Najib Razak became Prime Minister six years after Mahathir retired. You may have heard of Najib: he’s being investigated in at least ten countries in the scandal known as 1MDB. With his rise and recent fall, Malaysian history turned a full circle. Najib’s father was none other than Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister on May 13 1969.
Najib’s father had a reputation for caring deeply about Malaysia, but this sense of duty seems to have eluded the son. After being thrown out of office on May 9, Malaysian police found 72 suitcases stashed with over £21 million in cash in Najib’s residences. It’s a staggering amount, but a drop in the ocean compared to the £200 million loot that was subsequently discovered and the total sum he is alleged to have siphoned off.
Admittedly, we don’t yet know the whole truth. But from information already in the public domain, there are obvious irregularities. Najib wakes up with several hundred million dollars in his personal bank account. He claims that the money is a donation from a Saudi national. The head of Malaysia’s anticorruption commission who investigates has his life threatened. This official is forced into early retirement; members of his staff are arrested; the head of the police force is hastily replaced. (Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Hollywood, the Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, he’s caught in the net too.)
With all this happening in real life, who needs drama? You can understand why I spent a lot of time this past May glued to Malaysian news channels. The actions above, if proven, amount to official tampering in an investigation. The precedents, of course, were set before Najib ascended the throne. Official interference did not start with him. Najib merely took Mahathir’s playbook and enhanced it.
The Case of Anwar Ibrahim: Fifty Shades of Grey
Recall, from Act II, Mahathir’s allergic reactions to criticism. We saw what he did to protesting judges, so it’s no surprise that when a potential political rival emerged, such a man would be given short shrift. The 1997 Asian financial crisis provided the backdrop for their showdown.
Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time was Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar who had been courted and brought into UMNO by Mahathir. You’re likely to have heard of Anwar: he’s the guy who has been jailed for sodomy. Here’s the story as I see it, and you can judge for yourself.
By the time the Asian crisis struck, Mahathir was already unhappy with Anwar’s reformist credentials. As Malaysian companies collapsed, the two men disagreed on policy. Anwar favoured a free-market approach, mixing austerity with trade and investment. Mahathir, on the other hand, was loath to cancel his pet megaprojects. Instead of doing the soul-searching work of asking where Malaysia had gone wrong, he preferred blaming currency traders like George Soros, who’s Jewish, and for Mahathir’s views on Jews, read on.
Reformist zeal aside, Mahathir could not have taken kindly to Anwar’s outspoken comments about nepotism and cronyism within UMNO. Anwar made no secret of his ambitions to reform Malaysia. His standing in Western political and financial circles soared.
When it emerged that Newsweek magazine was set to name Anwar Ibrahim its ‘Asian of the Year’, rumours began to circulate. In Malaysia – as in 36 other Commonwealth countries – homosexuality between consenting males remains illegal. A ‘book’ quickly appeared stating 50 reasons why Anwar was unfit to be Prime Minister – Malaysia’s own Fifty Shades. Among them were claims of sodomy, sedition and the obstruction of justice. The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir became untenable. Anwar was summarily sacked and ousted from UMNO. Three weeks later he was arrested and charged with corruption and sodomy.
None of the above dimmed Anwar’s reformist ambitions. While awaiting trial he initiated the movement for democratic reform in Malaysia. From this Reformasi movement a new multi-racial political party sprang up which would become the People’s Justice Party. Anwar Ibrahim is its de facto head, the first Malay to lead a multi-racial political party in Malaysia.
This is an important point. Anwar Ibrahim was born a bumiputera, a person with special rights in Malaysia. He did not need to form an inclusive, multi-racial political party: he chose to do so. Fundamental reform in Malaysia will require the buy-in of all its races.
To stop Anwar’s political ambitions and silence his calls for reform, he was convicted of sodomy and jailed, not once but twice – in 1999 and then again in 2015, the second time under Najib’s watch. Having already been detained during his student years, Anwar is rather familiar with Malaysia’s prisons. Throughout, he has not wavered in his hopes of securing lasting democratic reform in Malaysia. In early May, he replied to one of my tweets of support with the single word, ‘Reformasi’. The man has grit.
It was during his most recent prison stint that the mother of all scandals broke. This time the figures were too large to be covered up, even by a government adept at malfeasance. Around US$700 million had been found in Najib Razak’s personal bank account. Najib denied wrongdoing, but with allegations swirling the US Department of Justice ordered its largest ever seizure of assets. Switzerland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates joined the global investigation. Malaysia was in the news again.
In this simmering stew, UMNO members overwhelmingly chose silence. To his credit Mahathir quit in disgust, forming a new political party (though bumiputera-only).
Change was coming. A few months later Mahathir reached out to Anwar, the man he had once jailed, and they met for the first time in 18 years. Their rapprochement was not something Malaysians would ever have imagined. Nor was it easy for Anwar Ibrahim and his family to put the past behind: they’ve spoken publicly about how hard it was for them to forgive Mahathir. I like to think that Mahathir, too, as he watched from the sidelines, felt some remorse at the harm his own actions had caused. Malaysia could not go on as it had. All of us knew this. Our country’s soul was at stake.
History was about to be made. Since its founding, Anwar’s Justice Party had often contested elections in alliance with the DAP; after his rapprochement with Mahathir, it made sense for all three parties to team up. With Anwar still in jail, Mahathir was chosen to lead the new opposition coalition. (NB to Malaysians: Though there are other parties in the coalition, they’re not relevant for this narrative.)
I was initially among the sceptics. I could not imagine voting for a man who had once declared Malaysia a fundamentalist ‘Islamic state’ – news to many of us. He had also, in The Malay Dilemma, written: ‘…the Jews for example are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively’.
Hmm. How much change could we expect from such a man?
In the run-up to May 9, when I watched Mahathir on youtube telling Malay voters not to fear the DAP, I was stunned. Here was the politician who had once branded the DAP chauvinistic – a point he mentioned – and while some of his remarks show how far Malaysia is from being a meritocracy, their context is still a leap forward. In return, DAP stalwarts took to the airwaves to exhort Malaysians to support Mahathir. I knew then that I had to fly home. A new Malaysia was taking shape.
Like many Malaysians, I stayed up all night on May 9. Our phones pinged every few minutes. If you haven’t visited Malaysia, you might be surprised by how modern it is, and efficient when it wants to be. Malaysia issued biometric passports years before the UK. Our verification system employs both facial recognition and digitised thumb prints. We had been expecting election results shortly after midnight; when, by 5 a.m., opposition wins remained stuck at just below the required threshold, wild rumours began circulating. The entire sleep-deprived country speculated on what UMNO was up to. On What’sApp, friends shared images of tanks in Malaysia’s administrative capital. I was exhausted, yet absolutely ready for battle.
In the end UMNO capitulated. Sort of. If you need proof of how utterly shameless Najib Razak is, all you need do is listen to his so-called ‘concession speech’ in Malay. In my view Najib did not concede; not even once did he use the word ‘defeat’. Instead, he tried to worm his way out and then proceeded to justify his own dubious track record. True statesmen are gracious when they’ve lost; on this front, as on many others, he failed miserably.
The important point, though, was that the people had spoken. If we were denied our result, there would have been blood on the streets. Truly.
We now know that this was not needed.
At last, we Malaysians had done it. We did it by uniting, and it was Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad who’d led the way – they set the nation an example. If Mahathir could reach out to his old nemesis and if Anwar could reconcile with the man who had first jailed him, then the rest of us could come together too.
I had to stifle a tear as I watched Mahathir being sworn in as Prime Minister. A day later he named a woman as his Deputy – the first woman to hold this office. She is Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, who held the political mantle during his years in jail. Mahathir named a Chinese man, Lim Guan Eng, as his new Finance Minister, the first time in 44 years that a non-Malay was named to this post. It was something I never imagined seeing again. The fact that the appointment was made by Mahathir, a man who had once called us names and who had put Lim in jail, made the moment especially poignant.
The challenges facing Malaysia are immense, not least in the repairs that must be made to our institutions. It’s up to Malaysians to hold this new government to account, ensure that requisite checks and balances are put in place. This must be done quickly, for the powers of state are tempting.
There will be Malaysians reading the paragraphs above who will say, ‘But Dr. Wan Azizah, she…’ – for there’s already plenty of criticism of the new government, much of it justified. There’s little doubt that political development will take time: there’s so much to be done. But there’s also no question of the change that has taken place. It’s a change both of government and in mindset, crucial if we are to move forward as a nation. For the first time in years I felt welcome in my own country. I was perceived as Malaysian, not a Chinese interloper or ‘newcomer’. This gives me hope, something I did not have before.
On this Merdeka (Independence) Day, we Malaysians should hold our heads high. Let’s reach out to one another and remember that nothing is impossible. We can and will build the country we want.
Anwar Ibrahim is now a free man, and it was Mahathir who secured him a royal pardon. But it was we, the people, who put them both where they are today. In acknowledging his debt to the millions of Malaysians who voted for the opposition, Anwar gave voice to the thoughts and feelings of an entire nation.
‘I will never forget until the end of my days.’