Government and governance, Law | Southeast Asia

17 November 2022

Four years on from the scandal that brought down Malaysia’s longest-serving democratic government, corruption issues are taking a back seat in the country’s general election campaign, Kerstin Steiner writes.

Malaysia’s infamous ‘1MDB scandal’ – which saw former Prime Minister Najib Razak jailed for his involvement in the misuse of the national sovereign wealth fund – was pivotal in the outcome of the country’s 14th general election (GE14).

Ahead of GE14, it seemed that a political climate change was needed in order for the status quo to shift, and the 1MDB allegations provided it.

After 61 years in power, Razak’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and its right-wing government coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), were defeated at the polls in 2018. In their place, the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition swept into power.

But this supposed ‘alliance of hope’ was short-lived. In only two years, PH collapsed under the weight of internal divisions and the COVID-19 pandemic, opening the door for UMNO to reclaim the prime ministership via Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

But after three prime ministers in a chaotic four years, what impact will the 1MDB fallout, and anti-corruption more broadly, have on the county’s general election on 19 November?

More on this:Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak What next for Malaysia’s fallen prime minister Najib Razak?

Now that the scandal has been investigated and Najib – its most prominent antagonist – has been jailed, the immediacy seems to have come out of the issue somewhat, meaning Malaysian voters are unlikely to unite around that cause again.

In fact, Najib may even retain some public support, even from his jail cell. In a Bloomberg poll, conducted between August-September 2022, 11 per cent of respondents said Najib was their preferred prime minister.

It is, however, unclear how many of the respondents were polled after his imprisonment in late August, but the former leader still retains significant influence in Malaysia’s political debate.

However, Najib isn’t the only senior UMNO figure who’s been the subject of corruption investigations and controversy. UMNO president and BN chairman Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is currently facing 47 charges, including criminal breach of trust, corruption, and money laundering, over alleged wrongdoing involving a charity. He denies the charges and the trial is set to resume in January 2023.

In August 2022, declassified documents revealed that Zahid was involved in the procurement process for the controversial Littoral Combat Ship project as defence minister, something he’d previously denied.

The project involved awarding a nine billion ringgit contract to Boustead Naval Shipyard Sdn (BNS) for six naval combat ships, five of which were meant to arrive the same month as the documents were declassified. However, the ships are yet to be delivered and a former BCS managing director has been charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

More on this: Race, politics, and prospects for reform in Malaysia

None of this controversy has deterred Zahid, however, with speculation rife that he might be installed as prime minister if BN wins the election.

Indeed, the corruption allegations that are plaguing the country’s political elite have not been a central feature of the current campaign.

Corruption is being discussed, for example by the political coalition Perikatan Nasional, which includes ‘political and governance clean up’ as one of its 12 core values. Most of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s 72 candidates have also publicly declared their assets as part of the campaign. But these are exceptions rather than a general trend, and may not be enough impress the voters.

GE15 will still be historic – but for different reasons.

Voter turn-out will be one of the most interesting and telling statistics to look out for. Significant changes were made ahead of this election which could raise participation, such as lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and the commencement of automatic voting registration for all eligible Malaysians.

On the other hand, the monsoon season might impede some people from voting, as may the possibility of contracting COVID-19, with the Malaysian Government requiring people who test positive for the virus to isolate at home. There is also the potential that voter dissatisfaction and disenchantment, given the unfulfilled electoral pledges made during the GE14 and political turmoil that’s since unfolded, might suppress the turn-out.

It will also likely be the last election campaign for some prominent political figures, such as the 96-year-old two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is recontesting his Langkawi seat, and Tengku Razaleigh, who is currently the country’s longest-standing member of parliament, having served for nearly 50 years.

Moreover, even once the ballots are cast, the result might not be clear or stable. The last two years saw politicians party-hopping at a speed that left bystanders bewildered.

UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi already warned unnominated candidates against conducting ‘betrayals’ that could undermine the party, with the backstabbing that led to the downfall of the PH coalition in 2020 clearly fresh in everyone’s mind. Whether Zahid’s threats are enough to prevent this kind of politicking though remains to be seen.

If the results remain unclear until after election day, it could make obtaining a mandate even more difficult, making maintaining any ruling coalition more difficult still.

While many voters may be eager to see some stability return to Malaysian politics and policymaking, a close election will likely mean the country’s volatile political landscape will remain well beyond GE15.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

Comments are closed.

Press Ctrl+C to copy