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News

How a 92-year-old led a people’s revolt to overthrow Malaysia’s ruling party

KUALA LUMPUR: The world’s longest-ruling coalition had never been more frightened of its own people. As it sought to stay in office, Malaysia’s government, led by the scandal-afflicted Najib Razak, promised lucrative cash handouts, redrew constituency boundaries and rushed through a bill to quash “fake news”. But the state machinery was ultimately overpowered by Malaysia’s voters, who ousted the Barisan Nasional (BN) regime that had ruled the country for 61 years.

It was a resounding cry for democracy in Southeast Asia. Yet the 9 May election was also a contest between long-standing elites. In a region where “strongmen” are busy dismantling hard-won freedoms, it was no small irony that the triumphant opposition alliance was led by the former autocrat Mahathir Mohamad, previously head of the BN, who at 92 has become the world’s oldest elected leader.

By reuniting with formerly jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, his 70-year-old former deputy, Malaysia’s new-old prime minister assumed the highest office in an extraordinary political saga.

Few had predicted the historic win by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). “You still have to pinch yourself,” said Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the website Malaysiakini, a rare independent voice in Malaysia’s tightly controlled media. The site was temporarily blocked by the state regulator at around 10pm on polling day as it became clear that the BN had lost crucial seats. “We were worried,” said Gan at his office in the industrial outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. “We thought that they [BN] would organise a fightback.”

Such fears are well-founded in Malaysia, where a vibrant civil society and opposition have long fought electoral manipulation, censorship and the suppression of civil liberties by an authoritarian state. Uncertainty over the results lingered for hours after Mahathir declared victory.

But such concerns were displaced swiftly by the question of whether Najib, accused of misappropriating state funds in one of the largest-ever global financial frauds, would now face prosecution. “We are not seeking revenge,” Mahathir told journalists. But to cheers from supporters, he added: “If the law says Najib has done something wrong he will have to face the consequences.”

The nonagenarian, whose 22-year rule transformed Malaysia from an isolated backwater into a modern state, came out of retirement expressly to stop Najib, his former protégé, from wrecking the country. US investigators allege that Najib’s associates stole $4.5bn from the state development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), between 2009 and 2014, with as much as $700m deposited in the politician’s bank account. Najib, 64, has denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by a domestic probe, but investigations continue in several other countries.

The scale of the scandal is credited with forging the most unlikely of political reunions. In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar over political differences, after which the latter was jailed for abuse of power and sodomy – charges he denied. Gay sex is criminalised in Muslim-majority Malaysia but convictions are rare and the case was condemned as politically motivated. Anwar was imprisoned again in 2015, this time during Najib’s rule, for a sodomy conviction also regarded as politically motivated as the opposition grew in strength. Now, in a remarkable denouement, Mahathir has promised to transfer the premiership to Anwar, who has been released from prison. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, is the new deputy prime minister.

In a bustling banana leaf restaurant in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the still-inked index fingers of voters can be seen. Like millions of people across the country, Joel Paul is enjoying a late-announced public holiday after waiting until dawn for a result few anticipated in their lifetimes. The new government must now “question openly the corruption”, the businessman said. He remains suspicious of Mahathir, who as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 undermined many of the laws and institutions that he has now vowed to reform. But the weight of corruption allegations against Najib ultimately determined his vote.

Chin-Huat Wong, a political scientist at the Penang Institute, a Malaysian think tank, cited the economy as the “driving force” behind the result. For voters, inflation and the unpopular Goods and Services Tax were not offset by the cash handouts promised by Najib. “Over time, the elites became too self-serving,” he said. “The emergence of Mahathir, who stands for Malay nationalism, then removed the Malays’ fear of regime change.”

The swing of the Malay majority to the opposition was crucial to its victory. By forming the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, and joining a multi-racial alliance supported by the country’s sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, Mahathir led a winning coalition.

Wong Chen, a former corporate lawyer and now a fast-rising MP in Anwar’s centre-left People’s Justice Party, is hopeful that the result will herald a new liberal era for Malaysia. He is unconcerned by the return of Mahathir, the autocrat turned reformer. “Just look at the numbers,” he said in reference to his own party, the largest in the victorious coalition. The mood was jubilant at a small celebration he threw for his campaign team on the night Mahathir was finally sworn in as prime minister. They sang “A Whole New World” – a popular song from Disney’s Aladdin, but one that also symbolised their hopes for a new Malaysia.

Back at the office of Malaysiakini, Gan hopes Malaysia has taken a small step towards becoming “a normal country” that is “not obsessed with race and religion”. For now, he takes pride in an assertion of inclusive nationalism. “We have shown the world that while the silent majority has spoken, it’s a different kind of silent majority as compared to Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK. This is a silent majority that we can be proud of.”

This article was first published on 18 May 2018 in the New Statesman.

News

Malaysia turns away boats as death stalks weary migrants

OFF KOH LIPE, Thailand: Malaysia turned away two vessels carrying hundreds of migrants while one boat turned up in Thai waters, as critics accused Southeast Asian governments Thursday of playing “human ping pong” with desperate boatpeople.

Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to bar ships bearing migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh from entering Southeast Asia waters, triggering warnings from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and rights groups that the hardline approach could endanger thousands at sea and falls short of their international obligations.

On Thursday, a boat crammed with scores of Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar — was found drifting in Thai waters.

As dusk fell several visibly emaciated men jumped into the sea to retrieve food packages dropped by a Thai navy helicopter.

An AFP reporter saw one of the men eat handfuls of raw instant noodles in the water before swimming back to the boat.

“About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water,” one of the migrants shouted in Rohingya to a boat full of journalists.

“We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia but we have not reached there yet.”

Many young children were among the weak-looking passengers on the wooden boat, which was found near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea.

– ‘Children are sick’ –

Sajida, who was travelling with her four young children, said she was also trying to reach Malaysia, but the boat was set adrift by people smugglers who damaged the engine and fled.

“We haven’t had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep… my children are sick,” the 27-year-old told AFP.

A Thai naval officer on Koh Lipe said they planned to help fix the engine “so they can go to their destination”.

The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed to be stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.

But Malaysian patrol ships intercepted two migrant vessels beginning late Wednesday off the northern Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

They carried a combined 600 people, the official added.

“Last night, one boat was pushed back after it entered Malaysian waters off Penang and one more boat was prevented from entering Langkawi waters,” the official said.

The boat off Langkawi may have been the same one that later turned up in Thai waters. Both carried a makeshift banner declaring the passengers as Rohingya.

Rights groups say Thailand — which has called a May 29 regional meeting on the issue — also has a policy of not allowing such boats to berth.

– ‘Vulnerable people’ –

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday urged Southeast Asian countries not to turn back the migrants, telling them that rescue at sea was an international obligation.

In a statement, Ban voiced alarm that “some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants”.

He urged governments to “ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld” and to “keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need”.

Washington, meanwhile, urged “countries of the region to work together to save lives at sea,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.

International human rights watchdogs were also critical.

“The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Many of the migrants are Rohingya, who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and have been targeted by sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

More than 1.3 million Rohingya — viewed by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — live in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

Malaysia refused to budge Thursday, with the deputy home minister putting blame for the problem squarely on the migrants’ home countries.

“Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people,” Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP.

“So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive.”

He said Bangladesh also needed to do more to prevent illegal immigrants leaving its shores.

This article was first published worldwide for AFP on 14 May 2014 including here