Yet on Wednesday, Najib might just lose the election. Social media are giving an uncensored view of the campaign. The sight of Mahathir racing around the country, addressing big crowds in remote towns at midnight, has electrified people, says Nair. Mahathir and Anwar have impeccable pro-Malay credentials and, anyway, most urban Malays won’t simply vote ethnically. A lot of them feel Najib has broken the cardinal rule for autocrats: don’t steal too blatantly.
From the Financial Times
The first time Anwar Ibrahim was in jail – six years in solitary confinement – he stayed upbeat. He read all of Shakespeare (“four and a half times, copious notes,” he chuckles) and sang every song he could remember. When I interviewed him years ago in a posh Parisian tea room, he suddenly belted out: “Please understand just how I feel/Your love for me, why not reveal?” But now Malaysia’s de facto opposition leader is jailed again, at age 70, though he’s currently in hospital. When I visited the country last October, his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, herself an opposition politician, told me: “Another vehicle veered into his convoy when the prison was sending him back from hospital so, to add to the existing shoulder injury, there’s another injury.” She wasn’t sure it was foul play but he does seem remarkably accident-prone.
Not by chance, Anwar will miss Malaysia’s elections on Wednesday. The country is a case study for the world’s recent retreat from democracy. But it also gives hope for change.
In this bizarre election, Anwar’s representative is his nemesis Mahathir Mohamad. In 1998, authoritarian prime minister Mahathir had his protégé and finance minister Anwar jailed. Now, aged 92, Mahathir is barnstorming around Malaysia, leading the opposition, promising to hand power to Anwar if he wins. Prime minister Najib Razak is under pressure over $681m that materialised in his personal bank account, allegedly from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. Najib says the money was a gift from the Saudi royal family. He will probably lose the popular vote but be re-elected anyway, having revved up traditional Malaysian gerrymandering.
It’s easy to imagine Malaysia as a full democracy. The World Bank calls the country a “highly open, upper-middle-income economy”. Average incomes are about $9,500. In short, it’s exactly the sort of state that 1990s political scientists would have considered ripe for democratisation. Indeed, back then it nearly made the leap.
After the cold war, western powers nudged their former client states to democratise. In 1998, Anwar gave a speech calling for reformasi. He said rule by decree, bribery and discrimination against non-Malay Chinese and Indians had to stop. This was quite a shift for a man who, like Mahathir, had entered politics to fight for ethnic Malays. However, reformasi never came. Mahathir had Anwar jailed on far-fetched charges of sodomy.
The global wave of democratisation ended around 2006. The Iraq war and later the Arab spring were seen by autocrats worldwide and even many citizens as warnings against democracy. Iraq and Syria showed what horrors could ensue when ethnically mixed autocracies imploded.
Meanwhile, another model had emerged. China and Singapore, Malaysia’s main trading partners, have done better at reducing poverty and chaos than full democracies such as India and Brazil. Many Malaysians who remember past hardships and interracial violence simply want Chinese-style stability, says Chandran Nair, Malaysian founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow think-tank. “Most people think, ‘We have a few problems but life is good enough.’ They fear change.”
Then there’s Malaysia’s rural-urban divide, which resembles the American one. Rural Malays tend to support the ruling party, United Malays National Organisation, as the champion of their ethnic group. UMNO has provided all Malaysian prime ministers since independence in 1957. Rural areas account for just 30 per cent of the population but control more than half of parliament because of gerrymandering. And even most urban Malays, influenced by the spread of Sunni political Islam, don’t want non-Muslims running the country, says James Chin of the University of Tasmania.
Many Malaysians fear their rulers. The press is muzzled. Najib’s government, which tracks the latest autocrat fashions, recently banned anything that it labels “fake news”. Most people I met were afraid to talk politics on the record. An insider who once defied UMNO said that with hindsight he often regretted it: his family had paid a price.
No foreign powers are pushing Najib to democratise. To the contrary, he recently met Theresa May and Donald Trump (with whom he claims to have played golf). Trump seems unbothered that the US attorney-general called the 1MDB case “kleptocracy at its worst”, or that the Department of Justice has investigated Malaysian-related assets including Najib’s wife’s $27m diamond necklace and rights to the movie Dumb and Dumber To. As for May, says Nurul Izzah: “After Brexit, I think, it became much more important for the British government to have closer trading ties in Malaysia. Rule of law mattered less.”
Yet on Wednesday, Najib might just lose the election. Social media are giving an uncensored view of the campaign. The sight of Mahathir racing around the country, addressing big crowds in remote towns at midnight, has electrified people, says Nair. Mahathir and Anwar have impeccable pro-Malay credentials and, anyway, most urban Malays won’t simply vote ethnically. A lot of them feel Najib has broken the cardinal rule for autocrats: don’t steal too blatantly. Nair says: “I’ve never sensed a greater feeling that people want change. I’ve never been interested in a Malaysian election before. I am interested in this one.” Democracy is down but not out.