UMNO floundering, searching for direction

Reading the tea leaves of 1MDB

The 1MDB scandal shows that Malaysia is in desperate need of political finance reform. But can the country clean up its messy ‘money politics’?

By the time this piece comes out—even if it’s only a few hours from the writing—the array of known ‘facts’ about Malaysia’s bewilderingly complex 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal will almost certainly have changed.

There may well be another conspiracy theory or two making the rounds by then, and some creative new threat/spin/bombast from one or another of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s currently trusted spokespeople. I have no special powers to exhume the real story of where the money came from or where it went, so I will leave that archaeology to others. Instead, I will focus on what the unfolding of this drama indicates politically.

First, a brief sketch of the 1MDB saga, for those who have been spared or have been ignoring the gory details. Problems with 1MDB, a state investment fund, are not new. Until recently, it was missed payments toward the fund’s USD11 billion in debt, as well as murky managerial roles and practices, that worried investors and rankled observers.

Yet reports over the past several months, particularly by UK-based Sarawak Report, Malaysia’s The Edge financial daily, and the Wall Street Journal, have also unearthed the convoluted path of roughly US $700 million into accounts under Najib’s name, most of it shortly before Malaysia’s May 2013 general elections.

After initial quasi-denials and bluster, Najib’s camp has all but admitted that yes, the PM’s accounts did receive these funds—but they were perfectly legal donations from some astoundingly generous supporter(s), not from 1MDB. (By now, ‘1MDB’ stands synecdochically for a huge mess of issues.)

In the meantime, most of the officials investigating the saga have been early-retired, snap-promoted, detained for investigations themselves, or otherwise shunted off the task; critical activists and media have been whacked more forcefully, with threats of wilder punches yet to come.

What does this debacle tell us about the workings of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) coalition, or Malaysia’s wider political framework?

In some ways, the saga confirms what we know: commitment to civil liberties is tenuous, for instance, and ‘authoritarian backsliding’ is appealingly easy (and difficult to reverse), given the lack of effective checks and balances in Malaysia’s political system. Three other factors are worth highlighting.

First, while UMNO is a strongly institutionalised party, it is also deeply personalised, not least due to patronage ties within the party itself. No one should have been shocked by Najib’s acknowledgement that he ‘will evaluate people based on their loyalty’, rather than on how ‘smart’ they are—even at a time when clear thinking would be a real help.

Nor is this emphasis on loyalty unique to UMNO; other BN as well as opposition parties, too, are known for their ‘warlords’ and ‘camps’, for dynastic tendencies, for entrenching leaders as symbols, and for offering little latitude to threateningly clever upstarts.

Fault Mahathir’s long, self-aggrandising durée, the feudal sultanates of Malaysia’s past, or the structure of intraparty elections—but the point remains that if loyalty to people trumps loyalty to principles, parties will lack the political will to fix problems beyond sacrificing boat-rockers and whistle-blowers.

At this point, UMNO appears to be floundering, searching for direction. Maintain the BN’s power-sharing model, however shallow? Ally with Parti Islam seMalaysia, PAS, for a Malay-unity government? Rally round Najib and hope memories are short? Reshuffle the spoils by flocking to a new supreme leader—or back to Mahathir (his own sullied slate wiped magically clean)?

Reading the tea leaves of 1MDB
Meredith L. Weiss, Guest Contributor
6 August 2015 – New Mandala


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All that is necessary
for the triumph of evil
is for good men
to do nothing.

- Edmund Burke
When the people
fears their government,
there is TYRANNY;
when the government
fears the people,
there is LIBERTY.

- Thomas Jefferson
Do you hear the people sing?



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