From MH370 To Winning On WhatsApp: Malaysia’s Turbulent Year

What would you like to do if you get to the age of 93? I bet the answer is not to become the oldest democratically elected head of state in political history. That was the fate of Mahathir Mohamad, who seemingly retired from politics in 2003, when he resigned as Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaysia. The way the ‘Father of Malaysia’ returned to politics is a narrative of monumental ego, power and scandal.

Pledging to crack down on government corruption, Mahathir received the majority of seats in parliament and secured 48% of the national vote. The election attracted international media attention because of the geopolitical earthquake caused by the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, the shooting down of MH17, the largest corruption scandal in Asia’s history and the comeback of a formidable political alliance. However, with Operation Car Wash, a Brazilian governmental corruption scandal of similar magnitude receiving most of the western media attention, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) has greater implications on the other superpower… China.

Mahathir began his tenure as Malaysian Prime Minister in 1981, overseeing the staggering economic growth that accompanied Asia’s rise into the global economy. During his first decade in office, Malaysia’s economic growth matched China’s on average of 6-8%. In 1993, with the economy booming, Mahathir enlisted the help of his Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim to become Deputy Prime Minister and his eventual successor.

The duo became a formidable force in economics and foreign policy, winning the largest majority in a general election since federation. Malaysian economic performance plummeted with the ripple effects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. With this, Ibrahim’s imminent support of an International Monetary Fund austerity package seemingly did not sit well with father of the nation. The subsequent result was the dismissal of his deputy on accusations of immoral acts and homosexuality, which remains illegal in Malaysia.

Mahathir Mohamad. Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Wikimedia Commons

Following Ibrahim’s imprisonment Mahathir found a new successor, Najib Razak, who became Prime Minister in 2009 following an election victory. At this time economic growth did not echo that of the 1980s. Razak regularly clamped down on government opposition and enlarged media censorship. In an effort to promote economic development he also nationalized the sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. In this process, 1MDB became solely governed under the Ministry of Finance, headed by Razak himself, in a continuous effort to centralize power. The fund was intended to support government investment to projects of national significance to boost Malaysia’s economic growth and guarantee government assurance on foreign direct investment, but the result spelt economic disaster. In the first three years of operation, the company was in debt by (US) $12 billion.

Things went from bad to worse for Razak, and his popularity plummeted following his handling over the two aviation disasters involving the national carrier Malaysian Airlines. The government’s poor response to the disappearance of MH370 and the shooting down of MH17 brought up the question of his ability to govern the state. As the government debt was increasing and foreign investment from the IMF was declining on increasing censorship, Razak turned to the country whom he once wanted to maintain economic prestige with; China.

Investments in the following 4 years topped $23 billion. During this large scale investment of massive infrastructure projects and social reform packages, another investment was being made to Razak’s personal bank account. In July 2015, the Wall Street Journal, citing a leaked Malaysian investigation funded by the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, reported that more than $900 million had been directed from 1MDB to Razak’s personal bank account. Razak, knowingly denied allegations, claiming the allegations were part of a greater conspiracy to topple his government and that the funds were a gift from the Saudi Arabian Royal family.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks during a rally dressed in mourning black gathered to denounce elections which they claim were stolen through fraud by the coalition that has ruled for 56 years. in Penang May 11 2013. Pix Firdaus Latif

The subsequent turmoil led to the sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who had been frequently calling for Razak to explain the funds in his account. Razak also replaced his Attorney General, following similar callings to provide evidence of correspondence with the Saudi Arabian Royal Family.

The largest demonstrations in Malaysian history took place calling for Razak’s resignation. Following an independent investigation, Chief prosecutor Kevin Morais was kidnapped in broad daylight, in central Kuala Lumpur. His body was found 12 days later in a barrel filled with cement at a local sewage facility. At the same time, independent investigations were being pursued by the US, UK, Switzerland and Singapore to continue probes into money laundering and levels of corruption linked with Razak and the fund.  In July 2016, a year after the story broke by the Wall Street Journal, the US Department of Justice seized more than $1.3 billion of assets linked to the fund. This remains the largest amount ever seized by the USDOJ.

It was these allegations that prompted the shock return of Former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. He describes his successor, Najib Razak as a ‘Monster who is destroying Malaysia.’ In a shocking turn of events, Mahathir joined the main opposition party and found an unlikely ally, in the man he put in jail twenty years ago, Anwar Ibrahim.

The uniqueness of this election beyond the shores of Malaysia is the style of campaigning the opposition party used to spread their message. Government censorship was embedded into the discourse of Malaysian society, so in order to spread the accusations of the 1MDB scandal, and to tarnish Razak’s reputation Mahathir engineered for social media to play a major part in the election campaign. Malaysian’s are categorically the largest Whatsapp users in the world, at a rate of 51%. However, during the election campaign, this number increased to 82%. The spread of information reached 25 million people at an unprecedented rate, and the fall of a dynasty was brought by simply using ‘copy and paste.’

Remarkably robust at 93, Mahathir declared that his election victory would restore the rule of law and stated that politics is not above the law. Few expected the Father of the country to topple the ruling party, but by joining hands once again with his one-time protégé, exploiting public disenchantment and dissatisfaction towards the multi-billion dollar scandal that Razak dodged in 2016, he came out on top. In the future, Mahathir pledges to seek a royal pardon for Ibrahim, on the charges that he placed upon him. But more strikingly, he promises to hand over power to Ibrahim when he is pardoned in 2019. 20 years too late, but some say, that it is better late than never.

Conor McLaughlin

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