Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been doing the Christmas/New Year rounds, touting his government’s successes while predictably ignoring his crackdown on dissent, the jailing of the country’s more popular opposition leader, religious bigotry fed by Islamic hardliners, and the problematic aspects of his own record.
It’s a festive message typical of Najib’s New Year addresses. But it is also a recipe which bodes badly for a leader who, though widely expected to capitalize on a heavily gerrymandered electoral system and probably win a national poll due within the first half of 2018, is nonetheless badly damaged by scandal and continues to undermine his country’s future prospects.
Rarely has a political leader of any political stripe clung to power in the face of such a breathtaking array of charges and investigations into colossal corruption and even murder. Despite this, Najib has ignored calls for his resignation, which in a real democracy would have been a mere formality.
That’s why his gestures of goodwill — to many an empty vessel of self-promotion – over the festive season are struggling to find any traction, particularly the lectures from his New Year’s address.
Lines like “I believe that the fathers of our independence would be proud to see what their countrymen and women have achieved” were as glib as they were predictable.
“Our economy beat all expectations” was hardly convincing, especially when he added, “because of the efficient, business-friendly environment this Government has been creating.”
This was mixed with some spin-doctoring like, “Malaysia’s leadership was also recognized at the United Nations”; gross annual assumptions like, “for it was a year in which we redoubled our efforts to ensure good governance in all sectors”; and a warning that his government “is cracking down on the crony capitalism culture.” Few Malaysians would find these remarks credible given Najib’s own record.
Then, he took aim at his critics while hinting at a leadership challenge, commenting that “neither is it acceptable for a former leader to attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government in the hope that his ambitions for his son may be realized.”
It was a veiled reference to Malaysia’s longest serving leader Mahathir Mohamad, who has led calls from within Najib’s opponents for the premier to step down. In the process, the former prime minister has won over many of his own political detractors. Meanwhile Mahathir’s son, Mukhriz, has said he harbors no designs on the leadership.
But Najib did not end it there.
“In a democracy all that should matter is the wishes of the people as expressed at the ballot box, not the selfish dynastic desires of one man,” he said.
That was an odd line given Najib’s own record, but even more galling for those familiar with Malaysian history, given that Najib’s father also served as prime minister.
Stranger still was Najib’s reference to the “wishes of the Malaysian people.” If he truly values popular sentiment, then Najib might consider releasing Anwar Ibrahim from prison and installing him as prime minister, given he won almost 51 percent of the popular vote at elections almost five years ago but lost through gerrymandering.
The trials and tribulations of Najib’s scandalized time at the helm of Malaysian politics have been scrutinized by journalists, the police, and authorities across the world.
As long as Najib and his unpopular first lady Rosmah Mansor remain ensconced, the murder of Mongolian model and translator Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa as well as their personal records of dealings will remain in the international debate, alongside a French court case into Malaysia’s acquisition of two submarines amid charges of graft.
Beyond this, Najib’s appeasement of Islamic hardliners has badly tarnished Malaysia’s reputation as a secular state and compromised a cornerstone of any democracy: the separation of powers between church and state, and arguably the courts as well.
A blanket ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” made about as much sense as a police investigation into a teenage boy who “liked” Israel on a Facebook page. It should be noted that such anti-Israel sentiment didn’t stop Najib from reportedly employing an Israeli public relations firm to spruce up his image.
Najib’s Middle East policy, according to political commentator Din Merican, is muddled and smacks of “sheer hypocrisy.” He opposes U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but maintains close ties with the Israeli government while boasting of his friendship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who is threatening to cut financial aid to the Palestinians.
Najib’s handling of two downed airliners fell short of the mark, as was the case with his handling of the crisis with North Korea, after assassins chose to kill Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam inside a Malaysian airport.
But on the economic front, the latest scandal has been breathtaking.
Authorities in Singapore and in the United States, Switzerland, and Hong Kong are still investigating the disappearance of more than $1 billion from the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund amid allegations it was stolen by people close to Najib.
They believe that money went into his personal bank account, although Najib and officials from 1MDB have denied any wrong doing.
Despite the denials, a string of arrests has followed and sentences meted out by the courts over the past year, which, despite Najib’s feigning of indifference, must have unnerved him.
An election must be called by mid-year. But though Anwar may be released by then, the upholding of his 2014 conviction for sodomy, sharply criticized by civil society groups as being politically motivated, means he won’t be allowed to contest the poll.
The important issue between now and then is whether or not Najib’s own party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), will attempt to limit the political fallout by ousting him before the poll (rather than sometime after) or take their chances on a scandalized leader whose tenure has proven remarkable for the sheer scale of the allegations brought against him.
Najib’s Christmas cheer and message of hope and stability for the New Year was calculated and timed for a holiday noted for goodwill and cultural celebrations. Whether he is still around to trot out similar disingenuous lines 12 months from now remains to be seen.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt