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What Next for Malaysia? The Temptations and Opportunities of Reform.

Thomas Benson

Malaysia’s dramatic general election in May 2018 attracted worldwide attention for its multiple paradoxes. The incumbent right-wing party, Barisan National (BN), was overthrown for the first time in the country’s 60-year history by a progressive centre-left coalition. Remarkably, this progressive victory was delivered by former right-wing BN prime minister Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, who joined the left-wing coalition in order to overthrow his own successor and mentee, Najib Razak. Shortly after winning the election, the 92-year old Mahathir freed opposition politician and former enemy Anwar Ibrahim from prison, indicating he would cede power to Ibrahim within the next few years. This turn in political fortune for Ibrahim was especially strange, as Mahathir had played a key role in his original jail sentence in the 1990s on questionable charges.

Malaysia’s new political landscape is a hotbed of contradictions. Will it bring a new hope for progressive democracy in Asia or the reinstillation of an autocrat on a bed of nationalist nostalgia? As former president Najib Razak faces imprisonment on corruption charges, the direction of Malaysia’s political reform is now largely dependent upon the developing anti-corruption initiative that formed the centerpiece of the victorious coalition Pakatan Harapan’s election campaign.

The prosecution of political corruption can either be an anti-democratic abuse of power or a democratic invocation of justice, and it remains to be seen what road Malaysia may take.

Perhaps no issue could have united the disparate forces within Mahathir’s coalition like the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving Malaysia’s state development fund 1MDB. Anti-corruption’s broad appeal lies within its juxtaposition of revolutionary acts and rhetoric – the imprisonment of political opponents, sweeping reform, swift justice – and its conservative upholding of rule of law. The prosecution of political corruption can either be an anti-democratic abuse of power or a democratic invocation of justice, and it remains to be seen what road Malaysia may take. South Korea provides a democratic model for prosecuting corruption, having imprisoned multiple leaders over corruption scandals: most recently and notably former president Park Geun-hye in April this year, in response to popular protests calling for government accountability. However, in neighbouring Thailand, corruption has repeatedly been used to justify military coups against the government. If anti-corruption is a platform both to enforce the law and to reform the system, it is only as good as its enforcers and its reformers.

As an electoral issue anti-corruption has reached beyond South-East Asia. In Central and South America, a wave of anti-corruption activity has recently overtaken the region after a decade of endemic governmental corruption. In Brazil, a particularly bizarre instance of anti-corruption efforts within politics has seen the former president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, leading polls for the October election despite being behind bars for corruption and money laundering. Meanwhile in Peru, allegations of corruption have forced a change of administration after the resignation of former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. In Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador, former presidents from all three countries are being tried under corruption and money laundering charges. Analysis carried out in the Washington Post by German Petersen used the dataset Varieties of Democracy to isolate the driving factors of this anti-corruption push. Using linear models to test the impact of four factors- economic liberalisation, electoral democratisation, legislative constraints on the executive branch, and judicial constraints on the executive branch- Petersen has argued that neither economic liberalisation or democratisation had much bearing on curbing corruption within Central and South America. Instead, the proper implementation of legislative and judicial oversight proved most effective for reducing corruption. However, this oversight was exercised most commonly in instances where public demands for accountability were loud and clear: widespread public protests that demonstrated popular intolerance of corrupt governance.

What positive lessons can be drawn from South America? Both progressive and conservative factors are in play. Democracy can be a powerful force for legitimacy and transparency in government, but it relies on the strength of proper legislative and judicial oversight. The data from South America arguably demonstrates that corruption is curtailed when public accountability meets an independent judiciary and functioning legislature. However, as former president ‘Lula’ da Silva protests that his imprisonment was engineered by ‘right-wing elites’ to remove him from Brazil’s presidential race and prevent him from seizing power, the ambiguities between the exercise of power and its abuse are never absent from the discourses of anti-corruption.

Closer to Malaysia, China offers an illustrative example of the autocratic power of anti-corruption campaigns. A far-ranging anti-corruption campaign was one of the most significant defining features of Xi Jinping’s ascendancy to General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. Its ‘tigers and flies’ philosophy of prosecuting both high-level and low-level civil servants alike led to more than 100,000 indictments, including more than 120 high-level officials. Scholarly and popular debate is currently divided over the political motivations of the campaign, variously characterising it as a political purge, a factional struggle, an attempt to reduce the power of party elders, such as former president Jiang Zemin, or more simply as a genuine attempt to enact positive change and weed out endemic corruption within the Chinese civil service. Whatever motivation or combination of motives, however, it seems irrefutable that the campaign has tightened Xi’s increasingly authoritarian hold over the party.

China’s recent turn towards authoritarianism casts a troubling shadow over hopes for reform, with many progressives in Malaysia recalling Mahathir’s own past as authoritarian ruler. Instilling reform relies not only on Mahathir’s personal transformation from autocrat to democrat, but a transformation of Malaysia’s entire politics. Malaysia’s legislature is in dire need of reform. The democratic anger that unseated Razak relied on an unwieldy coalition of interest voters, and political transparency is complicated by the mass destruction of files and documents related to government debt and stolen funds. Mahathir is a singularly charismatic figure within Malaysian politics, running a smaller government with fewer ministers than his predecessor. Without reform of Malaysia’s institutions, Mahathir’s anti-corruption reform could easily become an authoritarian tool for strengthening his position at the expense of government and country.

For the moment, however, there is hope that Malaysia’s first change in ruling party will occasion real chance for political reform. Early reports from Malaysia indicate that the task ahead of them is substantial, if not overwhelming. For reform to be truly progressive, the new ruling coalition must focus on re-establishing the rule of law and increasing transparency and accountability in government. Perhaps more importantly, it must resist the temptation to exploit anti-corruption initiatives to consolidate political power and thus become no less corrupt than the government it replaced. Ibrahim, looking towards his own ascension to power, has predicted a ‘new beginning’ for his country; it now remains to be seen what this new beginning will achieve for the future of Malaysia.

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