The End of Kleptocracy in Malaysia?

Najib Razak, former prime minister of Malaysia, had his 12-year sentence for abuse of power and corruption upheld on August 23. It is the first time in the country’s history that a former prime minister has been sent to prison. Najib comes from a unique lineage of Malay aristocracy from the Pahang State; he is the son of Abdul Razak Hussein, the second prime minister of Malaysia, and the nephew of Hussein Onn, the third prime minister of Malaysia. Despite the celebration of his imprisonment by Western media as a sign of the end of Malaysian kleptocracy, the political reality is much more complex.

Since 2015, Malaysia has been the scene of unprecedented political changes, with no less than three governments since 2018 and the twists and turns of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal. The 1MDB case created a unique context that refashioned the political scene. While accusations of corruption against Najib Razak rose as early as 2010, it took a few more years for politicians from his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to react. In 2015, controversial former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned from UMNO in response to the 1MDB scandal, followed soon after by high-profile state leaders including Muhyiddin Yassin (who himself would later become prime minister from 2020 to 2021). Mahathir and Muhyiddin then created the Parti Pribumi Bersatu (Bersatu) and joined forces with opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH). Ironically, Mahathir allied with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the party led by Anwar Ibrahim, whom he had sacked some 20 years ago. In May 2018, Mahathir, under the banner of Bersatu, led PH to victory in Malaysia’s general elections, putting an end to 61 years of UMNO monopoly and fracturing the Razak heritage.

The accusations against Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor, his wife, constituted the base of the alliance forged between former political enemies Anwar and Mahathir. It also served as the backbone of most opposition rhetoric and Mahathir’s return to power in 2018. The opposition crafted a Manichean narrative. According to this narrative, Malaysia was under the threat of kleptocratic evils (Najib and Rosmah) who hijacked UMNO and the government for their personal benefit. In this context, and still according to this narrative, Malaysia could only be saved by someone who knew the UMNO party from within, and who could fight the kleptocracy Najib and Rosmah had set in place. The narrative penetrated most layers of society and even rallied hardcore activists and politicians, who had spent years fighting against Mahathir’s rule. The term “kleptocracy” became intrinsically attached to the rhetoric of opposition parties, specifically PH, omnipresent in Mahathir’s speeches until today and adopted by a large part of civil society.

While many foreign observers analyzed Mahathir’s victory as a reaction against Najib, the success of his perceived transformation from autocrat to democrat reveals the complexity of the political mind and behavior. The messianic return of Mahathir and the Manichean narrative echoed the values of the Malaysian feudal and patriarchal political culture in which the father figure, even grandfather figure, is perceived as the political ideal. On top of that, the reinvention of Mahathir consisted of his appropriation of a new democratic lingua promoting human rights, which, supported by the historical democratic movement Reformasi, the backbone of PKR, became credible.

Interestingly, while Mahathir successfully reinvented himself from autocrat to democrat in Malaysia, Western media continued to promote his controversial image. While Europe and the United States celebrated the political change and the “democratic turn” Malaysia had made under the leadership of Mahathir 2.0, it seems that they indeed could not reconcile with the fact that this change was coming under the eye of a leader they considered an autocrat.

This means that for most part, outsiders have often failed at grasping the Malay and the Malaysian political psyches. The change in 2018 was unexpected for most—even less expected was Mahathir’s return. Malaysian politics is very fluid, and the Malay and the Malaysian political minds have specificities that are too often ignored by most analysts. In Malaysia, like in many other countries, the reign of strongmen is not over.

Like Mahathir did in the lead-up to his return to power, Najib has also attempted to reinvent himself as the man of the people. Rosmah took the back seat and ceased most public appearances. Despite all odds, and after his infernal political descent, Najib rebuilt his popularity not only within his own party but also among a larger audience. In fact, the multiple crises during and post-Covid-19 offered an ideal stage for Najib away for the 1MDB controversy, allowing him to promote his ideas about economic recovery and reforms. While the country has seen no less than three prime ministers since the end of Najib’s reign, amid the delinquency of the PH coalition and the return to power of UMNO in 2021, political perception has slowly moved away from the 1MDB case to focus on the immediate need for economic recovery. Not so long ago, the possibility of Najib coming back to power was in all minds.

Najib’s lawyers exhausted all judiciary ways to keep their client out of jail. On August 23, the Supreme Court of Malaysia expedited the hearing and cut short the proceedings by not allowing any other tactics to be deployed. While the court’s decision was celebrated by Western media, few have questioned the fact that many pieces of the 1MDB financial scandal remain to be found. Financial mastermind Jho Low is still at large, and many key actors that enabled the embezzlement were investigated but have never been charged. While the 1MDB case is the largest financial scandal to be exposed in Malaysian history, it is certainly not the doing of one man only, nor are money politics and corruption the prerogative of UMNO exclusively. Surely, it is too soon to celebrate the victory over kleptocracy.

Malaysia’s political system is built on client-patron relationships along ethno-religious lines. It is also an exclusive system owned by an older generation of male leaders that favors the maintenance of the political elite and lineage and represses the aspirations of a younger generation, and more generally, women and ethnic minority leaders. This system comes in tandem with difficulties in controlling party finances. The next general election is around the corner and might be called as early as November 2022; the chances of Najib obtaining a royal pardon from Malaysia’s king are very high, and Najib still claims his sentencing was the result of a political machinery. Despite the celebration of a utopic victory over kleptocracy, the same political system is well in place, and it could allow the return of another strongman.

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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