Saturday, March 21, 2009

Malaysia is roiled by a crisis of democracy


By Thomas Fuller
Published: March 19, 2009


KUALA LUMPUR: A slew of political scandals gripping Malaysia and a transfer of power fraught with uncertainty have embroiled the elite here with exquisitely poor timing.

As a major trading nation, Malaysia is being slammed by the global downturn, its exports collapsing by nearly one-third and current projections showing that its economy will shrink by as much as 5 percent this year.

Yet the main preoccupation of the government and opposition parties appears to be what analysts are describing as an increasingly dysfunctional political system: The man who is in line to become prime minister is linked to the murder of a Mongolian woman whose body was obliterated with military-grade explosives. The opposition leader awaits trial on sodomy charges in a highly politicized case. The government is using draconian laws, including those against sedition, to prosecute opposition figures, and this week it banned a member of Parliament for one year after he called the prime-minister-in-waiting a murderer.

Meanwhile, the Legislature of one of the largest states in the federation has been paralyzed for six weeks over a dispute over who should govern.

‘‘At the rate things are going, we’re going to be a failed state within a decade,’’ said Salehuddin Hashim, secretary general of the People’s Justice Party, the largest opposition party. ‘‘I’m at a very low point in what I expect for my children.’’

For an oil-rich country with a gleaming, cosmopolitan capital and a large, well-educated middle class, the pessimism may seem hyperbolic. But analysts say the current political woes strike at the heart of the functioning of government, damaging core institutions like the royalty, the judiciary, the police and the news media.

‘‘I see a rough ride ahead for the country,’’ said Zaid Ibrahim, the founder of Malaysia’s largest law firm, who resigned as law minister in September over the government’s practice of detaining its critics without trial. ‘‘The institutions of government have become so one-sided it will take years to restore professionalism and integrity.’’

Much of the anxiety in Malaysia is focused on the rise of Najib Razak, a veteran politician in line to become prime minister sometime after the governing party’s annual general assembly next week. No date has been set, and some Malaysians speculate that the current prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, will hold onto power, although he has said repeatedly that he would step down.

Mr. Najib’s supporters say he will reverse the sagging fortunes of the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, and offer decisive leadership, a contrast to the languid style of Mr. Abdullah, who is from the same party. But Mr. Najib lacks popular support, and many expect further crackdowns on his opponents if he becomes prime minister.

Both Mr. Najib and his spokesman, Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, declined to comment for this article.

In a speech on Wednesday, Mr. Zaid, the former law minister, called on Malaysia’s king to reject Mr. Najib if the party puts him forward as prime minister and to appoint someone who would ‘‘bring us back from the brink.’’

The most high-profile scandal to tarnish Mr. Najib’s reputation is the murder of the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu, the mistress of Mr. Najib’s foreign policy adviser. Her life and death, a mix of soap opera and horror movie, have captivated and shocked the public.

Prosecutors say Ms. Shaariibuu was killed in October 2006 by government commandos who also serve as bodyguards to the country’s top leaders.

Mr. Najib has not been charged with any crime, but lawyers say the handling of the case has been irregular and criticize the prosecution for failing to call Mr. Najib to testify.

When she was murdered, Ms. Shaariibuu was reportedly seeking her share of a commission — the opposition calls it a bribe — worth €115 million, or $155 million, paid by a French company as part of the government’s deal to buy submarines. Mr. Najib, who is defense minister as well as deputy prime minister, handled the submarine purchase.

The huge size of the commission — about 10 percent of the total cost of the submarines — is not being investigated despite an official acknowledgement by the Malaysian government that it was made to a company linked to Mr. Najib’s aide, who was acquitted in connection with Ms. Shaariibuu’s murder.

Perhaps more worrying for the country is the standoff in Perak, a state where since early February the police have barred lawmakers who oppose the governing party from entering government buildings.

Mr. Najib spearheaded an effort to install a new chief minister in Perak by claiming that he had enough defectors from the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat, which last year took control of the State Assembly for the first time since independence from Britain in 1957.

Both sides remain at an impasse, and the sultan of Perak has rejected a plea by the speaker of the Assembly for a new election, which polls indicate would probably restore the opposition coalition to power.

Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency, said that as the governing party’s popularity wanes, Malaysia is failing a key test of any democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.

‘‘Malaysian democracy hasn’t fully matured in the sense that those who lost the elections are unwilling to accept the results,’’ Suffian said. ‘‘There’s still some lack of acceptance of how democracy works.’’

The United Malays National Organization has governed Malaysia since independence but came close to losing power in elections last March, a watershed that put into question the country’s ethnic-based party system.

Mr. Zaid, the former law minister, traces the roots of Malaysia’s current troubles to the privileges given to the country’s dominant ethnic group, the Malays. Governments led by the United Malays National Organization have provided contracts, discounts and special quotas to Malays through a far-reaching affirmative action program.

‘‘We have sacrificed democracy for the supremacy of one race,’’ said Mr. Zaid, who himself is Malay. ‘‘It’s a political hegemony.’’

The other two major ethnic groups in the country, Chinese and Indian, have increasingly withdrawn their support for the governing party in recent years and now largely back the opposition. Only 18 percent of Chinese voters and 28 percent of Indian voters polled by the Merdeka Center in December and January said they thought Mr. Najib would make a good prime minister. Mr. Najib had the support of 57 percent of Malays in the poll.

Declining support for the governing party has heightened the personal rivalry between Mr. Najib and Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader facing sodomy charges. In a measure of the political nature of the case, Mr. Anwar’s accuser met with Mr. Najib before going to the police.

‘‘Our position vis-à-vis Najib is clear,’’ Mr. Anwar said in an interview. ‘‘He has become so repressive and crude in his methods.’’

‘‘There’s no way we will have any dealing or respect for him,’’ he added. --IHT

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