Malaysian pol­i­tics wasn’t al­ways like this

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Daniel Moss OPIN­ION ©2020 BLOOMBERG Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist.

Once a bas­tion of po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in a trou­bled re­gion, Malaysia faces the prospect of its third govern­ment in lit­tle more than six months. A war of at­tri­tion over the premier­ship is the last thing the coun­try needs. Gross do­mes­tic prod­uct shrank 17.1% in the sec­ond quar­ter, the worst per­for­mance in East Asia, and de­fla­tion is tak­ing root. Prime Min­is­ter Muhyid­din Yassin came to power in March, just as the pan­demic be­gan rip­pling through the re­gion. His sup­port never looked very solid.

That shaky back­drop has opened the door for the lat­est lead­er­ship chal­lenge. On Wed­nes­day, An­war Ibrahim, a one-time es­tab­lish­ment insider now head­ing up the op­po­si­tion, shocked in­vestors by as­sert­ing he has more than enough votes in par­lia­ment to com­mand a ma­jor­ity and oust Mr Muhyid­din. While Mr An­war’s an­nounce­ment hasn’t been matched by public dec­la­ra­tions of sup­port, it was jar­ring enough to push stocks lower and nudge the cur­rency to a two-week low.

The premier says he isn’t go­ing any­where and is fo­cused on try­ing to con­tain Covid-19 and lift the econ­omy — ef­fec­tively chal­leng­ing Mr An­war to put up or shut up. There’s no deny­ing Mr An­war has come close to the apex of power in Malaysia in the past, only to stum­ble be­fore the fin­ish line.

With an abun­dance of sa­lon in­trigue, the po­lit­i­cal class at times ap­pears out to lunch on ba­sic gov­ern­ing needs. Within Mr Muhyid­din’s camp, back­ers have en­gaged in public spats about who gets to con­test elec­toral dis­tricts and which sup­port­ers get plum public­sec­tor jobs. Four stim­u­lus pack­ages have been passed mostly by de­cree; other crit­i­cal things like rais­ing the debt ceil­ing need leg­is­la­tion. Demon­strat­ing a work­ing ma­jor­ity is crit­i­cal, but Mr Muhyid­din’s is so thin he ap­pears wary of risk­ing a public vote.

It wasn’t al­ways this way. For most of its six decades of na­tion­hood, the coun­try was able to steer a mid­dle ground in South­east Asia. One coali­tion ruled for most of that time and re­turned at reg­u­lar elec­tions. By con­trast, neigh­bour­ing In­done­sia has been prone to epic crack­ups that de­gen­er­ate into com­mu­nal vi­o­lence. In Thai­land, the mil­i­tary reg­u­larly in­stalls and sacks cab­i­nets, and Fer­di­nand Mar­cos in the Philip­pines was able to seize power and rule as an au­to­crat for years be­fore get­ting over­thrown. Now, power in Malaysia risks fall­ing into a dis­turb­ing pat­tern: a few law­mak­ers switch sides and un­seat gov­ern­ments out­side of elec­tions.

That’s what Mr An­war’s gam­bit would mean. Nei­ther he nor Mr Muhyid­din want the stale­mate bro­ken by the monarch — whose role is largely cer­e­mo­nial — dis­solv­ing par­lia­ment and call­ing a fresh elec­tion. Each man wor­ries that he would lose. Pro­vin­cial bal­lot­ing this week­end in Sabah is the next po­ten­tial trip wire; the north­east­ern Bor­neo state is one of the few lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions not al­lied to Mr Muhyid­din’s bloc. The re­turn of the state govern­ment would be seen as a re­buff of the prime min­is­ter and, in the­ory, a plus for Mr An­war.

The frac­tured na­ture of the op­po­si­tion is also part of the story. Be­fore March, Mr An­war looked on course to as­sume the premier­ship later this year, such was the gen­tle­man’s agree­ment with then-Prime Min­is­ter Ma­hathir Mo­hamad. The two had history: Back in the 1990s, Mr An­war was also heir ap­par­ent to Mr Ma­hathir, when both held of­fice un­der a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal group­ing, the Barisan Na­sional, which had run the coun­try since in­de­pen­dence. But Mr An­war fell out with Mr Ma­hathir and was jailed. The two men rec­on­ciled and united to de­feat Barisan, which they claimed had suc­cumbed to graft. Na­jib Razak, the last Barisan leader to oc­cupy the premier’s job, was con­victed and sen­tenced to prison for his role in the 1MDB saga. (Na­jib has ap­pealed.) The terms of the Ma­hathir-An­war peace treaty were that Mr Ma­hathir would stand aside for Mr An­war af­ter a few years. They could never fully rec­on­cile, how­ever. Their sup­port­ers split, en­abling Mr Muhyid­din to as­cend. Mr An­war is on the out­side want­ing des­per­ately back in; Mr Ma­hathir says he’ll wait and see.

This isn’t just a storm within the eth­nic Malay com­mu­nity, which has long formed the back­bone of pol­i­tics. The re­gion has much at stake in Malaysian sta­bil­ity. The na­tion is a ma­jor ex­porter of elec­tron­ics and tied in­ti­mately to the global eco­nomic cy­cle. It sits astride the vi­tal sea lanes of the Straits of Malacca and is one of the claimants on tracts of the South China Sea.

Con­sis­tency and con­ti­nu­ity count for a lot in such a di­verse cor­ner of the world. Un­for­tu­nately, these virtues tend to get no­ticed only once they are gone. In March, I wrote that Malaysia’s pol­i­tics had come to re­sem­ble the di­vi­sions over faith, eth­nic­ity and ur­ban-ru­ral cleav­age that char­ac­terised Brexit and Don­ald Trump. Malaysia can do bet­ter. Con­sid­er­ing his rep­u­ta­tion as a re­former and cham­pion of civil so­ci­ety, so can Mr An­war.

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