Why the U.S. should care about the May 9 Malaysian election
By Linda Lowry and Ryan Stevenson
On April 25, the Columbia Tower Center in Seattle hosted a panel discussion on the upcoming May 9 Malaysian elections and why these elections hold importance for residents of the United States.
One cannot help but wonder how important the continued stability under the leadership of Malaysian Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak has been in the efforts to reduce global terrorism and minimize the growth of ISIS in Malaysia and other Islamic terrorist organizations in the ASEAN region. As Carl Silverberg (executive director – War Against Racism) mentioned, “Malaysia is approximately two-thirds Islamic with 50 percent of its population under the age of 25 … stability is critical when you don’t want to have any problems [with terrorism].”
Cathy Allen, a Democratic political consultant, reminds us that “while change looks exciting on the evening news … people look for change until people realize what kind of change they will get, then they [usually] choose stability.” In Malaysia, during PM Najib’s tenure, they have experienced unprecedented consistent economic growth of over 5 percent. His recent “Manifesto” with the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition mandates a plan for continued stability and growth featuring the addition of 3 million jobs, universal child care, better programs for fulfilling and enabling the success of women, a sustainable and prosperous national economy that includes digital empowerment and futuristic transportation, as well as people-centered housing. The call for change is typically a response to rising unemployment, poverty, lack of education, and limitation to personal liberties, yet none of these seem prevalent during Najib’s guidance towards a better Malaysia. As Shanika Weerasundara (founder of TeqLaa and native of Sri Lanka) said, “While Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, their government has done a really good job working with liberal and non-Muslim countries and are a great ally to the U.S.” Maintaining this relationship with Najib is of great political and economic importance to the United States — both as a trade partner and a stabilizing factor in the region. So why are some advocating a change in leadership?
Mahathir Mohamad is the 92-year-old former PM who perhaps is searching for a little nostalgia in regaining his previous position, and has partnered with his former rival Anwar Ibrahim whom CNN reports was previously imprisoned by Mahathir for “corruption and sodomy.” Anwar is also currently jailed with the plan to have Mahathir assume the role of interim prime minister until Anwar can have his convictions pardoned. Given Malaysia’s important role in the region, why would you risk disruption to the current stability to empower these candidates? As Silverberg mentioned, “When my father was 92, we took away his driver’s license, as he was no longer capable of driving. Why would you elect someone to run a country at that age and what happens to their stability if he dies shortly after being elected?” Creating change just for the sake of change may not be the best course forward for Malaysia.
As I continue to listen to this panel discussion and learn more about important issues in the upcoming election on May 9, it seems that on the domestic and foreign fronts, incumbent Najib is the best candidate to lead Malaysia forward and provide continued stability and economic growth in the ASEAN region.
I am not a Malaysian citizen and have no vested interest in the outcome of these elections. The thoughts provided in this article are my perspective based on the information presented in this panel discussion.
The real Najib
By John Renaud
With the 14th General Election (14th GE in Malaysian parlance) quickly approaching in Malaysia, some Americans have taken notice of events in this key piece of geopolitical real estate. As an American who lived in Malaysia for 11 years, and who is married to a Malaysian national, I feel I might have some insight on the 14th GE in general and Malaysia’s current prime minister in particular, who happens to have a lengthy name of honorifics and titles. Malaysians generally refer to this 64-year-old man as Najib.
Prime Minister Najib learned his British inflected English at a young age and knows how to wear a smart suit in public to impress the right people. He can certainly appear to be democratic at times and make the appropriate democratic-sounding utterances for the (generally foreign) media. But he is no Jeffersonian democrat. Najib is the heir and, in essence, owner of one of the world’s most finely honed political machines, a political machine that has never lost an election in the history of Malaysia. Since 1957, the year that marked the beginning of Malaya and now Malaysia as a sovereign state, the machine has used various names. Now it is known as ‘Barisan Nasional’ (BN), or ‘National Front’ in English.
Najib and his coalition BN are the sole owners of Malaysia’s national government and have every intention of keeping it that way, using every trick at their disposal. BN owns the courts, the national police force, and what passes for the Malaysian media — they all kowtow to BN and Najib personally.
Unlike many other truly democratic countries, Najib rarely faces open criticism from Malaysia’s official media. Media outfits, which fail to observe this unwritten rule, will fail to receive the required operating license from the government and be forced to shut down. Dissidents face official and unofficial harassment, arrest, and persecution thanks to a parliament, which is in effect a BN subsidiary, that has passed a number of draconian laws that grant Najib sweeping powers, generally in the name of ‘national security.’ Najib, in truth, is less a democrat and more an autocrat who appears as a democrat when it suits him. As the 1MDB affair has amply demonstrated, Najib and his family have clearly enriched themselves personally from Najib’s lengthy stay in power politics, which now has exceeded 40 years. To label Malaysia’s economic system as ‘crony capitalism’ would not be an exaggeration.
Opposing Najib’s formidable electoral machine is a jury rigged and cobbled together opposition coalition, initially led by Anwar Ibrahim, who has been jailed since 2014 for the crime of sodomy. The opposition, known as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), is now led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. A nonagenarian, Mahathir ironically ran Malaysia with an iron hand for nearly 23 years under the very same BN banner that he is now running against. Can the 92-year-old former strongman defeat the coalition that he himself once ran? On May 9th, we’ll find out.