The Malaysian opposition’s worst nightmare since the end of the Mahathir era has come — in the form of Mahathir himself.
In the ongoing political drama that has played out over the last decade, more so since the opposition’s impressive gains in last year’s general elections, the government imposed a three-month ban on one of the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, Harakah, the bilingual voice of the Islamic Party (PAS), which now controls two of the five states the opposition alliance captured last year. The home ministry, which oversees licensing of local periodicals, also imposed a ban on Suara Keadilan, newspaper of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) led by former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
The suspension comes at a critical time for the opposition working in an environment where the mainstream media, especially radio and television, are either inaccessible or hostile, and where newspapers and magazines are the only way to reach the majority rural masses. Three by-elections are set to take place in early April; their outcome will confirm whether the resignation of Abdullah Badawi, who was blamed for the ruling coalition’s dismal performance last year and was pressured to make way for his deputy Najib Razak, has improved the government’s standing. As such, the by-elections will also be an endorsement — or rejection — of the controversial Najib.
While Abdullah’s departure may mean little for the country or the opposition, Najib’s entry has long been feared as a resurrection of sorts of the Mahathir era, as the former prime minister has been the noisiest among a small group of past UMNO leaders calling for Abdullah’s removal from office to make way for Najib. The gains made by the opposition piled up even more pressure on Abdul-lah, whose era saw the release of Anwar from prison, culminating in a stronger opposition coalition made up of PAS, PKR and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party. Not surprising that the person who was most worked up by all these developments was Mahathir, his legacies set to be overturned by the political tsunami. His anger reached its peak when he quit as member of UMNO, and for a time decided to lie low, though not used to the absence of media around him, who once made him a demigod, this phase did not last long. Nowadays Mahathir’s diary seems to be filled up again, speaking to the media, UMNO supporters and attending public events organized by party veterans.
Thus the view that opposition’s gains last year, far from heralding a new dawn in the country’s politics, may have invited even darker days ahead for Malaysia, is gaining ground.
Najib, son of the country’s second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, has been tainted by personal and political scandals even during his early days in the UMNO leadership. But the latest involving the murder of a Mongolian woman in late 2006 has been the most serious allegation ever to have leveled against any Malaysian politician. Yet, the 54-year old former defenceminister has so far decided not to sue those who defamed him, even if the Malaysian courts have a unique reputation for ‘efficiency’.
The scandal has all the sleaze of a Hollywood spy drama, the only difference being that billions of dollars of Malaysian taxpayers’ money funded this true-life version. It revolves around a Mongolian woman, Altantuya Sharibu, who was murdered and then her body was blown up in a jungle clearing area. AbdulRazak Baginda, an aide to Najib Razak, was acquitted of the charge last November. Two others, members of an elite Malaysian police unit, are still waiting for what many believe is their impending acquittal despite damning evidence of their involvement and their links to Najib.
Details of this involvement were exposed by the French daily Libération last month, which also gives a glimpse of the shadowy world of arms sales to developing countries like Malaysia. French-Spanish warship manufacturer Armaris, a firm now merged with DCNS, had sold three submarines worth billions of dollars toMalaysia in 2002. But suspicion was raised when Armaris paid 114 million euros to a Malaysian “project services provider”, said to be a company owned byBaginda. Learning this, the Mongolian woman travelled to Kuala Lumpur to claim her share of US$500,000. She was silenced in the most brutal manner, barely hours after she was bundled into a police car in front of Baginda’s house. The connection was so clear the police had no choice but to arrest him too. In an affidavit he filed after his arrest, Baginda revealed that he had been assured by Najib through a text message, hours before his arrest that the deputy prime minister would have a word with the police chief and “the problem will be solved. Be cool.”
With the same Najib now at the threshold of power, things are not likely to get any cooler. As Crescent goes to press, the UMNO general assembly is meeting to endorse him as the next president, his being the only nomination for the position. By convention, the UMNO president becomes the prime minister. A few days after, the ruling coalition will have to go through three by-elections in separate states, the most prominent of which is in the state of Perak, where the opposition state government recently collapsed, thanks to defections orchestrated byNajib and endorsed by the state sultan. The action sparked rare and violent protests against the palace for agreeing to the coup, bringing up age-old questions of whether Malaysia’s ceremonial monarchs are really worth the keep.
The weeks ahead will tell whether Najib can keep his cool as things heat up.