Malaysian Politics: Looking ahead to 2017

Image: Former US Attorney-General Loretta E. Lynch addressing Washington journalists over the Department of Justice investigation into funds misappropriated from state development fund 1MDB. Photo: Reuters/James Lawler Duggan, selected by East Asia Forum.

Today, I published a second op-ed in a series of two pieces featured by East Asia Forum, this time looking forward to how international developments might make life difficult for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, especially if they are capitalised on politically by the opposition alliance headed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The full text of the opinion piece is below.

The international fallout from Najib’s 1MDB scandal

Author: Amrita Malhi, ANU

The international consequences of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal will likely continue to escalate. The affair concerns US$800 million from the development fund that investigators believe to have passed through Najib’s personal bank accounts, in addition to other funds believed to have moved through foreign intermediaries and investment vehicles.

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Malaysian Politics: 2016 in Review

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Imaged selected by East Asia Forum.

Today, I published a summary in East Asia Forum of the domestic politics surrounding Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the end of 2016.

Najib might seem to have sealed up every institution he can access to ensure he cannot be toppled, but he still needs to ensure that his Barisan Nasional government can outmanoeuvre the opposition alliance with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at its helm.

This is because it is no longer enough for successive Barisan governments to simply win electoral contests that are designed to deliver victory to them in any case, they also need to ensure they rule with a modicum of legitimacy.

The full text of the article is below.

Najib fights to retain control after 1MDB scandal

Author: Amrita Malhi, ANU

As 2016 draws to a close, Najib Razak remains Malaysia’s prime minister. This is despite two years of scandal, scrutiny and speculation over funds missing from state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including US$800 million that is believed to have passed through his personal bank accounts.

Najib quickly shut down Malaysian investigations into 1MDB in 2015. Yet external agencies and media sources have since tracked what they believe is an international chain of transactions enabling billions to allegedly be siphoned out of the fund, through foreign banks, funds, shell companies and the prime minister’s personal contacts.

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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

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.

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.”

How to Revamp Malaysian Studies in Australia

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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Malaysia’s New National Security Powers

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

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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New Mandala Mahathir Series – Part 2

The second part of my Mahathir series for New Mandala.

Mahathir and Malaysia’s money politics

In a country where cash is king, soon nothing will happen without bribery, alleges former PM.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looked on Thursday like a man with important calculations to make. Even as he smiled and laughed, he seemed quiet and reflective as he discussed Malaysia’s dramatic political realignment.

“We had a wrong understanding of the level of concern on the part of the people about what is happening,” he said.

A few days earlier, Mahathir had campaigned with the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition in twin by-elections, called after two incumbents died in a helicopter crash. Held in the federal electorates of Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, both by-elections were won with increased margins by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

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New Mandala Mahathir Series – Part 1

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Last week, I interviewed Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, about his intentions for his campaign of public opposition to current Prime Minister, Najib Razak. This is the first of my essays based on that interview for New Mandala, the Southeast Asia blog published by The Australian National University’s Coral Bell School for Asia Pacific Affairs.

Mahathir prepares for Najib confrontation

For former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, defeating PM Najib Razak at the next election is “theoretically” possible, albeit not with money politics which he claims is Najib’s only competitive advantage. “Najib is very, very weak,” Mahathir said on Thursday in his Putrajaya office, adding that “if he is not able to bribe, he will lose. He has to bribe, because he believes that bribery is king.”

Despite his perceived weakness, however, and after his twin by-election victories earlier this month, calls have resumed for Najib to call a snap election soon, while fractious opposition parties remain in a state of tactical disarray. Najib may be preparing to do exactly that, foreshadowing on the weekend that he will announce a cabinet reshuffle today. Whenever Najib does call the election, which is due in or before 2018, Mahathir appears to have concluded that he will not win by developing a competing brand of money politics. “I can’t,” Mahathir said, “because if we give money he will always give more. He has tons of money.”

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