Malaysian Miracle

It is a drama worthy of Shakespeare but with geopolitical consequences for an entire region. In the recent Malaysian elections, the voters brought an end to 61 years of unbroken rule by the Barisan Nasional party dominated by its ethnic Malay component, UMNO. The long-time Prime Minister, Najib Razak, called elections supremely confident that a proven formula of money politics, thinly veiled racist appeals, a controlled press, and extreme gerrymandering of electoral districts would return him to power against a fractured and demoralized opposition. The most prominent opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, languished in jail, convicted of “sodomy.”  Even if he were released, he would be barred from reentering politics. A massive corruption scandal involving the theft of, not millions but billions, from state funds had been effectively swept under the rug. A newly installed Attorney General announced that there was nothing to investigate. His predecessor was fired when he showed a disturbing inclination to ask questions about the missing money.

Meanwhile China pledged tens of billions of dollars for dubious infrastructure projects in Malaysia–money that could be used to make the thefts disappear from the government’s balance sheet. Malaysia’s once vibrant democracy had become a kleptocracy–and this in a region where democracy has been in whole or partial retreat in a number of countries (Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, and even Indonesia).  But this deeply dispiriting prospect was transformed by the unlikeliest of developments. A 92-year-old former Prime Minister, once a political mentor to Najib, announced he would come out of retirement in a bid to unite and lead the opposition in the election campaign. In the unlikely event that he won, he pledged to seek a Royal pardon for Anwar and then install him as Deputy Prime Minister with the expectation that he would become Prime Minister “in one or two years.”  Meanwhile, Anwar’s wife ran as his stand-in as deputy leader of the Opposition.

They were tired of being compartmentalized as Malays, Chinese and Indians. They simply wanted to be Malaysians.

Then it happened. An electorate sick of corruption and cronyism and nostalgic for the days when everything seemed better under Mahathir, voted in numbers that overwhelmed all the schemes that the ruling party had devised to guarantee a victory.  Much of the Opposition’s success was due to young voters who wanted to move past traditional communal politics where every policy and every person was identified in terms of race, religion, or ethnicity. They were tired of being compartmentalized as Malays, Chinese and Indians. They simply wanted to be Malaysians.

After several hours of uncertainty following announcement of the final tally–while Najib apparently sought to buy off victorious opposition candidates–the King (reluctantly) turned to Mahathir to form a government. He in turn made good on his pledge to secure Anwar’s pardon and release. Najib’s passport was confiscated and Malaysians were transfixed as police carried out one raid after another in full public view–seizing vast quantities of personal luxury goods from Najib’s various properties.

What does it all mean?  At a minimum, these events offer a hopeful future for Malaysia with the likely emergence of a competitive two party system, a restoration of the rule of law, the modernization of politics beyond communal identity, and the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Anwar is hardly new, but in the current context, he looks that way. More important, he is extremely capable and devoted to the modernization of his country. Finally, the thefts will be investigated and in the process, a colossal amount of rot and venality will be exposed. The process will not be pretty–but it will be life-giving.

The implications for foreign policy are less clear. Mahathir’s reputation as an anti-Western, anti-American tribune was always misleading. He has a very thin skin and harbors personal resentments for perceived slights and insults but he never let such impulses interfere with Malaysia’s economic and strategic interests. Under Mahathir, Malaysia maintained close cooperation with the U.S. in defense, intelligence, and counterterrorism–as well as trade and investment. Since Mahathir retired in 2003, the strategic regional landscape confronting Malaysia has been transformed with the growth of Chinese power and the regular appearance of the Chinese navy off Malaysia’s coasts. During the campaign, Mahathir accused Najib of “selling out” to China and suggested that some of the infrastructure agreements should be “renegotiated.”  As for relations with the United States, expect little to be said publicly but do not be surprised if the Pentagon receives indications Malaysia is looking for increased cooperation, particularly when it comes to maritime security.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2018, Asia Program. All rights reserved.