Malaysia’s troubled state


Malaysia is currently in crisis. The ringgit seems to be on an inexorable downhill slide, ethnic tensions have deteriorated from uncomfortable simmer to open flame, and both the government and opposition coalitions are unravelling. Malaysian politics and society have hit rough patches before; the dominant Umno fractures about once a decade, opposition parties fall in and out of love like teenagers, and cyclical economic downturns summon forth the usual host of scapegoats and bogeys. But this round is different: the pathology runs deep and wide, with no easy remedy.

Even describing the current crisis is difficult. We have, essentially, two cancers that feed off each other in non-obvious ways: one centred around race and religion; the other, around economics and corruption. Magnifying the strength of both is a dearth of central leadership or direction, in a polity accustomed to strong-armed rule. As a result, what should be a fairly straightforward matter of investigating the heavy debts of a government investment body and some clearly questionable “campaign donations”, to see whether these are just ill-advised and problematically opaque, or criminally corrupt, has transformed into a contest over racial superiority, who has the right to press claims in contemporary Malaysia, and what the premise and ideology of the state should be: democratic egalitarianism or neofeudal exclusivity.

First, the economic side of the coin. A full exhumation would be beyond the scope of this essay. At base is an environment of economic precarity for a substantial share of Malaysians. Its component parts include environmental disasters such as last year’s floods on the east coast that left thousands destitute and with no ready means of recouping homes and livelihoods; rising costs of housing and other necessities, especially for the ever-growing urban majority; persistent un/under-employment, particularly of graduates; obvious and increasing intra-ethnic inequality of wealth and income; introduction of a new goods and services tax that hits the poor especially hard; and a ringgit plumbing depths not seen since the Asian Financial Crisis, given both domestic factors and regional economic turbulence.

Compounding endemic economic discomfort, though, were revelations earlier this year of apparent mismanagement, extravagant debts and election bankrolling on the part of government investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), then of approximately US$700 million having been deposited into Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s personal accounts before the last election. After bluster and threats, for instance of suing the Wall Street Journal for revealing said deposits, Najib’s spokespeople admitted to the deposits, but insisted they came not from 1MDB as media speculated, but from un-self-interested Middle Eastern supporters of the ruling BN coalition.

Then there is the more socio-political side of the coin. Racial and religious tensions have been ratcheting up since at least the 2013 elections. Acrimonious debate over the introduction of hudud (Islamic criminal law) legislation in Kelantan – and hence, federally, given the constitutional context for their passage – in March 2015 not only capsized the opposition Pakatan coalition, but fed ongoing incendiary discourse over Malay-Muslim primacy. While the dominant voices in this chorus were non-governmental Malay nationalist groups, speaking on behalf of a notably silent Prime Minister, the government backed up that discourse with a rash of sedition and related charges against politicians, activists and media, signalling its intolerance of challenge.
Racial and religious tensions have been ratcheting up since at least the 2013 elections. Acrimonious debate over the introduction of hudud (Islamic criminal law) legislation in Kelantan – and hence, federally, given the constitutional context for their passage – in March 2015 not only capsized the opposition Pakatan coalition, but fed ongoing incendiary discourse over Malay-Muslim primacy.

Plans afoot as of this writing for a Malay “red shirts” rally on Malaysia Day, of all days, suggest the extent to which these two strands intertwine. Defending Najib, these activists insist those who allege corruption – particularly participants, the majority of them Malaysian Chinese, in massive Bersih (Clean) protests at the end of August – impugn Malay rights and dominance. One possible explanation is that ethnically structured patronage, all the more important amidst economic difficulty, makes opposing dubious inflows and outflows of funds a racial issue. Certainly the lack of pressure for investigation or reform from Najib’s colleagues in Umno and other BN parties seems likely tied to the threat of losing out on cabinet positions or future benefits should they press Najib to stand down, as well as perhaps to their own culpability via receipt of campaign or other funds.

#KitaLawan, which calls for the release of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from prison and Prime Minister Najib Razak's resignation, has been holding street demonstrations in KL on some Saturdays since late February.

In consequence, we see simultaneously a failure of political will to investigate the allegations seriously and spiralling racial antagonism, including unprecedented open calls for violent retaliation against Bersih protesters (read: non-Malays). That conflation of causes precludes any easy solution to the current impasse. Meanwhile, the crisis lays bare serious institutional weaknesses in the Malaysian polity.

First, the 1MDB and “donation” stories in particular reveal the power of investigative journalism. Yet the state’s ruthless response to what it sees as harmful muckraking reveals, too, how constrained media still are: media outlets face lawsuits and suspension, journalists and editors face harassment, and government officials espouse curbing even internet platforms, notwithstanding possible pushback from business and international interests.

Second, these long-percolating conflicts have laid bare a baffling lack of clarity on what Malaysia’s constitution and laws actually say, from whether a no-confidence motion is possible in Malaysia’s parliament, in line with standard Westminster praxis, to the relative jurisdiction of civil and syariah courts to whether the police can declare a peaceful protest (or related T-shirts and other paraphernalia) illegal. Political interference in anti-corruption efforts likewise indicates blurred lines of authority and how encumbered even supposedly independent checks and balances are.

Karen Lai

Anti-GST demonstrators in KL earlier this year.

Third, we have seen the best and the worst of the Malaysian police. On the positive side, their conduct during Bersih, at least in KL, was exemplary. On the other hand, the rounds of sedition and other arrests have too often been by gaggles of police, in the wee hours of morning, to detain even clearly cooperative “suspects” for days for investigation. Such overreach defies explanation, except as a show of force for deterrent effect.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

So what might Malaysia’s political future hold? Realignment is all but inevitable. The Prime Minister’s position is untenable, even if party/ personal loyalty keeps him secure in the short term. Regaining international credibility – and arresting the ringgit’s decline – will surely require at least a gesture toward institutional reform, including stronger measures to ensure transparency and accountability. And amidst newly racialised politics, both BN and Pakatan are in the throes of reconfiguration: Pakatan 2.0 may look much the same as before, albeit with a splinter party to replace Parti Islam seMalaysia, but the multiracial (if clearly imbalanced) BN could well give way to a Malay or bumiputera-unity coalition. Perhaps most worrisome, though, is the fact that the gutting of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary checks, popular disillusionment with both politicians and the potential of protest to bear fruit, and what appears to be the politicisation of the police, suggest a slide toward authoritarianism that may be difficult to reverse. Malaysia’s troubles are far from over.


Meredith Weiss is associate professor of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York

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