Friday, July 06, 2018

Karma in Kuala Lumpur

The Equanimity, photo by Yoan Ari/AP via Australian Broadcasting Company.
On Wednesday, Dato' Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, Najib Razak for short, the son of Malaysia's second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak and nephew of the third prime minister Dato' Hussein Onn, and himself the nation's sixth prime minister, serving from 2009 until just a couple of months ago, was arrested and charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust over a sum of 42 million Malaysian ringgit (US $10.6 million) from a finance company called SRC International, which had wandered into the prime minister's own bank acccount. That's only a fraction of the $731 million Najib is alleged to have siphoned from SRC's parent, the government-run investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that Najib created in his first year as PM, in a case being run by prosecutors in the United States, money that Najib and his wife had largely converted into luxury goods that have been seized from his various properties, including 567 handbags, 2,200 rings and 14 tiaras, and a $27.3-million pink diamond necklace.

Which is in turn only a fraction of the $4.5 billion extracted from 1MDB by a conspiracy led, apparently, not by the ex–prime minister but by a close associate of his, the now fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, who may be the owner of the 54th largest yacht in the world, the 90-meter Equanimity (sleeps 28 crew and 18 guests) seized by Indonesian authorities as it sailed from Lombok to Bali last March.

The political part of this story is utterly fascinating in its own right, but also interesting in a couple of immediately relevant aspects, first of all because of the way it relates to "identity politics", since Malaysia has been governed from the outset of independence from Britain in 1957 by a coalition that looks like the nightmare Republicans are trying to frighten you with when they use the term.

That is, the government has always been a national front of one party each claiming to represent a different one of the country's three largest ethnic groups: the United Malays National Organization, the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the Malaysian Indian Congress, against a somewhat leftist opposition party dominated by Chinese and a somewhat Islamist party dominated by Malays. UMNO always being the senior partner as representing the majority (tenuously, until the divorce from Singapore removed the threat that there might one day be a Chinese majority) and the nominal indigens or Bumiputera, "Princes of the Soil" (Malays proper are at least in part the descendants of Muslim immigrants from Sumatra and probably farther west, in fact, beginning in the 12th century or so, but never mind), and finally the beneficiaries of various affirmative action programs, because the vast majority of Malays who are not members of Sultanic families are often economically pretty disadvantaged, but also creating certain opportunities for corruption when a non-Malay wants to start a business and must find a Bumiputera partner to legitimize the operation.

And the Malay royal families who provide the constitutional sultans of most of the states and a constitutional king elected from among their ranks also provided the prime minister, until 1981, when a commoner, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, got the UMNO nod and proceeded to rule the country as its fourth prime minister for the next 22 years.

Dr. Mahathir (not an academic title, he's a real medical doctor) was an awfully interesting figure in the 1980s, a good economic manager unquestionably, I believe, avoiding debt traps in a way other Southeast Asian countries (other than rich af Singapore) didn't manage, and a clever, aggressive maneuverer in foreign relations (like the mouse deer who defeats a dog in the Malay foundation myth) with the bullies of the United States, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, and a China forever looming, and a pretty nasty guy at the same time, making a Singaporean use of the Internal Security Act to detain enemies, and certainly not immune to allegations of corruption (in Singapore, people quietly called him "Dr. Ten Percent").

He was also an intensely theatrical leader, always creating unnecessary personal drama, and one of the most dramatic elements in his long rule was his relationship with Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of UMNO Youth, who was goosing the Islamist credentials of the ruling party at a time when the Muslim opposition was looking particularly strong in some of the northern states. At first Mahathir seemed to have a crush on Anwar, building him up and eventually naming him deputy prime minister, and then, by the mid-1990s, when Anwar began sort of openly wondering when this old man would finally retire, a  coolness grew between them. Anwar began presenting himself not only as more religious than the boss but also more liberal, in favor of loosening up the civil liberties situation, and even neoliberal, in the worldwide 1997 financial crisis, when Anwar started urging collaboration with the IMF. Mahathir's response was just loony: he fired Anwar as deputy prime minister, had him expelled from the party, and eventually got him jailed on charges of covering up homosexual sodomy of which he was transparently innocent, with a 15-year sentence.

Imprisoned, Anwar became a kind of hero martyr of liberalism, attracting support from people like Vice President Gore. His wife and six children started a new political party that was forthrightly liberal, and, more to the point, explicitly multiracial.

Mahathir named a new deputy and finally retired, almost immediately beginning to denounce his successor, the fifth prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Anwar was released and got a gig at Oxford for a while and succeeded in getting Paul Wolfowitz out of the World Bank, and was busted on the same kind of garbage charges again. Both of them got into trouble at different times for anti-Israel remarks that sounded much worse than they probably were.

Etc., etc., except in the end, when the government returned to the aristocracy in the person of Dato' Najib—Anwar, briefly leading the opposition, managed to pressure him into repealing the vile old Internal Security Act—and corruption in Malaysia began to balloon to proportions that hadn't previously been experienced, these two old rascals ultimately began to collaborate, and won an election. Mahathir, 92 years old, is prime minister again, Anwar the former youth leader is 70 and scheduled to become prime minister in two years. Najib is going to jail for a very long time, and multiracial politics is suddenly established in Malaysia!

The first point I wanted to make is that when you see what "identity politics" in the bad sense is, you see that we've only got that in one party, the 83%-white Republicans (yes, I know that sounds ridiculously low compared to what it should be, but older Cubans who believe white people think Cubans are white and South Asians who believe there is no racism play an outsize role at the moment). And the other is that karma eventually works, sometimes. Malaysia is a lovely place, for all the things that are wrong with it, and you know what? So it the US of A.  We're at an exceptionally bad moment, as Malaysia has been for the past nine years, and there's no reason to doubt that it will end. I'm truly moved by the way the realignment of the Malaysian voter on a nonracial basis meshes with the vision of just actual rule of law.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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