Malaysian politics are rotten from the top

Ordinary Malaysians suffer from the machinations of their politicians

In KUALA LUMPUR, the main city, as elsewhere in Malaysia, white flags hang from the windows – cries for help from households for whom the pandemic has brought economic distress and even too little to eat. Because the success of the relatively prosperous country in managing the coronavirus in 2020 has turned into a calamity this year, with more than 1.1 million infections and a late deployment of vaccines.

Among proud middle-class Malaysians, the pandemic has crystallized how their country too often mainly benefits the well-connected. Some factory owners have been allowed to continue operating even during shutdowns (thus sowing infections among workers). Politicians flout health rules that lead to severe penalties for other violators.

In this context, the black flags that most educated young Malaysians also hang outside their apartments do not represent a cry for help but a political statement: the bendera hitam, or the black flag movement, is a protest against the various governance failures of the elites, of which the pandemic is only the most glaring. Young medical workers demand better wages and conditions, while activists demand that a political pledge to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 be kept. The hashtag #Kerajaangagal (“government in failure”) is popular on social media. Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham in Malaysia says such challenges represent “a new political training ground”, in the face of the old political hierarchies which have dominated for so long and which operate through patronage, corruption, laws colonial era anti-sedition and gerrymandered elections.

It wasn’t meant to be that way. When the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which had ruled since independence, was finally ousted by an opposition coalition in 2018, Malaysians expected politics to change. But the new government, itself led by defectors from UMNO, turned out to be unwieldy and scissiparous. The current Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, toppled him last year by defecting again. He then concocted a new parliamentary majority, including UMNO, through backstage machinations.

Although Mr. Muhyiddin filled his cabinet with donors, many quickly became disillusioned. Earlier this year, he applied for emergency powers until August 1 from the Agong, or king (a handful of sultans take turns at work). This was not only to deal with the pandemic, the apparent reason, but also to suspend Parliament and thus avoid any challenge to a vote of no confidence. At the end of July, the Prime Minister again suspended Parliament as soon as it resumed, citing infections in the building.

The move can only save time, says James Chin of the University of Tasmania. A rare reprimand from the king after Mr Muhyiddin unilaterally withdrew emergency ordinances – the agoong declared that Parliament should have been consulted, may prove fatal. August 3 Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, UMNO, withdrew his support for Mr. Muhyiddin, thus suppressing his majority. Facing calls for his immediate resignation, on August 5, Muhyiddin said the king accepted a vote of no confidence in September.

But anyone who imagines that the opposition or even the king is primarily driven by the wishes of the people should think again. The mercurial Anwar Ibrahim, who for decades has been aiming for the highest post and is the principal of those demanding the departure of Mr. Muhyiddin, has ruined his reformist credentials, notably by allying himself with some of the UMNO shady elements. UMNOhimself seems irreformable: Mr. Zahid, for his part, faces 87 corruption charges. As for the hereditary sultans, their authority flourished during quarrels and with it their huge but opaque business interests. Despite his disguises, Mr. Muhyiddin bent over backwards to please the current Agong, the acquisitive sultan of Pahang.

Ordinary Malaysians, on the other hand, feel angry and ignored. The pandemic has emptied the chessboard and, Ms. Welsh points out, exposed gaping holes in the safety net. Among young people, unemployment is almost 12%. Mr. Muhyiddin is now hoping to get credit for a vaccination program that is starting to gain momentum. Beyond that, little to suggest that the elites care about dealing with popular issues. On the contrary, bendera hitam supporters attempting to march on parliament have been arrested by police, who, as might be expected, are now investigating the movement for evidence of sedition. Malaysia’s sense of crisis is not in doubt. Yet the stench of politics is still far from over.


*This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Flagging enthusiasm”

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