Interview: Malaysia’s Political Turmoil and the Role of the United States

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Interview: Malaysia’s Political Turmoil and the Role of the United States

The Diplomat talks with Nurul Izzah Anwar about Malaysian politics and the country’s ties with the United States.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of recently jailed Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, is vice-president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) – one of the country’s opposition parties – and a two-term member of parliament. During her recent visit to Washington, D.C, she spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about Malaysian politics and U.S.-Malaysia relations. An edited version of that interview follows.

On September 16, the day marking the formation of Malaysia, a pro-government rally featuring tens of thousands of Malaysians – mostly Malays – saw protesters denouncing ethnic Chinese, raising worries about racial tensions in multiracial Malaysia. How concerned are you about this, and what it does it say about the state of the country today?

It would be easier to place meaning on a spontaneous gathering rather than one tacitly sponsored by the ruling race-based party.

As such, despite the number, which pales in comparison to the Bersih 4.0 rally they were planning to counter, I would attach greater importance to the Merdeka Center polling done which showed that the level of Malay rejection – both rural and urban – of the supremacist Red Shirt rally stood at an overwhelming 53 percent.

Meanwhile, Najib is currently embroiled in the 1MDB scandal, which some have called the biggest financial scandal Malaysia has experienced in its history. What is your view on how we should understand its significance? If the fallout from the scandal continues, do you see this turning into a political crisis not just for Najib, but for the ruling National Front (BN) coalition itself?

1MDB has become a force of nature. Unfortunately, this has been at the expense of Malaysia’s economy and credibility.

Rightly, all blame should be placed on Najib, the cabinet and the governing BN government. As an investment fund that is backed by the Finance Ministry, the 1MDB fiasco has been the worst example of opaque financial transactions which, according to Transparency International, is tantamount to grand corruption.

The Wall Street Journal expose in July has clearly shaken Najib’s political foundation, to the point that he saw it fit to shut down the task force investigating 1MDB; sack the Attorney General; remove the Public Account Committee members through cabinet upgrade; and revoke the license of media outlets. There are moves that basically put his prime ministerial hands into other democratic branches. Mahathir might have put into motion the mechanisms and power in the Prime Minister’s office to nullify opposition during his tenure, but Najib has moved to further strengthen an emperor-like grip on Malaysia.

Part of the reason why you’re here in the United States relates to your father’s deteriorating health. What can you tell us about his situation? Do you see any chance that he may be released in the foreseeable future?

His detention is political. As such, his release will very much depend on the political powers that be or the turmoil they leave in their wake.

Due to the months of delays before hospitalization and the failure of medical management by the lead medical coordinator Jeyaindran Sinnadurai – who was also a main prosecution witness against Anwar during his second trial – his right shoulder pain exacerbated into a full scale shoulder injury, mandating either microsurgery or full shoulder replacement. We are demanding an immediate briefing session between the panel of doctors, the family, and Anwar.

In part due to your father’s imprisonment, Malaysia’s opposition coalition has split. What do you think the prospects are for some sort of reconciliation? How do you see these dynamics playing out further down the line and how might they affect the opposition’s prospects in Malaysia’s next general election to be held by May 2018?

The acting opposition leader, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, has convened official meetings with all opposition political parties to kickstart the process of setting up a new coalition.

U.S.-Malaysia relations have advanced under the Najib government, and President Obama enjoys a close relationship with him. You’ve held several meetings with U.S. officials during your trip. What have you been telling them about what more the United States can do, or what it needs to do differently, in its relationship with Malaysia?

The growth of foreign fighters and extremism has only risen and been exacerbated by political persecution, and more specifically by the imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim. The long-term effectiveness of US efforts in countering terrorism and de-radicalization will depend on the stakeholders that a U.S. administration is engaged with.

In the lead up to the last general election in 2013, Anwar led the opposition coalition to a victory in the popular vote primarily by managing to convince the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to focus more on setting up a welfare state rather than implementing shariah law. The move by Najib to set up a technical working committee between the federal government and the Kelantan state government controlled by PAS on the implementation of shariah law has now wedged a divide in the opposition coalition and it has distracted Malaysia from consensus- and nation-building.

One of the key agenda items in the U.S.-Malaysia relationship is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Malaysia is currently a member. You are part of the parliamentary caucus on the TPP. What are your views on the agreement? Assuming a final deal is reached, what do you think the prospects are for Malaysia to approve it domestically?

We are asking to access the final draft of the agreement before we can make our decision. Technically, trade agreements are approved at the cabinet level, so they do not require parliamentary oversight. As such, while we are open to ongoing engagement, we need to know more on the impact of the agreement – particularly since the Malaysian government has reneged on its promise to disclose the cost-benefit assessment report done by the Bumiputera Agenda Steering Unit (Teraju) in the Prime Minister’s department and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), a Malaysian think tank.

Another important issue for both the United States and Malaysia is the Islamic State and terrorism more generally. You’ve pointed out in the past that the government has used tools meant to tackle the terrorism threat to crack down on the opposition, and you yourself were detained overnight on sedition charges earlier this year. In your view, how should Malaysia better balance fighting terrorism and preserving rights?

There needs to be sufficient oversight in the use of anti-terrorism and other security-related laws to ensure the ongoing abuse of such laws to silence legitimate opposition ends. I am myself the subject of investigations under section 124B of the penal code. Using authoritarian measures to crack down on terrorists and close down democratic space only encourages further radicalization – movements may simply move underground to escape notice.

Along with holding a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, Malaysia is chairing ASEAN this year. All eyes will soon be on Malaysia in November for another round of Asian summitry, including the East Asia Summit. How do you think Malaysia has performed as ASEAN chair so far this year, and what are your hopes for the country to accomplish for the rest of 2015?

We largely ignored the plight of the Rohingya boat people. And the planned multiparty talks involving Myanmar was postponed indefinitely. Both incidents don’t necessarily inspire confidence in Malaysia’s leadership of ASEAN.

Worse, even the minimal handling of the yearly haze problem was non-existent this time, and we find the suffering of our lungs proceeding without any companies responsible for the open fire burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan being reprimanded in any manner.

The rest of Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship will continue to be tainted by Najib’s 1MDB scandal and will produce little, if any noticeable results. We are losing our chance to exact meaningful change despite holding the chairmanship of ASEAN this year.