SINGAPORE: While we wonder when Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak will call general elections, he must ponder some big questions, perhaps mull over his legacy. Will the benefits and promises of economic policy outweigh discontent over keenly felt day-to-day cost of living issues and corruption? Has sidelining old allies been worth the triggered backlash? Will he be able to continue long-term plans on improving the lives of Malaysians, or will patronage and divisive politics carry the day?
Najib must call elections by mid-2018, but campaigning already pervades Malaysian air. His administration has been striking investment deals, rolling out popular measures that include hand-outs, going into attack mode against political foes, and projecting the image of a moderate, forward-looking leader.
ECONOMIC FACTORS KEY IN LOOMING ELECTIONS
Judging by sentiments on the ground, economic factors will be decisive in the looming elections. The economy has registered steady growth and sound fundamentals, as Najib studiously reminds Malaysians. But voices from the street pervasively and emphatically speak of adversity and insecurity, stagnating incomes, mounting debt and the rising cost of living.
Yet, the Malaysian government’s congratulatory tone reinforces perceptions of political elites detached from the realities of ordinary folk.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, led by Najib as president of the dominant Malay party UMNO, strives to kindle the feel good factor. But doing so is difficult when people are tightening their belts, and inflation is a big beast to tame.
The Najib administration continues to compensate by providing social assistance: the 1Malaysia People’s Aid scheme (BR1M), where welfare payments are received by about seven million recipients, shores up BN’s popularity. Yet, at the same time, the unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST), introduced in 2015 at a rate of 6 per cent, is seen as a main reason for inflation, and a focus of the opposition’s criticism of Najib’s track record.
This “feel bad” cost of living factor disproportionately affects the majority Bumiputera population, comprising indigenous and ethnic Malay groups, due to their larger presence in the lower income strata. The ruling coalition may be concerned that economic hardship might erode its Malay support because of the community’s higher expectation of government support.
A recently launched Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap that outlines a vision for empowering and boosting the well-being of bumiputeras taps into those concerns, and gives assurance that the group’s interests are looked after, even though it does not immediately fill up shopping carts.
In focusing on economic programmes, Najib diverts attention from the affairs of 1MDB, the controversial and high-profile state investment fund he established and holds ultimate responsibility as Minister of Finance.
The Malaysian government has also highlighted its success in attracting Chinese investment. A package of RM144 billion, secured from a Beijing visit in November 2016, includes the East Coast Rail Link which will connect predominantly Malay regions with greater Kuala Lumpur.
But these foreign investment deals have been criticised for increasing foreign ownership and debt. Other controversies enveloping Bumiputera development agency MARA and Felda Global Ventures, which predominantly involves Malay oil palm smallholders, challenge the notion of Najib as guardian of the people’s well-being.
BANISHING FOES UNLEASH NEW POLITICAL DYNAMICS
In the face of dissent on government policy and political controversy among the ranks, a common Malaysian practice is to banish foes – but this has unleashed new dynamics.
The most explosive exposé of recent years concerns US$681 million deposited in Najib’s private bank account, traced to 1MDB sources by media reports, and the US Department of Justice’s civil forfeiture complaint of July 2016. In defence, Najib claimed that the funds were donated by Saudi royalty. The Malaysian Attorney-General accepted this explanation and exonerated Najib.
Others went on the offensive and seem to have gotten themselves evicted. Former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was axed from Cabinet in 2015, days after he made public remarks on the 1MBD scandal asking Najib for an explanation on the saga. Muhyiddin now leads a new party, with former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir who resigned from UMNO. They have joined forces with the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan.
OPPOSITION STRUGGLES FOR COHESION
Yet, Najib may prevail because the opposition is in no better shape. Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed former opposition leader, however, has said that he would not bid for the Prime Minister position. The opposition coalition has struggled for cohesion in his absence and dithers over their candidate for Prime Minister. Najib’s distinct edge as the unquestioned chief of the incumbents is thus magnified by his opponents’ indecision.
An even greater disadvantage to the opposition is the spectre of multi-cornered contests, with the former opposition party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), now informally allied with UMNO, resolved to field candidates widely. So any swing away from BN will likely be split between Pakatan Harapan and PAS.
A LEADER WHO THINKS OF THE NEXT GENERATION
Najib has ruthlessly smothered and deflected 1MDB, but cannot bury it yet. On Jun 15, the US Department of Justice filed another forfeiture suit, including evidence that almost US$30 million of embezzled funds was spent on jewellery for Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.
In these topsy-turvy times, Najib has increasingly assumed a statesman’s pose to give BN’s supporters something to rally around. In launching the National Transformation 2050 (TN50) plan that outlines a 30-year vision for Malaysia this January, Najib has positioned himself as a leader who thinks of the next generation, rather than a politician who thinks of the next election.
That might be hard to swallow, but TN50 and its series of dialogues that will inform an aspirational blueprint for Malaysia’s next 30 years, gives the prime minister and his lieutenants a platform to make a unifying, forward-looking statement and a chance to seek a mandate to deliver on the plan.
RETICIENCE TO INTOLERANCE A CALCULATED STRATEGY
At the same time, less statesman-like behaviour prevails, suggesting that divisiveness and patronage will continue to reign in Malaysia's politics. While Najib's government has taken robust steps to curb terrorism, they have been been reticent in cases of intolerance.
Over four months have passed since a Christian pastor was abducted, in broad daylight and in a brutally professional manner, as captured on CCTV. The authorities have reported no progress on the case, while applying pressure against activists demanding justice and transparency.
Recent weeks have also witnessed daily newspaper The Star probed for sedition for publishing a picture of Muslims praying beneath an unrelated article on terrorism, the opposition Democratic Action Party slandered for harbouring “Christianising” conspiracies, and harassment of non-Muslim opposition leaders visiting mosques or distributing gifts during Ramadan.
The conspicuous silence of Najib and his senior Cabinet on these matters suggests a calculated strategy of rousing conservative bases, by stoking fear and conjuring imaginary threats to Malay-Muslim pre-eminence.
Ultimately, none of the above may matter as much as, well, money. There is no reason to expect any change from past practices of lavish spending from undisclosed sources, promises to spend more, and development funds in return for votes quid pro quos.
So it seems that Najib is poised to retain power in the looming elections. History, however, may not grant him a winning record.
Lee Hwok Aun is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.