Malaysia’s slide towards authoritarianism


Malaysia, once considered a model of liberalism in south-east Asia, seems headed towards overt authoritarianism, with the arrest of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. Lim is of one of the few remaining prominent politicians standing against Prime Minister Najib Razak, and is facing what many considered politically motivated charges of corruption.

Lim, who was a member of the Democratic Action Party, has led one of the few regions in Malaysia without a Malay majority, since 2008. His arrest points to a shrinking space for opposition of any kind in the resource-rich nation of almost 30 million people.

“Malaysian society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which labels such as ‘moderates’, ‘extremists’, ‘national security’ and, ‘sedition’...have become relative, depending on how they are defined by the state,” said Kua Kia Soong, an advisor with the Malaysian Human Rights NGO SUARAM, in a press statement

The latest move comes more than a year and a half since the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, in which US$700 million was allegedly embezzled from a government-run development fund into Najib’s bank account, and billions more went missing.

The government denied the charges, claiming the deposit was a personal gift from the Saudi Royal Family. Instead of properly investigating 1MDB, the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front, or BN) coalition has undertaken a gradual but intensifying clampdown against anyone who has spoken out against the prime minister.

In the aftermath, Malaysia has seen a shrinking of space for its nascent independent media, the tightening of restrictions on civil society, the politicisation of the country’s anti-corruption agency, and, most recently in the Sarawak regional elections, blatant disregard for fair electoral norms.

Corruption is nothing new to Malaysia, says Colin Rajah, the president of Global Bersih, a NGO supporting free and fair elections and civil rights in Malaysia. The siphoning of the country’s oil and natural resource wealth by the ruling coalition has been taking place for decades.

“In terms of intensity and depth, [1MDB] is worse, but it isn’t different,” said Rajah, pointing to the institutionalisation of corruption by previous BN Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who ruled for 22 years.

“[Najib] has really been very smart in terms of how he’s moved unbelievable amounts of money around, and his family, his friends, have benefited from that.”


Appalling conditions for migrant workers

Also closely tied into this is the country’s poor record on migrant workers. Over 70 per cent of the workers on Malaysia’s lucrative palm oil plantations are migrants, who often face appalling conditions.

Companies closely connected to the ruling party are often the beneficiaries of this exploitation, and this lax enforcement of global labour standards is why the country was ranked on the Tier 2 Watchlist of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report.

“The crime of human trafficking is a major problem in this country, as Malaysia does not have a good system that protects immigrants, refugees and those who have been manipulated or abused,” Glorene Das, director of the Malaysian labour NGO Tenaganita, told BenarNews.

Fuelled by cheap labour, the palm oil, petrol and timber industries propelled Malaysia’s growth and helped keep BN in power for decades. It also enabled the official reverse-affirmative action policy, which gave special consideration to the country’s Muslim Malay majority. This majority also just happened to be BN’s voter base, particularly for its largest, most influential member, the United Malays National Organization (UNMO).

The challenge for BN now is that prices for Malaysia’s top two commodity exports – palm oil and petrol – are low, and much of the country’s forested land has been cut down or converted into plantations. This means fewer funds for the government to embezzle and hand out to keep Malaysians compliant. BN lost seats in the past two elections, and with the 1MDB scandal enraging Malaysians, it was possible they might lose power altogether.

A preview of what could lie ahead took place in the critically important Sarawak State election this May. The vote was seen as an opportunity to see how the electorate would respond to not only the 1MDB scandal, but also the recent resignation of the BN’s regional party leader.

“Sarawak’s [Chief Minister] was extremely corrupt, to put it mildly,” said Rajah. “The state has a lot of forest lands, and he was enabling the logging of a lot of that land, and profiteering from that logging for a long time now.”

In fact, the former chief minister, Taib Mahmud, ruled Sarawak for 33 years. During this time, his family amassed a massive, multi-million dollar fortune, nearly all of which came from backroom deals and the selling of the Bornean state’s vast timber wealth.

Many hoped the elections would be a referendum on both the 1MDB scandal, as well as on Taib’s corrupt rule. Instead, it offered a surprising insight into what the whole country might experience when next year’s general election comes round.


Sarawak elections

“Before the election, we saw gerrymandering,” said Rajah. “A lot of seats were lost in urban areas – which would have most likely gone to the opposition, and more seats came up in certain rural areas that would be for [BN].” On top of this, there were allegations of BN paying for votes, the restricting of civil society from entering the states, and the harassment of journalists.

It worked. BN won 72 of the state’s 82 seats, giving a rubber stamp of approval to both Taib’s laundering, and further cementing Najib’s power in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur.

So far, the response from Malaysia’s allies, including the United States and Malaysia’s former colonial overlord Britain, has been muted. President Barack Obama still visited Malaysia last November and spoke alongside Najib. Besides a few statements, neither nation has used its influence to push for accountability. That is why Rajah is pessimistic about the future elections.

“At this state, we’re actually going to see a backtrack, where the ruling party will gain more seats,” said Rajah, pointing to the Sarawak results as a model. “It’s incredible after everything that has happened.

There has been some momentum as just last month prosecutors from the US Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit seeking to seize US$1 billion dollars of laundered 1MDB funds, citing an unnamed “Malaysian Official 1” as a key recipient of the funds. Many believe this refers to Najib himself.

But this latest news is likely to have little impact on how Najib, and his inner circle, conduct business in Malaysia. Today, 14 months after the scandal broke, there is little hope that citizens will see any change in the ruling party. BN and Najib are here to stay – seemingly at any cost.