Ghosts from Malaysia’s past put its economic future at risk

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William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades”.

Malaysia is cynically inspiring a bull market as it searches for a new prime minister who will take power with very bad cards.

On any list of the most dull jobs in the world, number one Malaysia currently ranks at the top. Whoever replaces Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned Monday, must curb a new wave of COVID-19, stabilize a declining economy and restore some confidence in local government.

Oh, and Malaysia’s fourth leader in less than 40 months will be less than a year before the next general election is held. If that seems impossible to you, try navigating Malaysia’s party patronage system, which has been in place for 64 years. It will really blow your mind.

Since 1957, the United National Malay Organization (UMNO) has been at the center of power, in addition to being the place where reform, progress and diversity will die. His money and power make UMNO a Goliath on steroids to be challenged by any potential David.

This imposing political giant stumbled in 2018, when scandal-ridden Najib Razak cost the party its grip on power. Najib’s 9-year-old government was defeated by his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad, who led UMNO and the nation for 22 years as prime minister from the 1980s to early 2003. Shocked by the corruption of his former protégé, the 92-year-old Mahathir came out of retirement on a white horse to save the day.

By wresting power from UMNO as a member of the United Indigenous Party of Malaysia, known as Bersatu, Mahathir returned to power by pledging to modernize the economy and make government work again for them. ordinary people.

Yet 661 days later, Mahathir 2.0 was finished. In March 2020, Muhyiddin took power after securing the support of the King of Malaysia in a move that shocked the political establishment – and ensured that Muhyiddin would get next to nothing. Aside from fighting over the past 533 days to maintain power, it’s hard to think of a single accomplishment. Except to give UMNO another chance to regain power.

All of this may sound familiar to voters in Japan, where the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled the country largely uninterruptedly since 1955, losing power for a minute in Tokyo in 1993 – and for a longer period to the benefit of the Democratic Party of Japan. from 2009 to 2012. Yet after the DPJ’s unstable handling of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis in Fukushima, voters ran to the old-fashioned PLD.

UMNO envisions a similar narrative in Malaysia, hoping voters adopt a devil-supporting mindset that we know. However, it is far from certain that the UMNO can succeed in an LDP-type revival.

One reason: the ghosts of 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, continue to haunt its reputation. Najib may have been corrupt, but the party system that allowed the 1MDB crisis to occur and escalate – and then ride around the wagons to pretend all was well – has changed little. Today, Najib is outside living his best life as he appeals his prison sentence.

It’s also telling: Najib’s first cousin Hishammuddin Hussein, 60, is among the names mentioned as the next prime minister. Local media highlight his pedigree as a top fourth generation leader. His grandfather Onn Jaafar founded UMNO and his father, Hussein Onn, was the third Prime Minister of Malaysia.

But the world remembers Hishammuddin as the unfortunate face of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 debacle in 2014. After the Boeing 777 disappeared, Hishammuddin spoke on behalf of Najib’s government as acting transport minister. The episode showed that Najib’s government was not at all ready for world prime time.

Other ghosts from past political eras are vying for power. Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998, has been running for prime minister for 20 years now. Talk about baggage. After Mahathir fired Anwar in 1998 for advocating pro-Western market reforms, Anwar was jailed on charges ranging from sodomy to abuse of power – charges he denies.

Anwar Ibrahim has been aiming for the post of Prime Minister for 20 years. © Reuters

During Mahathir 2.0, Anwar was pardoned and appeared destined to replace the nonagenarian, only to be foiled by another fallout with Mahathir. Who really knows how much political capital Anwar, now 74, still has in Putrajaya?

On paper, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Muhyiddin’s former deputy prime minister, seems a natural fit. Ismail Sabri, 61, was Minister of Youth and Sports in 2008 under former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. A potential snag: he is one of the senior officials responsible for containing the pandemic. This could reduce his chances of winning the trust of King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, as COVID-19 brings the nation back into lockdown mode.

Former statesman Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 84, also tops the list. The longest-serving member of parliament and descendant of the royal family, Tengku Razaleigh was the first UMNO lawmaker to openly break with the Muhyiddin administration last year. This, with the gravity accumulated from his days as finance minister in the 1970s, could give him a head start.

Could UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – the 68-year-old man who sparked Muhyiddin’s resignation by prompting many lawmakers to withdraw their support – could he take on the title?

But with less than a year to get things done before an election, it’s hard to see much change. Even less if the UMNO empire is about to retaliate, thus validating today’s cynicism.


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