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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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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Four Corners journalists detained in Malaysia

Australian cameraman Louie Eroglu (left) and journalist Linton Besser. Photo from Twitter.

Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Karvelas on ABC Radio National’s Drive program on the recent detention of two Australians, Linton Besser and Louie Eroglu, in Kuching. The full audio of the interview is available here.

Today, I expanded on my interview in a fuller explainer for New Mandala, which I’ve also pasted below with the link at the bottom of the page. Update on 17 March: my piece on New Mandala has been quoted by Amanda Hodge writing in The Australian, and her article is available here.

A pressing concern

By Amrita Malhi, Guest Contributor — 15 March 2016

Amrita Malhi goes beyond the headlines to examine what’s behind the expulsion of an Australian journalist and cameraman from Malaysia.

ABC Four Corners journalist Linton Besser and camera operator Louie Eroglu are returning to Australia, having been “deported” from Malaysia after authorities decided not to charge them with obstructing a public servant under Section 186 of Malaysia’s Penal Code.

In recent days, both men have been detained in a Kuching hotel, facing allegations by the Malaysian government that they had attempted to “barge into” the path of Prime Minister Najib Razak, not only creating a security risk for him and his minders, but also violating Malaysian journalistic norms. Read more

Malaysia’s Direction Matters to Australia

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently in the United States for an ASEAN Summit. Stock image selected by New Mandala.

Yesterday, I published a piece on New Mandala that looked at how Australia is managing its relationship with Malaysia in light of the scandals surrounding its Prime Minister Najib Razak, and the lack of a viable alternative government for international governments to deal with. It also mapped out some of the moves UMNO has made since the 2013 election to restructure politics in its favour as the nation approaches the next election in 2018. The full text is below.

Najib and Malaysia’s Road to Redemption?


As leading party UMNO and its embattled PM desperately cling to power, there could be even darker times ahead for Malaysia’s democracy. 

The actions of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak have been met with widespread disbelief from domestic and international observers.

For many, there seems to be no end to the series of scandals directly or indirectly linked to Najib and his associates, beginning with a financial investigation abruptly brought to an end by a newly-appointed Attorney-General, Mohamed Apandi Ali.

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Is it Worth Engaging with Liberal Debates?

Guardian Welcome to Australia

Events in Paris are already provoking new debates about whether trust in multiculturalism is justified.’ A 2015 refugee vigil in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Mal Fairclough/AAP

That’s small-l liberal debates around tolerance, multiculturalism and interculturalism , within the context of Western liberal democracies.

I think it is worthwhile even if they do seem limited in their capacity to change things — after all, the adoption of multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act 40 years ago has underpinned better lives for non-white people in Australia.

And no, I don’t think anyone should be called a pseudo-white person for participating in debates about where multiculturalism is going now.

Here is an op-ed I published on this in the The Guardian.

Showing solidarity with migrants is more than ‘comfort’ for white people

Tolerance isn’t the most ‘radical’ approach to racism. So why do many non-white Australians participate in movements that promote it as a solution?

Tony Abbott’s prime ministership sparked furious debate about Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism, including a push to wind back 18c, slights against Indigenous “lifestyle choices”, and questions about Australian Muslims’ loyalty to the nation.

As this period now fades into ancient history, Australia’s politicians have begun to re-invest in the multicultural narrative, a prescient move given the polarised debate after recent events in Paris. Earlier this month, the three major political parties made sure to send a high-level representative to address a conference organised by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (Fecca).

The mood at the conference was palpable: after years of defensiveness, it was now time to formulate a new national agenda for multicultural policy, practice and public advocacy.

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Making Sense of the 1MDB Scandal

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives at a presentation for government interns at the Prime Minster’s office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, July 8, 2015. Picture: REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Today, I published an op-ed on The Conversation, focused on making sense of the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia.

Malaysia in turmoil as PM focuses on survival

A serious political crisis is playing out in Malaysia, with no certainty as to when, or whether, it will be resolved. At the heart of this crisis is Prime Minister Najib Razak, who recently shut down an investigation into his financial affairs by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

The investigation had been triggered by allegations in the Wall Street Journal that RM 2.6 billion (US$700 million) had been transferred to Najib’s personal accounts from companies linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). 1MDB is a state-owned strategic development company that is reportedly RM42 billion (US$11 billion) in debt.

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Asian Engagement Means Talking to Muslims


Stock photo representing multiculturalism, selected by The Advertiser.

Today, I hosted a large-scale public discussion event called InterculturAdelaide, focused on policy innovation to better equip Australians to engage with our own diversity, along with that of our Asian neighbours. This is the text of an opinion piece that I published today to accompany the event, in which I argue that Islamophobia in the Australian community can hamper not only social cohesion at home, but also our capacity for genuine Asian engagement.

Engagement with Muslims is an inescapable part of our search for a prosperous future in Asia

IN 1994, Indonesian journalist Ratih Hardjono published her book on Australians, who she pithily referred to as the White Tribe of Asia. Her book traced the history of debates about immigration since the White Australia policy was abolished in the late 1970s.

As Hardjono pointed out, Australia was a nation experiencing burgeoning diversity, and the insecurity that sometimes accompanied that diversity was consistently belied by its advantages on the ground.

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Malay Mail Online Coverage

Muslims praying before breaking their Ramadan fast. Stock image selected by the Malay Mail Online. Picture: REUTERS.

My recent op-ed piece in The Conversation was reported in Malaysia today by the Malay Mail Online. In keeping with the Malay Mail‘s interest in Malaysian national affairs, including international assessments of the nation’s political life, it focused on examples I gave to illustrate my point that Muslims themselves debate their own texts. This is an important point in the context of a broader debate around how we should understand Muslim politics, both in Australia and elsewhere, including our close neighbour and important trading partner, Malaysia.

For this reason, I chose examples which demonstrate that there are considerable differences in how Malay Muslims interpret Qur’anic quotes, the way in which these quotes are deployed is shaped by intense political competition in Malaysia. The full text is below, with a link at the end.

Rise in Islamic fundamentalism seen as result of administration unsure of majority support

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 — Growing Islamic fundamentalism in Malaysia reflects an attempt by the ruling administration to reassert moral and political control after a divisive general elections, a political observer from the University of South Australia (UniSA) noted today.

According to an article in independent Australia-based news site The Conversation, the recent spate of enforcement by Islamic authorities may seem “comical”, but it points to an administration unsure of majority support.

“Yet political liberals may not understand that they reflect the Malaysian state’s overriding purpose now: to regenerate Malay Muslim majoritarianism, against strong counter-currents,” wrote Amrita Malhi, a research fellow with UniSA’s International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding. Read more

Muslim Politics Can’t Be Explained With Texts Alone

Malaysian Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks in front of his supporters, during a gathering in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, late 27 October 2014.   EPA/AZHAR RAHIM

Today, in response to an article in Quadrant by Australian anthropologist Prof. Clive Kessler, I published an op-ed onThe Conversation in which I argue against a textual approach to understanding “Muslim” politics. The full text is below.

Malaysia reaches a critical crossroad over state Islamisation

Fuelled by the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, debate about Islam and violence has flared again in Australia. In a predictable cycle of provocation and reaction, governments launch a wide-ranging security response while denying claims that Muslims are scapegoats. At the same time, they must reassure non-Muslims that the suburbs are safe.

The result is government statements that aim to placate everyone: Muslims are not targets and non-Muslims should stay calm because, as they argue, Islam is foremost a “religion of peace”.

Interpreting texts is problematic

In recent weeks, Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has utteredprecisely these words. A battery of spokespeople for the Muslim community has chimed in. This is not rocket science: this gesture of reassurance is aimed at maintaining relationships, calming the angry and managing constituencies. Read more

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