Malaysia was once one of only two fully developed Muslim countries in the world, alongside Turkey. But in recent decades, economic progress has stalled, and the country’s politics has descended into farce.
Government corruption is a good measure of how developed a country and a society are. Developed countries have relatively low tolerance for corruption. What is more, open, transparent and uncorrupted politics is a good indicator of future economic development. Whereas a politics that descends into corruption is a portend of a slowing economy, as well as of future social disruption.
Malaysia may become emblematic of either one of these dynamics. For the Malaysian government has, in recent years, distinguished itself as the perpetrator of the most brazen incident of corruption in modern history that we are aware of: the 1MDB Affair.
In this scandal, still incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak set up 1MDB as a sovereign investment vehicle all the way back in 2009, and seeded it with taxpayer money. Since then, some $4.5 billion have gone missing from the sovereign wealth fund.
And some $681 million have materialized in the Prime Minister’s private account in the same period – income that has not been accounted for, and which the Prime Minister, when pushed to explain it, suggested it was a no-strings-attached donation. To say nothing of the various other sums that appeared in the private accounts of some other members and friends of the Prime Minister’s family.
If the people of Malaysia choose to punish the blatant corruption of their current leaders and resist these leaders’ attempts to buy them off, they can put their country back on the path of progressDr. Azeem Ibrahim
You would expect that such a scandal would upend the political landscape in Malaysia – an ostensibly democratic country. And you would be almost correct.
Certainly the people of Malaysia have been up in arms and on the streets for the past two years since these revelations became public, including a rally in 2016 that drew thousands of yellow-clad protestors into Kuala Lumpur’s usually docile streets.
But despite all this, the Prime Minister is expecting to be re-elected in the upcoming general election in Malaysia. And not for being extraordinarily popular.
In the previous general election in 2013, Najib’s Barisan Nasional party won 60 percent of the 222 seats in parliament. This despite the fact that it won only 47 percent of the vote to the opposition’s 51 percent.
This was courtesy of a severely gerrymandered electoral map. Gerrymandering which the incumbent government has had the opportunity to further reinforce in their latest term in office.
The missing billions
But of course, even such gerrymandering cannot guarantee Najib’s political survival. He lost the popular vote to the opposition even before the astonishing revelations of the missing billions, at a time when his personal popularity was over 60 percent. Pollsters now suggest his approval ratings are below 40 percent and potentially as low as 20 percent.
A further swing in popular opinion against him is to be expected. So the ruling party is leaving as little as possible to chance: it is currently in an ongoing campaign to buy the loyalty of the civil servants in the public administration with a special bonus promised to them soon after the date of the election.
These will be many of the people who will be overseeing the election process and the counting of votes, of course. Other similar cash incentives are being offered to the general population and to segments of the economy. The Malaysian people are thus at a crossroads. This election will be by no means fair. The ruling party’s popularity has been in sharp decline for 10 years.
The unlikely alliance between jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed to dislodge the current government throws a major spanner into the gears of conventional wisdom that incumbent rule in authoritarian systems is invincible.
If the people of Malaysia choose to punish the blatant corruption of their current leaders and resist these leaders’ attempts to buy them off, they can put their country back on the path of progress and economic development. If instead they choose complacency, things will only get worse.
And who knows if they will be given the same opportunity to re-assess their choice in five years’ time. If I were Mr Najib or any one of his associates, I would certainly not be looking forward to losing parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.