New Mandala Mahathir Series – Part 4


Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Image selected by New Mandala.

The fourth and final part of my New Mandala series drawing on an interview with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad can be found below. An abridged version was published in the Canberra Times and syndicated across Fairfax media websites online.

Financial scandals and foreign affairs

If Malaysia’s political impasse breaks, the impact may be global.

“I myself have never wanted foreign interference in our domestic affairs,” former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declared in late June in his Putrajaya office. “But domestic means of redress have been closed.”

Since I spoke to him then there’s been much debate between Malaysia analysts on whether current PM Najib Razak’s position is safe, and how much longer he can hold on before the cluster of problems now assembled around him ends his political career. Today, the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs hosts the 2016 Malaysia Update largely focused on this debate.

This is an important question, not only for Malaysia but for Australia. Analysts in Asia continue to argue that Najib is unassailable, based on their analysis of formal UMNO structures and the Malaysian bureaucracy. Mahathir largely concurs in his assessment of Najib’s domestic prospects, saying “the AG [Attorney-General] will not take up the case against him in the court.

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ANU Malaysia Update 2016

Dato' Ibrahim bin Ali is a Malaysian politician and a former Member of Parliament for Pasir Mas, Kelantan. He is also the founder and president of Malay rights group Perkasa.

Image: Book cover for Ibrahim Ali’s The Misunderstood Man.

I’ve spent the day involved with the Malaysia Update, a day of talks hosted by the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs.

Highlights included a panel on gender and women in politics featuring members of parliament Fuziah Saleh and Alice Lau, which I chaired, and talks by Azrul Mohd Khalid from IDEAS and Ibrahim Ali from PERKASA.

More information, along with a full program, is available from the ANU website.

National Science & Innovation Agenda: Engagement and Impact


Image from the cover of the ARC NISA consultation paper.

I’m on a working group for the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) that has submitted advice to the Australian Research Council (ARC) on its pilot engagement and impact assessment exercise scheduled for next year. The exercise forms one component of the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), and earlier this year the ARC issued a consultation paper outlining its aims. The advice submitted by the ASAA working group argues that the ARC must define “engagement” in a manner that includes the Asian region, and that “impact” cannot be measured in terms of income alone.

Mahathir’s New Party


Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at a ‘Save Malaysia’ rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 28 March 2016. Photo: EPA/AHMAD YUSNI, selected by Southeast Asia Globe.

I’ve made some comments in the Southeast Asia Globe on Mahathir’s new political party. My comments were:

According to Amrita Malhi, a researcher on Malaysia based at the University of Adelaide, the new party was established to oppose UMNO and current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is facing allegations that more than $1 billion from state development fund 1MDB was transferred into his personal bank accounts.

“[Mahathir] believes that Najib is using money allegedly siphoned out of 1MDB to pay both his allies and many voters to continue to support him,” she said. “As Mahathir has determined that he cannot possibly outspend Najib, he is moving to convince disillusioned UMNO members to leave and join his new party instead.”

Malhi added that some UMNO party members admire Mahathir and are growing increasingly disillusioned with Najib.

“They feel awkward about defending him, especially before international audiences,” she said, “even while Najib’s allies continue to defend him before the Malaysian public.”

Time to Revamp Malaysian Studies in Australia

Malaysian Studies

Image selected by Asian Currents.

Today the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s bulletin Asian Currents published a piece I wrote on how to do Malaysian Studies better in Australia. We can only watch Prime Minister Najib and his opponents’ moves and counter-moves for so long before we articulate a broader relevance for our work for communities of interest who care about Malaysia, Malaysians in Australia and Malaysia-Australia relationships.

Australia needs to look beyond Malaysia’s current political impasse and engage more widely with an important neighbour

For some time now, Malaysia watchers in Australia have focused much of their attention on the potential for the 1MDB crisis, and the 2013 election result before it, to unseat UMNO president and Barisan Nasional prime minister Najib Razak.

The imaginative pull these intertwined issues exerts is understandable—the sense of slowly building crisis, the moves and countermoves by government and opposition parties, and the clever deployment of hidden political resources are fascinating, especially when events appear to gather pace. Equally alluring is the temptation to be the person who called the critical moment just before it happened.

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Australian Libraries and Asian Studies


Image: National Library of Australia.

The recent conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia featured a roundtable by librarians and library users on Asian Studies collections. I spoke at this roundtable and made the point that Malaysia’s 2013 election generated a vast amount of printed and digital ephemera that could be lost if Australian libraries do not make a point of collecting it. Perhaps if moves are made to develop a national collections strategy for Asian Studies materials, then this situation could be rectified.

I spoke at this roundtable and made the point that Malaysia’s 2013 election generated a vast amount of printed and digital ephemera that could be lost if Australian libraries do not make a point of collecting it. Perhaps if moves are made to develop a national collections strategy for Asian Studies materials, then this situation could be rectified in line with an agreed set of priorities for libraries interested in Asia.

A full report of this discussion is available from the Australian Library and Information Association.

Malaysia’s New National Security Powers

The measures under the National Security council act are set to come into effect on Monday. Photo: EPA/Fazry Ismail

Photo: EPA/Fazry Ismail, selected by Southeast Asia Globe.

I’ve made some comments in the Southeast Asia Globe on Malaysia’s new National Security Council Act. My comments were:

“The powers in the National Security Council act are so wide-ranging that they permit almost any public activity to be construed as a threat to national security, with potentially devastating consequences,” said Amrita Malhi, a researcher on Malaysia based at the University of Adelaide.

Though the act was ostensibly promoted as a response to Islamic terrorism, Malhi told Southeast Asia Globe measures were already in place that allowed the government to prosecute extremists. She added that the act could potentially be used to counter “any challenge to the position of the current government”.

New Mandala Mahathir Series – Part 3

Social Cohesion NM

Image: Malaysia’s “redshirts” clash with the police at a recent rally in Kuala Lumpur. Selected by New Mandala.

Part 3 of my Mahathir series for New Mandala is below.

Social cohesion and scandal cycles in Malaysia

Mahathir on the divisions tearing a country, the opposition and politics apart.

“I’m afraid the whole thing revolves around Najib,” former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said last month in his Putrajaya office.

“Because of Najib and his attempt to retain his position as Prime Minister, it becomes difficult for any kind of real dialogue or reforms to be carried out.”

Since this interview, negotiations to create a new opposition front in Malaysia have been in full swing. Party leaders have spent the last three weeks issuing statements on policy issues that will determine their chances of success at the next election, slated for 2018.

One key issue is social cohesion in a nation wearied by toxic debates around race and religion.

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ASAA Conference 2016


Image: Cover of the ASAA Conference Program for 2016.

I presented some work in progress at the 2016 conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia at the ANU, in a panel called Mobility, Place and Displacement in Histories of the Left in Indonesia and Malaysia, chaired by Dr Vannessa Hearman of the University of Sydney.

I talked about the Tenth Regiment of the Malayan People’s Army and their project to create a new kind of Malay Muslim from their marginal location in hiding during and after the Malayan Emergency.

Review in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde


Cover of the Dutch journal Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde.

The Dutch journal Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia has published a review by Carool Kersten of an edited volume in which I published a chapter, namely From Anatolia to Aceh. Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, edited by A.C.S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop.

Kersten’s specific comments on my work are:

The chapters by two other young promising historians, Amrita Malhi and Chiara Formichi, on British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies respectively, bring into the twentieth century the study of Southeast Asian interest in the Ottoman Empire as well as that of the contemporary Turkish Republic. Read together, they record a shift from a fascination with Ottoman Caliphal pretences to the vivid interest exhibited by anti-colonial activists in the achievements of Kemal Atatürk.

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