The honeymoon of Malaysia's new prime minister, Najib Razak, is proving
short-lived as the mysterious death of an opposition figure and a new
trial for sodomy of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim take the headlines.
They are a reminder of the state of politics in a country where debate
is mostly open but which has been ruled by one party, Umno, for 52
years. Hopes that huge opposition gains in last year's elections would
lead to reform have foundered on the power of money and communal issues
that remain the bedrock of Malaysian politics.
After 100 days in power, Mr Najib had reason to be pleased as his
approval rating, just 42 per cent before taking office on April 3,
surged to 65 per cent. A flurry of crowd-pleasing measures showed him
to be decisive, in contrast to his well-meaning but do-nothing predecessor,
and to know how to appeal to different groups.
Chinese were pleased by a decision to end compulsory 30 per cent Malay
ownership for some service industries; Malays by ending the use of
English for teaching science and maths; Indians by releasing Hindu
activists detained under the Internal Security Act; and foreigners
by easing restrictions on investment in the financial sector. Meanwhile,
the economic outlook brightened as export commodity prices and the
stock market rebounded.
Mr Najib has also been helped by the very public divisions in the
opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (or People's Alliance). Such divisions
are hardly surprising as it groups the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS),
a conservative, rural-based Islamic party, with the mainly Chinese
Democratic Action Party and Mr Anwar's centrist, multi-ethnic but predominantly
To make matters worse for the opposition coalition, some PAS traditionalists
aired the possibility of joining the government, implying that Malay
unity is more important to them than creating an opposition sufficiently
credible to force Umno to clean up its act to remain in power. Large-scale
corruption is often viewed as normal, and police and judicial institutions
offer limited indication of independence. The difficulty of Umno reforming
from within was laid bare last year when a distinguished lawyer, Zaid
Ibrahim, appointed by then-prime minister Abdullah Badawi to cleanse
the justice system, was forced out after a few weeks.
There are renewed reminders of the need for such cleansing. Last week,
an aide to a state opposition politician died after supposedly falling
from an office of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission where he
had been interrogated as a witness. To many, the suggestion of suicide
was worthy of the authorities in Grozny. It has helped reunite the
opposition and caused a senior Chinese member of the governing coalition
to defect to Mr Anwar's party.
Meanwhile, Mr Anwar is defending himself against a charge of sodomy
brought last year by a former aide who had earlier met Mr Najib. The
case is widely seen as a politically inspired attempt to discredit
Mr Anwar, who was jailed for sodomy and corruption in 1998 after falling
out with prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. That sodomy conviction was
overturned after Dr Mahathir retired. Another sodomy charge could be
counterproductive for the government, increasing suspicions of abuse
The new allegation did, however, take some attention away last year
from the case of the 2006 murder of a pregnant Mongolian French-speaking
translator and model by Mr Najib's elite guard force. She had been
the mistress of a close associate of Mr Najib, defence analyst Abdul
Razak Baginda. Mr Najib was defence minister from 2000 to 2008. She
had been with Mr Abdul Razak in Paris at the time of a deal to buy
submarines for the Malaysian navy which earned his company Euro114
million (HK$1.25 billion) in commission. A French newspaper claimed
Mr Najib was also present in Paris with her. He denies it. Mr Abdul
Razak was acquitted of complicity in her murder. The guards were convicted.
The scale of high-level sleaze should cause Malaysia's friends to
not simply give it carte blanche because of its status as a foreign-investor
friendly, quasi-democratic, predominantly Muslim country which co-operates
on terrorism issues.
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