Malaysia: Scandal-ridden prime minister launches crackdown on dissent

Opposition weak and divided

Recently, the National Front (BN) government in Malaysia won comfortably in two by-elections and in a state election in Sarawak. This is in spite of the fact that the prime minister, Najib Razak, and his party, UMNO (United Malay National Organization – the dominant party in the BN coalition), have been involved in various scandals and corruption, and the government’s approval rating at the end of last year plummeted to a record low of 23%.

Vote-buying manoeuvres were used costing millions of Ringgits for infrastructure projects and various election promises and ‘goodies’. The undemocratic and biased election mechanism favoured the ruling party. Racial and religious sentiments were exploited and the opposition was disunited. The resultant victories for Najib in those elections strengthened his position in UMNO, at least for now.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that there is no anger felt by ordinary people or that Najib has gained a strong mandate to continue as PM. The people have been facing increased costs of living, plus government austerity cuts and continuous uncertainty in the economy. With unconvincing opposition parties as the alternative to the ruling government coalition and threats of disharmony among the different races plus stories spread by UMNO and the BN about the economy failing if there is a change of government, they have managed to maintain the status quo for now.

PM in scandals

Criticism against Najib has been growing since 2014 after he failed to explain the scandals of corruption and the mismanagement of billions of dollars of funds linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) – an investment company wholly owned by the Government of Malaysia and led by Najib, who is also the finance minister. These scandals, especially the flow of funds, also have connections with different banks, financial institutions and international companies in many other countries including Hong Kong, Singapore, US, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.

Various financial scandals connected to 11 billion dollars being lost from 1MDB involving Najib, his wife and family, and corporate figures have been revealed by the ‘Sarawak Report’ (an investigative journalist based in London), ‘The Hedge’ (a Malaysia business newspaper) and opposition political leaders.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal revealed that around 700 million dollars were channeled to Najib’s private bank account just before the last general elections in 2013. Although the government said that it was ‘donations’ from some businessman in the Middle East, the fund was believed to be from 1MDB and have been used for the BN election ‘goodies’ in the last general election to gain votes.

Initially, under pressure, the government was forced to form a Public Account Committee (PAC) under the parliament, which also includes a few opposition political leaders, and a special Task Force to investigate the 1MDB scandals with the chief of police, the state bank, the Attorney-General’s (AG) Chambers and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Following a cabinet reshuffle, Najib offered government posts to the chief and some other members of the PAC to invalidate their role in the PAC. The sacking of the Attorney General who led the special Task Force on 1MDB was linked to his attempts to implicate Najib with the 1MDB wrongdoings through the courts. With this development, the Task Force and the PAC were disabled. Even the police are instructed to investigate some members of the Task Force with the accusation of revealing some findings of the investigation to the public. The interference of Najib and his government machinery in the PAC and Task Force showed that the investigation bodies are not independent.

The 11 billion dollars that are missing in 1MDB and 700 million dollars channeled into Najib’s personal account should be transparently investigated without any bias; people have every right to know where the money has gone. But, with BN government’s agenda of crony capitalism, the 1MDB scandals have shown that billions of Ringgit were siphoned off into the pockets of the political elite and businessmen for their luxury and free-market profit orientation.

Sosialis Alternatif (the CWI in Malaysia) did not trust the government and the elite in the investigation bodies and demanded the formation of an independent committee consisting of members with proven track records voted by trade unions, social organisations and human rights groups for fair and transparent investigation into 1MDB and the people implicated with it, including Najib and his family.

Conflict in UMNO

Mahathir, the former Prime Minister, has also openly been criticising Najib and pressurising him to resign. Ironically, there were also many scandals and much corruption and mismanagement of funds during the Mahathir government, involving his cronies, into which no impartial investigation was conducted. Najib, who was groomed by Mahathir, has been trying to emulate Mahathir’s autocratic way of ruling to sustain his power. But if the support for the government weakens further and the economy worsened, then he could be forced to resign. For now he will try to hang on to power to at least to suppress the accusations against him and his family in scandals such as the 1MDB and others.

Najib has strengthened the grip of his control in UMNO by appointing his supporters to key positions in the party. He has postponed the UMNO leadership elections until after the general election expected next year or in 2018. With the sacking of the Deputy PM and Deputy President of UMNO, Muhyiddin, and a few other leaders of UMNO and the government who criticise him on the 1MDB scandal, Najib has further consolidated his power in UMNO.

UMNO members who are rooted in the nationalist and capitalist agenda and are merely interested in power and profit through government projects and via patronage politics, could opportunistically alter their loyalty to another leader if Najib’s scandals continuously weaken the party. But for now, the recent victories in the two by-elections and a state election have strengthened him in UMNO.

Mahathir and Muhyiddin, together with anti-Najib UMNO leaders and members, could join hands to undermine Najib’s leadership in UMNO which could then be used opportunistically by the opposition parties to gain support in the run-up to the next general election.

The ruling government, which has been in power since independence from the British in 1957, has been losing its support as shown in the last two general elections – in 2008 and 2013 – due to autocratic rule and worsening social conditions. They managed to win the majority of parliamentary seats with the advantage of the first-past-the-post voting system and unfair elections, but lost popular support to the opposition in the 2013 general election.

Najib could be weakened further with the current political conflicts and worsening economy, but the fissures and conflicts in the opposition coalition could still give him more room to manoeuvre in order to win the next general election which could be called by next year. Racial and religious sentiments could also be used by UMNO and Najib, to maintain the support of the Malay majority against the Chinese and Indian minorities.

Fissures in the opposition parties

The hope for change aroused by the opposition coalition in the last two general elections is fading with their internal disarray. The coalition was formed to merely capture ruling power from the BN, which has been in government for almost 60 years, simply to maintain the status quo.

In the last two general elections, the coalition of opposition parties, the People’s Coalition (PR), exploited the weakening of the BN in order to gain the votes. Posing as the alternative to BN, with a populist agenda, they aroused hope for change. Failure to come into power in the last general election meant that fissures began to appear in PR. PAS (the Malaysia Islamic Party) pushed its Hudud (Islamic criminal law) agenda once again as its main political programme, though the other parties were against it.

The fissure in the PR became worse when Anwar, the PR leader that brought the coalition together, was jailed for 6 years from last year. He had failed in his court appeal against a ‘sodomy’ charge which was believed to be politically motivated to undermine him and to break up the People’s Coalition.

The PR crumbled when the PAS conservative leadership openly backed UMNO and Najib in return for their support for the implementation of Hudud in the state of Kelantan, where PAS formed the state government. Najib merely supported PAS’ Hudud to weaken the PR.

In the PAS leadership elections last year, the conservative faction totally ousted the liberal faction which supported the PR. The liberal faction in PAS then formed the National Integrity Party (PAN) as an alternative to PAS. The new coalition – called the Hope Coalition (PH) – with the PKR, DAP and PAN, replaced the PR. The recent two by-elections in which the PH contested against the BN and PAS showed that the disintegration of opposition parties was benefitting BN by splitting the votes of the opposition.

With the political conflicts in UMNO and a weakening BN, the opposition parties could consolidate again and possibly join with Mahathir and anti-Najib forces in order to win the next general election.

Weakening economy

Najib could also face pressure from the capitalist class that is disappointed with currently worsening economic fundamentals. The Ringgit, which slid to a 17-year low when it hit above 3.80 to the US dollar, has been under tremendous pressure as fear grows over uncertainty in crude oil prices as Malaysia is an oil-exporting nation, and about 31% of government income is from oil-related sources. Prices of other commodities such as palm oil have also weakened, and the trade surplus as well as the government reserves are narrowing.

Companies and businesses are cutting costs with the increasing retrenchments such as the 20,000 workers made redundant last year and the increasing number of unemployed. With the continuous uncertainties in the global economy and the decline in the Chinese economy, Malaysia can expect rocky times ahead.

The weakening Ringgit and economy would further burden the working class, young people and others who are already grappling with the increasing cost of living with the GST (Goods and Service Tax) implemented since April last year.

Anger towards the government is growing day by day with the worsening living conditions. Without a working class leadership, this anger would be capitalised on by the right wing opposition’s parties in order to gain power. With workers being unorganised and the trade union leaders capitulating, the workers look helpless. But with deteriorating social and economic conditions, workers have no choice other than to struggle.

Crackdown on dissent

Since the emergence of the 1MDB scandals, Najib has launched crackdowns on activists, opposition parties’ leaders, young people and other dissenters who criticise the government and Najib’s corruption and mismanagement of funds. Although the ISA (Internal Security Act) was abolished, at least in name, other laws such as the Sedition Act are widely used to silence resistance and dissent. Recently, the Chief Minister of Penang that was controlled by an opposition coalition was charged for alleged corruption in connection to property deals. But when the same treatment was not carried out against Najib and other leaders involved in the 1MDB scandals, it clearly exposed the bias of the government. Under pressure, Najib could also take action against Mahathir, if the latter continues to undermine him and strengthen the opposition.

Sosialis Alternatif campaigns for the application of democratic rights including freedom of speech and demonstration. Last year, the coalition for fair elections (BERSIH) once again organised protests to demand democratic rights including fair and transparent elections in which Sosialis Alternatif also participated. In the protests, we pointed out that the current political and economic crisis and the corruption scandals have connections to the government agenda of free market capitalism. We argued that young people, the working class and others who are oppressed under the present system should fight for an alternative to capitalism as well as fighting for democratic rights.

The scandals and conflicts in the right wing parties in the government and in the opposition parties have once again proved that these parties exist for, and are supported by, the business class. This reinforces the crucial need for the working class, young people and others to have their own independent party that represents their needs and rights. This party also needs to counter the BN, that has remained in power by using the ‘divide and rule’ tactic in multiracial Malaysian society, by encouraging class struggle and policies that can unite workers and young people, regardless of race and religion.

Even if, with the increasing crisis in government, the consolidated opposition parties could gain ground and possibly win the next general elections, they have no solutions to the worsening social and economic conditions that are affecting the majority – the working class and young people.

Sosialis Alternatif has been arguing that socialist policies such as a planned economy, controlled and managed democratically by working class and ordinary people, should be established as the alternative to free market profit-oriented capitalism. In order to fight for this, an independent working class party with the support of workers, young people and others oppressed by the current system, needs to be built.

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