Malaysia: Where Voters Rule

In the mold of Winston Churchill in 1951, a spirited Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has fought and won re-election as prime minister after years out of office. Dr. Mahathir returns to the leadership position he held for 22 years up to 2003 – a period that saw Malaysia rise into the ranks of middle income countries. We believe Dr. Mahathir today is quite different from the old boss, even though he once led the party alliance of ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The defeat of former PM Najib and his Barisan Nasional (National Front), led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), was unprecedented in the post-British history of Malaysia, given that UMNO had ruled the country since independence in 1957. Dr. Mahathir helped entwine UMNO into various governmental and economic institutions in Malaysia during his original rule. But Dr. Mahathir split with UMNO in 2016 due to disagreements with Najib (his former protégé) and allegations of Najib's corruption. In the run-up to May's election, Dr. Mahathir and Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim formed the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) consisting of the Democratic Action Party, the People’s Justice Party, the National Trust Party, and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party. What Dr. Mahathir brought to the table was a connection to rural Malays, who traditionally supported UMNO, a nostalgia of the years before the Asian Financial Crisis, and a united coalition of opposition parties that previously seemed more interested in bickering among themselves. Dr. Mahathir's alliance adopted a sensible manifesto of reforms to be accomplished in the first 100 days after election.


While political graft existed before, the level of blatant corruption became egregious under Najib, exemplified by the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal in which over $4.2 billion was misappropriated from a government fund, $681 million of which mysteriously appeared in the personal bank account of the head of its advisory board: Najib. Definitive reports in the Wall Street Journal blew the whistle. Malaysia's investigation into the scandal was a whitewash, and Najib's attorney-general dubiously cleared him of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the US Justice Department is seizing assets that it claims Najib’s cronies obtained with money from the fund that had been embezzled, laundered, and disguised by fraudulent look-alike businesses, shell companies, and kickbacks. Anticorruption authorities in other countries, such as Switzerland and Singapore, have also been obtaining rescission of 1MDB financial transactions and inflicting penalties. With Malaysia's change in government, the global cooperation to return the embezzled assets and expose the methods used improves the world's financial system.

Malaysians – educated, informed, and worldly aware – were sick of Najib’s shenanigans. In the 2013 election, signs of his vulnerability emerged when he lost the popular vote and only defeated Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party by gerrymandering. Anwar soon found himself in prison on trumped-up charges. Ironically, the tactic was borrowed from Dr. Mahathir, who had imprisoned Anwar, his former deputy PM and finance minister, in 1999 on similar charges. Anwar received a royal pardon on May 11, less than 24 hours after Mahathir took power.


One might wonder how Najib stood any chance of being re-elected, but UMNO exerts influence everywhere throughout Malaysia and the deck was stacked firmly in its favor. Malaysia's Canada-sized population of 32 million is approximately 69% Bumiputera (Malay Muslim), 23% Chinese, and 7% Indian; historically, political rights have not been totally equal across ethnicities. Electoral districts were redrawn in the final weeks leading up to the election. Ballots for overseas Malaysians, considered to favor the opposition, were delayed so that many were unable to vote. Leading candidates for the opposition were disqualified on flimsy grounds, and their publications were muffled.