These are tiring times for Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak. Mr Razak has so far managed to stay in power despite the flurry of attacks on his leadership. Political debacles have almost cost Najib his prime ministership and the popularity of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). Facing the prospect of losing the people’s mandate in the 2018 Malaysia general election, Mr Najib is racing against time to regain public confidence.
Earlier in 2015, an expose revealed a controversial Rt 2.6 billion (about US$ 700 million) ‘donation’ into Mr Razak’s personal account. This was initially attributed to Mr Razak siphoning funds from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), Malaysia’s state-owned development company. To rebutt the allegations Mr Razak appeared on television to answer questions from critics and gave point-by-point explanations to the 1MDB controversy.
But these have failed to assuage public dissatisfaction. Some critics still believe that Mr Razak siphoned public funds from the 1MDB — even though that allegation has not been proven in court or by independent audit firms. Mr Razak is now left with the CEO of the 1MDB, Arul Kanda, to address the misconception toward the 1MDB and to implement a rationalisation plan in order to reduce its debt.
Mr Razak’s problems do not end there. The Rt 2.6 billion in his personal account has dented his reputation further, even though the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (Suruhanjaya Pencegahan Rasuah Malaysia, SPRM) has evidence that the money was from a donor, not 1MDB. Critics are still unhappy as questions such as what the money was for and whether there were any strings attached, have not been answered.
The person who has launched a major ‘crusade’ to end Mr Razak’s political career is none other than his predecessor-turned-nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Dr Mahathir — the ‘PM slayer’, as one author has put it — is the single most potent force behind the campaign to oust Mr Razak.
The 90-year-old former prime minister’s allegations against Mr Razak are not without defect, but many think that Dr Mahathir is telling the truth.
After 22 years of entrenched rule in Malaysia, Dr Mahathir is seen by some as the ‘knight in shining armour’ that could save Malaysia from Mr Razak. Even though the prospect of Dr Mahathir making a comeback is next to impossible, he still has influence in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), their common political party.
Anti-Najib party members are supporting Dr Mahathir either openly or secretly. While most UMNO divisional leaders are firmly behind Mr Razak, this may change depending on the momentum of the anti-Najib movement in UMNO.
Although he is criticised and mocked on the home front, Mr Razak has scored some brownie points on the international stage. In the aftermath of the MH17 crash in July 2014, Mr Razak negotiated deftly with pro-Russian rebel leaders to allow rescuers to extract bodies and to secure crucial flight information from the crash site in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Razak has to also play a tough balancing act dealing with China and the United States — the two major superpowers arguing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Mr Razak has established good ties with both countries by allowing both American and Chinese naval ships to use Malaysian ports for transport or military training purposes.
So, can Mr Razak and the BN survive the 2018 Malaysia general election? The answer to this question depends on how Mr Razak and the ruling party react to calls for reform.
Before attempting to address Malaysia’s domestic impasse it is important for Mr Razak to exert a stronger and firmer hold on the government, especially the civil service. The civil servants are the key to the success of Mr Razak’s ‘transformation agenda’.
But some civil servants are bent on Mr Razak’s downfall. Many sensitive government documents have been leaked on social media and opposition leaders have used them to attack the government.
Learn From Singapore
The BN should learn from Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP), which won the 2015 Singapore general election.
Its success taught a valuable lesson to incumbent governments around the world about securing electoral victory in the face of growing public disenchantment. The key to winning is to boldly address public concerns by making tough policy decisions.
In the 2011 Singapore general election the PAP won with a popular vote of only 60 per cent — the lowest it had ever recorded in its 60 years of history. It reacted proactively to public criticism, and changed many of its policy positions on issues such as affordable housing, immigration, and economic stagnation. In September 2015 the PAP won the election with 69.9 per cent of the popular vote.
The PAP’s significant electoral victory in Singapore shows that a dominant party system is still alive in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia the BN lost its two-thirds majority in 2008 and 2013. There is a real possibility that its popular support will dip further in the coming election. It is important for Mr Razak and the BN to therefore display some real leadership in addressing people-oriented issues.
Mr Razak should push for good governance and take matters of public interest to heart. The goods and services tax has forced more people to dig deeper into their pockets with the rising prices of essential goods and housing.
The most hit economically are young middle-income professionals and graduates. While the Rt 2.6 billion donation, 1MDB and Dr Mahathir’s challenge are major headaches for Mr Razak, they will not matter much in determining his and the BN’s future in Malaysian politics.
Written by Arnold Puyok, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. This article first appeared on East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license and is reproduced here with its permission.
- Malaysia Essentially Stuck with Najib for Now (Economy Watch)
- Malaysia’s Ruling Party Faces Trust Deficit, Minister Says (BloombergBusiness)
- Malays will still vote Umno in GE14 (The Malaysia Insider)
- Mahathir: Umno has lost its way (Free Malaysia Today)
Based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, the Forum is a joint initiative of two academic research networks: the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research (EABER) and the South Asian Bureau of Economic Research (SABER).
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