Malaysia's malaise


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 urban Keadilan.

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 of power.

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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