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Geriatric Malaysian Rewrites the History Books of Southeast Asia

June 21, 2018


Southeast Asian newspaper headlines likened the recent victory of Mahathir Mohamad, a "92 year-old has-been," to the shock many Americans experienced after the Trump victory and the confusion most British felt following the narrow voter margin that resulted in the Brexit decision. Few Malaysian political experts and pundits would have thought that the 61-year reign of the Barisan National party and the political demise of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, shown below, would have happened so abruptly. The political consequence was simple - corruption matters. Moreover, no one would have imagined the first day of reckoning would come so quickly as he and his wife are pictured in route to make a statement at Malaysia's anti-graft commission.


Najib Razak is accused of unprecedented corruption. The American Justice Department has been investigating U.S. money laundering charges following the theft of Malaysian public funds of at least $3.5 billion. They were apparently stolen under Najib with $731 million ending up in his personal account for which he had no plausible explanation. Moreover, luxury goods taken from the household of Najib and his wife were staggering with 72 suitcases of jewelry, cash and other valuables. The haul apparently exceeded the previous record of the Philippines kleptocracy of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcus.

If this soap opera plays out as scripted, it would represent a rare victory for democracy in a part of the world which has been going in the opposite direction. The mastermind of the shock wave was nonagenarian, Mahathir Mohamad, who had dominated Malaysian politics from 1981 to 2003 during which time he had named Najib as his political successor. Mr. Mahathir, shown below, has not been a particular choir boy in his past either.


As Prime Minister for 22 years, he ran the nation with an iron fist counting Anwar Ibrahim, shown below, as a significant victim moving from a protégé, deputy and presumed heir to being imprisoned on dubious charges of sodomy and corruption it 1998. To close the loop, Anwar and Mahathir put bygones behind them to form the Alliance of Hope which ended the six-decade rule of Mahathir's former party and the rule of Najib. Anwar publicly stated that he viewed the alliance with Mahathir as the only hope of overthrowing the corruption of the current regime.


Mahathir has made it abundantly clear that Anwar will replace him in relatively short order though he must first become an MP in a by-election. Anwar's many years in prison made him a symbol of democratic resistance at home and abroad. What strange bedfellows that a former protégé and a rival adversary can be released from prison to become such a close associate of the man who put him there.


The world has yet to adjust to what has happened. A future conference advertisement following the election results by the highly respected Nikkei Asia Weekly did not have Mahathir's title correct. Shown below, Mahathir is referred as the "Former Prime Minister of Malaysia" rather than "Prime Minister of Malaysia" as he is pictured next to the Prime Minister of Singapore, an arch rival of Malaysia, and current pristine economic powerhouse compared to the resource rich but backward and corrupt economy of Malaysia.


There have been some comparisons in the foreign press of the political changes in Malaysia to its northern neighbor, Thailand, where the military-controlled government celebrated the fourth anniversary of the coup that overthrew the corrupt government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The Government has called for Thai elections next February following a revision to the constitution.


Moreover, Thailand has always had a feeling that generally defies politics and that is the Thai word "sabaay" meaning everything is always easy, pleasant and accommodating in the "Land of Smiles."




  
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