiness among the voters and defeat in elections. With a more open and less gerrymandered electoral system PM Najib would have lost his job already in 2013. But even under

Determined to prevail

Determined to prevail

unprecedented pressure from voters, many of whom have lost trust in him, and internal opposition in his own party, Najib seems unassailable. In this week’s ongoing party convention with 2,654 delegates from 191 divisions he shrugs off all the attacks and calmly pretends to be in fighting spirit. An admirable level of self-confidence.
His long career as a politician has been a jump-start but accompanied by a series of scandals. At the age of 23 he took over the parliamentary seat of his father, a prime minister like an uncle, and moved into the cabinet as deputy minister only two years later. Prime Minister since 2009, his former mentor and predecessor Mahathir Mohamad has now turned into his most prominent critic. Mahathir’s constant call for him to step down seems unsuccessful by now, and the UMNO-internal challenge looks neutralized. As incredible as it sounds for Malaysians and outsiders, the scandalous mismanagement of 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund with billions of debt, and the more than dubious campaign “donation” of 700 million US$ from undisclosed Middle Eastern sources into Najib’s private account (!), seem to be swallowed by most leaders of the 3.4 million strong government party. His enemies never imagined that he got get away with that.

There are four main reasons for the strong position of Najib:

1. There is no competitor who could replace him at short notice. All party comrades who speak up are being sacked, like former deputy prime minister and deputy party president Muhyiddin Yassin,  and replaced by yes-men. Najib even declares that it is a Muslim religious duty to support the leader.

2. With the  imprisonment and effective elimination of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the ambivalent stand of Islamist opposition party PAS, the threat by a strong opposition coalition has more or less vanished.

3.  Starting from Mahathir’s time, the powers of party president and prime minister have been strengthened continuously. On 3 December, Malaysia’s parliament has approved the National Security Council Bill which gives the prime minister quasi unlimited discretion to detain people and declare a state of emergency. The criticism of Mahathir sounds somewhat hollow, though, because he used the former internal security act against his challengers during his term rather extensively.Najib 1

4. The main reason, however, is the pervasiveness of money politics. Widely the norm in Southeast Asia, it has been developed and fine-tuned in Malaysia, ironically again since Mahathir’s premiership. Najib, born with the famous silver spoon in his mouth, has made full use of the UMNO patronage system. As Partyforumseasia has argued earlier, UMNO cannot afford to lose an election because the whole enormous scheme would collapse and leave hundreds of thousands of party officials and supporters in the cold. And Najib cannot afford to step down because more dirty linen suspected by critical Malaysians might surface and destroy party and patronage.
The system, described as “the patronage networks that flow downward through UMNO, and that ensure the loyalty of party cadres” (Council on Foreign Relations, Link here) is a tool for which many parties worldwide may envy UMNO. But its refinancing comes from state funds and corrupt government-business links at the expense of tax payers.
As aptly as ruthlessly playing racist and religious cards, party and prime minister seem to get away with this cancerous system among the profiteers and voters. And far from being as scandalous as it sounds for most observers, the 700 million “donation” might even strengthen Najib’s position by boosting his financial discretion even more. As the saying in the Philippines goes, the Golden Rule simply means that he who has the gold will rule…

He won't go

He won’t go

John Stewart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government published in 1861 had warned already against money politics: “Of what avail is the most broadly popular representative system if the electors do not care to choose the best member of Parliament, but choose him who will spend most money to be elected?”