Perhaps the biggest question prompted by the arrest of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak is a hypothesis. What if he had won the general election that took place a few weeks earlier?
In a parallel universe, anti-corruption authorities would continue their probe of the corruption scandal in which he is implicated, no matter what. He would be arrested, despite having won a fresh democratic mandate to rule his country. A fair trial would begin and the ruling party would duly find a replacement. National life would go on and the country’s political integrity would remain intact.
In this universe, will any of that ever happen? We don’t need to be political experts to say “No” with extreme confidence. In fact, we would be right to be more worried about the well-being of his political opponent, Mahathir Mohamad, than of the man he deposed.
As it turns out, Mahathir won the May election in what was regarded a major political upset. The rest is history. Najib was arrested a few days ago and charged in relation to the alleged embezzlement of billions of dollars of state money.
Fighting corruption is easy when it takes place selectively. Politicians put their enemies away for graft all the time, in every country and throughout history. It’s corruption that involves the powers-that-be that is virtually impossible to combat.
So, anyone wanting to praise Malaysia for dealing democratically with corruption should hold their horses. Najib was not many ballots away from making it an entirely different story. While Mahathir’s camp can declare the win a democratic triumph over corruption, Najib, with a few more votes, could have emerged victorious and called it a democratic triumph over a malicious conspiracy.
What is worrying and puzzling is the fact that Mahathir’s victory was called a stunning election shock. If Najib truly is corrupt, it shouldn’t be a shock, should it? Those deeming it a major political upset either believed Najib was innocent or had contempt for democracy’s ability to deal with rotten apples.
The mainstream media calling it a shock gives it away. It underlines faith in power, not in integrity. The media took one look at Najib’s power and popularity and decided that his election loss should not have happened. Corruption thrives on this kind of stereotyping, irrespective of whether Najib was guilty or not. If one man is popular, he must be good. If he is both popular and powerful, he is supposed to be invincible.
Which leads us to a very disturbing assumption. Popularity can cloud anyone’s judgement when it comes to corruption or alleged corruption, and the media are not helping.
Democracy’s biggest argument against dictatorship or tyranny is that the latter is worse in battling graft. This crucially means democracy is better at fighting corruption. The onus is, therefore, on democracy to prove its worth and not let itself be pulled down to the latter’s level. Otherwise, it will be hard for people to really know the differences.
Najib Razak is an unfinished test case at best. A democratically elected leader credited for considerable economic achievements that impressed the business community, who was then accused of corruption but persistently pleaded innocent, is the ultimate challenge of a system that prides itself on protecting the majority’s interests. The “system”, however, does not end with the ballot box. In fact, the voters’ job was over the day they elected him, but democracy’s job in ensuring political integrity under his rule had just begun.
The jury is still out on the Malaysian system, which allowed voters to oust Najib from office but had let him reign supreme with a very high possibility of a new term. While in office, his security forces used tear gas and water cannon on protesters who accused him of corruption. If the democracy that enabled the popular uprising against him was right, then the democracy that supported his rule must be wrong or malfunctioning.
Again, he was not many parliamentary seats away from being able to say that the popular uprising against him was wrong, and the “democracy” that supported his rule, that condoned the crackdown, was right. That this is not happening does not mean that it would not have happened had he won the May election.
Democracy is not supposed to work on the toss of a coin. Whatever the real problem is, Malaysia is still grappling with a system that pitted the man who launched an ambitious agenda for full developed-nation status by 2020, Mahathir, and the man who, until the May election, had overseen what was supposed to be the home stretch of the scheme, Najib. Is the fight disrupting Mahathir’s own agenda, or was he forced to return because Najib was not the right guy?
Nobody knows for sure. The only certainty is that Mahathir’s camp now has the power to tell the “official story” whereas Najib can only defend himself as a suspect. As for the hypothesis, we can only wonder about it.