Malaysia likely headed for more turmoil

opinion July 14, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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The Najib Razak affair will pit his friends against his foes, echoing Thailand’s political division



The corruption case against Malaysian former prime minister Najib Razak may be just the beginning, even though his troubles started last year with a popular uprising against him. Until a massive embezzlement scandal rocked his rule, he was enjoying considerably good ratings, credited for significant economic achievements and a swell of new jobs.

Arrested on charges related to the embezzlement, in recent days he’s been busily trying to get bailed out of custody. “Do people really hate me that much?” he was quoted as asking his advisers. The question – in such stark contrast to the unwavering love and loyalty he previously enjoyed – is at the core of the looming possibility that Malaysian politics has entered dangerous waters.

As events in Thailand have shown, love turning to hatred in politics is a recipe for disaster. 

There are those who say Malaysia is dealing with Najib’s downtown in fortunes better than Thailand has with Thaksin Shinawatra’s. But Malaysians are only two years or so into the Najib affair. There is still plenty of time for events to turn badly wrong.

The situation there has already been ugly. The anti-Najib contingent led by Mohamad Mahathir – the long-time premier who returned to defeat him in the May elections – staged the biggest popular uprising the country had seen in years. Najib, regarding the demonstrators as little more than pawns in a political game, responded with tear gas and water cannon. 

The election results vindicated the uprising, though, and were followed by his arrest as part of campaign against high-level corruption. The problem now becomes one of a large number of Malaysians still backing him, uninterested in whether he was embezzling funds or not. 

A prolonged political showdown seems guaranteed, though it cannot be predicted whether the clash between his supporters and opponents will turn violent. 

With his opponents now in government, the chances are slimmer. 

In Thailand, of course, we had the Thaksin clique both winning power and being forced out, with opposing forces taking turns staging street protests accordingly. There were violent elements in both camps and the country was chronically unstable until the military stepped in, not once but twice.

It remains to be seen how well Malaysia treads such dangerous waters. Mahathir long ago won favour by kick-starting an ambitious national strategy for the country to become “fully developed” by 2020. 

Najib was popular for overseeing what was supposed to be the home stretch in that plan. A robust face-off between their supporters cannot be ruled out.

Malaysia is certainly no stranger to troubling social tension. In 1969, racial conflict escalated into riots after state economic policy was seen as bestowing key privileges on the predominant ethnic Malays. 

Measures to mend the social rift followed, focused on economically pacifying the minorities. The country enjoyed relative harmony over the past two decades, but it’s been a fragile peace nevertheless. A heavyweight political stand-off could produce the breaking point.

Disruptive politics disrupts every segment of society, as Thailand painfully learned. Our economy has never regained the momentum it once had and we still have an ideological divide. 

Malaysians are well advised to keep cool heads and let their political battle play out in the courts rather than in the streets.