Malaysia’s recently ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak has just been arrested at his home in Kuala Lumpur and will spend the night in prison before appearing before a court on the 4th of July. The arrest stems from charges relating to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in which the former head of government is accused of embezzling $4.5 billion of state funds through a complex web of shell companies.
At 92 years of age, current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is clearly wasting no time in executing his election promises to arrest and try former officials for corruption related activities. Mahathir who served as the country’s Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003 led a largely successful reformist government which transformed the economic fortunes of Malaysia through a loosening of so-called positive discrimination laws known as Malaysia’s New Economic Program (NEP) which helped to unleash the creative potential of all Malaysians, including and perhaps especially the Chinese minority.
Mahathir’s current rainbow coalition includes the country’s first ethnic minority Finance Minister since 1974 in the form of Lim Guan Eng while Attorney General Tommy Thomas is from the country’s Indian minority. Thomas is also a Christian, something that adds to the diversity of Mahathir’s wide ranging coalition for change in the Muslim majority country.
While Najib Razak denies the allegations set forth against him, it is now thought that he will soon be formally charged with embezzlement of public funds, abuse of power, breach of trust by a public servant, as well as bribery. If found guilty, the former premier could spent up to twenty years in prison.
Today’s arrest marks a new chapter in Malaysia’s history when in spite of his advanced age Mahathir’s new government promises a wholesale revitalisation of the country with Najib’s dramatic fall from grace being symbolic of a wider changing of the guard.
Beyond merely ousting Najib, Mahathir has ousted the once unsinkable UMNO, Malaysia’s only ruling party since the country gained independence. Leading the Pakatan Harapan coalition at the helm of his PPBM party, in many ways the most revolutionary element of the government coalition is the presence of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a group which advocates the multiracial equality of its Singaporean sister party, the People’s Action Party.
As the DAP is the party most committed to ending the traditional UMNO policy of affirmative action measures to favour the political, economic and social position of ethnic Malays over that of minorities, including the ethnic Chinese minority, there is now a real chance that Malaysia will now permanently abandon policies whose legacy served to retard economic and social progress in Malaysia during the 1960s and 1970s.
With the Democratic Action Party in government, there stands a real chance to change Malaysia from a country pivoting between strong affirmative action measures like the New Economic Policy and the earlier pro-multiracial reforms of Mahathir’s previous period of rule, into a country that embraces a permanent multiracial Singapore style settlement in which all racial groups are given equal access to all socio-economic and political opportunities while both negative and so-called positive discrimination measures give way to a future based on total equality for all citizens.
Now, not only will the presence of the Democratic Action party help to shape the country’s new trajectory in terms of domestic policies, but the party can also help to ensure a pragmatic policy of neutrality in terms of conflicts between the global superpowers. This will necessarily mean that while Malaysia can, should and likely will further develop a policy of ‘trade with all’, it can also work to decrease geopolitical tensions with conflicting superpowers, especially regarding US antagonism of China in the South China Sea and in ASEAN more widely.
During his previous time in power Mahathir was known for being highly critical of US policy in Asia and in particular, he won praise throughout the developing countries of the wider Muslim world for frequently shaming the US policy of hostility towards Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Recently, Mahathir has reaffirmed his fiercely independent streak in international affairs, vowing to maintain good relations with major economic powers throughout Asia including both China and Japan.
Today’s arrest of a former leader who led his party to its first defeat in history, formalises these new realities while ensuring that when Mahathir retires and hands over the Premiership to his recently pardoned deputy Anwar Ibrahim, there will be no socio-political regression for Malaysia.