Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (front) sits in Parliament in Kuala Lumpur. Photo Credit: S. Mahfuz/BenarNews
The politically debilitating three-way power struggle that has waxed and waned in Malaysia over the past eight months between what is left of Pakatan Harapan, and UMNO-PAS, with the shaky Perikatan Nasional, headed by Muhyiddin Yassin involves the same old names who have dominated politics since independence in 1965.
They are Mahathir Mohamed, Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin Yassin, Najib Razak and Zahid Hamidi, just to name some of the main characters. Coalitions form and crumble, seating the above in different combinations. The children of every previous prime minister except Bapak Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, remain in various permutations of power.
The force behind Malay power is Malay culture itself. The assumptions, beliefs, and values that dominate Malay culture today have been crafted and molded by 64 years of establishment rule, enabling the survival of the Malay elite at the pinnacle of society.
Authority is personified in political leaders, allowing them a free hand to make moves largely unquestioned. Malay culture presents an insurmountable barrier to criticism of authority, which is often framed as seditious even in the event of a threat to national security. The Internal Security Act implemented by English colonials was continued enthusiastically. The provisions for preventative detention without access to legal representation, trial, or criminal charges, were reflective of the ruling elite’s distaste for criticism.
The ISA and its replacement, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) have been used by all former prime ministers to incarcerate anyone who perceived as a threat to the interests of the elite ruling class. Mahathir Mohamed in his previous stint as prime minister regularly used the legislation to imprison his critics, with perhaps the most notorious example being Operasi Lalang back in October 1987, where the Royal Malaysian Police rounded up and detained almost 120 NGO activists, opposition politicians, journalists, intellectuals, students, artists, and scientists.
The ISA was also used as a tool of retribution against political enemies. Anwar Ibrahim was arrested by Mahathir Mohamed under the ISA in September 1998 soon after he was dismissed as deputy prime minister. In response to protests over Anwar’s arrest, the ISA was used to arrest and detain prominent opposition activists in 2001, which greatly weakened Anwar’s political party Keadilan at the time.
The culture of authority is seen throughout the civil service. Subordinates are expected to be obedient to superiors. This is also seen within school classrooms, where students are discouraged to ask questions, let alone question anything said by a teacher.
The authoritarian aspect of Malay culture is supported by the assumption of privilege. This sense of privilege has its origins in the traditional Malay feudal hierarchy, where the sultan is the patriarch. Under the sultan come his administrators, the Malay ruling class, which has been made up of a few Malay extended families. Most rural Malays see wealth and position as a sign of being part of the Malay elite. Great latitude is given, with corrupt politicians seen as mythical Robin Hood-style figures, stealing from institutions, but giving some back to the people through handouts in rural constituencies.
Malay privilege uses patronage to ensure unquestioned support. Muhyiddin Yassin has appointed supporters to government-linked corporations with financial rewards, status, and privileges to help sure up his majority in parliament. Patronage is the glue which has bonded together the PN government and the Barisan Nasional before its fall in May 2018.
Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy through its policy extension, the New Economic Policy (NEP), and its derivatives, is an excuse to act without transparency. The Malay ruling elite hijacked the NEP, attaching the race card to positively discriminate in favor of Malays, using the affirmative action program to create an unquestionable supposition that Malays must always rule and that the actions of the Malay ruling elite should be beyond any scrutiny.
Any reporting of the misconduct of the ruling elite has been reframed as a sensitive issue that might stir racial tensions. Third parties such as army veterans, as hired guns, have been used to intimidate critics like Ambiga Sreenevasan, as happened outside her home back in 2012, when she was co-chairman of the reform NGO BERSIH.
Attacking journalists who expose impropriety has continued for decades, going back for instance to 1986 when Asia Sentinel’s editor John Berthelsen and his colleague Raphael Pura, then Asian Wall Street Journal correspondents, were expelled. Four Australian ABC journalists were arrested in Kuching and deported in 2016 for trying to question Najib over 1MDB at a press conference. Recently, six Al Jazeera journalists and employees were investigated for sedition and criminal defamation over their report on the plight of foreign workers last month.
Local news portal, Malaysiakini faces contempt of court proceedings over readers’ comments on their website. Boo Su Lyn, the editor of local medical online news portal CodeBlue is being investigated under the Penal Code and Official Secrets Act for publishing the findings of an investigation into a fire at the Hospital Sultanah Aminah in 2016, which left six people dead.
The Director General of Immigration stated that the employment passes will be revoked of any foreigner speaking about Malaysian issues, followed by deportation.
The government is also using the police and legal system to take retribution on former ministers of the Pakatan Harapan government. Former minister for women, family, and community development Hannah Yeoh is under investigation for alleged comments regarding child marriage, which Yeoh claims were falsely attributed to her. Former deputy minister for Islamic affairs Fuziah Salleh has been charged with spreading fake news through her Facebook page.
Memories of the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocking the website of the successful news portal The Malaysian Insight back in 2016 over its reporting of the 1MDB financial scandal are still fresh in the minds of local news portal editors. Local news portals over the last few months have become much more sensitive about what content they publish. Outspoken political commentator Mariam Mokhtar reports that some local news portals are hesitant to publish some of her articles which they believe broach sensitive issues. Malaysiakini parted company with controversial social commentator Dr Azly Rahman over his views on local and international issues. Press freedom is quickly receding, particularly concerning issues of corruption and Malay privilege. The refusal to grant interviews, comment, or answer questions from the media on many issues is common ministerial and departmental practice.
There appears to be a revival in the suppression of academic freedom with the recent banning of the book “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance and Hope in New Malaysia”, a collection of published articles on news portals on the last general election, published by Gerak Budaya.
The law has been repeatedly used to protect and punish political participants according to their favor within the ruling elite. Azmin Ali, a ministers in both the Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional governments and a major instigator of the putsch which saw Muhyiddin take over the reins of government was protected by both former prime minister Mahathir and the police over a sex video that appeared to show him with a male companion.
In Anwar Ibrahim’s case, sodomy was twice used to take him out of the political scene. A pardon from the king was given upon Pakatan Harapan taking power in 2018 to bring him back into the political fray. The court quickly set aside corruption charges against DAP general secretary Lim Guan Eng over the purchase of a house soon after the coalition came to office.
It remains to be seen how Najib Razak will be dealt with after his conviction on July 27 on charges of corruption involving 1MDB. Najib only spent one brief night locked up after being arrested late in 2018. He is now free on bail until presumably all his appeals are exhausted, or his appeal is upheld. Najib he remains a sitting MP with all the rights and privileges until parliament is dissolved and his stolen millions promise that he will continue to play a major role in upcoming power struggles.
The half-dozen lawmakers still on trial on corruption charges for their association with Najib betray this attitude. They firmly believe they are the law, in the dock or not. Funneling funds and looting assets has been going on at state and federal levels since federation. It was only Mahathir, who used the 1MDB scandal to topple Najib in the 2018 election, that brought anyone really accountable. It was an anomaly. Najib was a victim of bickering between the Malay ruling elite, rather than being prosecuted in any sincere attempt to clean the country of corruption. It was retribution.
In Malaysia politics determines everything. Anyone who speaks out against it, will be punished. Malaysian society is still patriarchal, where the Malay ruling class holds everything. There will never be any real political change in Malaysia while the Malay ruling class remains intact.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel