Massive corruption scandal fuels Bersih 4 in Malaysia

At the end of August as many as half a million Malaysians joined the Bersih 4 protests on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Political discontent is on the rise in Malaysia. In July the Wall Street Journal published a paper trail linking Prime Minister Najib Razak to an embezzlement scandal worth over 2.6 billion Malaysian Ringgit ($850 million) via Malaysia’s strategic development fund, 1MDB. The funds were allegedly siphoned to Najib’s personal accounts.

1MDB was established from a state sovereign wealth fund soon after Najib became prime minister in 2009, at which point he named himself chairman of the advisory board. The government-owned company has been mired in controversy ever since, with the opposition questioning the transparency of 1MDB’s accounts and the numerous stalled developments funded by the company. It is currently under investigation by Malaysian anti-corruption authorities as well as foreign law enforcement agencies. Najib has personally attempted to obstruct investigations by purging critics, including the Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General. Several news outlets were censored after the revelations.

The sheer scale and complexity of the 1MDB operation was unprecedented, featuring Cayman Island bank accounts and large Middle Eastern multinationals and governments. The 4th iteration of the Bersih protests for free and fair elections was spurred by this evidence of the long-suspected corruption that permeates the ruling Barisan National (BN) coalition.

Bersih 4 was unusually peaceful with police opting not to repeat their use of water cannon and tear gas against the last Bersih rally in 2012. Bersih reiterated its founding demands for transparent government and free and fair elections, with additional demands this year to save the economy, protect the right to dissent and “uphold the rule of law”.

Organisers in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, called the protests a “vote of no-confidence” in Najib, and while the protests were officially non-partisan, many attendees came with demands to end racism, abolish the recently-implemented GST and for Najib to step down.

The government responded by playing the race card, blaming the protests on greedy Chinese Malaysians not knowing their place. The rallies were largely Chinese Malaysian, but participation by other races was not insignificant. Anti-Chinese rhetoric has long been a crucial political device for the Malay-based UMNO party which leads BN, and the affiliated Malay supremacist organisation, PERKASA. Malaysia’s racial divisions and policies which preference Malays over ethnic Chinese and Indians are a legacy of British colonialism and attempts to stem the influence of Communist rebels in the post-war era.

Anti-Chinese rally

On Malaysia Day, 16 September, Malay supremacists organised a 30,000 strong rally in a Chinese enclave in Kuala Lumpur in support of the government. Organisers threatened to “spill the blood” of Chinese and called for the defense of Bumiputera rights, which offer privileges to ethnic Malays such as housing discounts and pension bonuses. Najib and UMNO provided tacit support for these protests. The last mass anti-Chinese protests in Malaysia were the 13 May riots in 1969.

It is clear that Najib’s sway over his support base is dwindling. This has caused two major shakeups in the opposition. Progressive members of PAS, a conservative Islamic opposition party, have split to form Gerakan Harapan Baru (New Hope Movement), which has taken PAS’s place in the old opposition bloc Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Coalition) to form Pakatan Harapan (PH, Coalition of Hope). While the departure of the conservative PAS is not a serious blow to opposition politics, it has raised doubts about the ability of the new PH to represent Malays.

The government is clearly hoping to stir up racial tensions and hang onto power by posing as the champion of Malays and other indigenous groups who make up 60 per cent of the population. Previous anti-Chinese protests have tended to coincide with losses in UMNO’s electoral prospects.

However, Bersih limits itself to demands against official corruption. While socialists must support Bersih’s struggles against corruption, the opposition risks being marginalised unless it takes up class issues that are capable of winning the support of working class Malays. The official Bersih movement offers no leadership for those seeking to fight the GST, abolish quasi-apartheid policies, accept Rohingya refugee boats or end exploitation from the likes of mining company LYNAS and other foreign corporations.

As Malaysia’s economy falters, class divisions grow clearer by the day. Discriminatory policies favouring Malays must be understood as an attempt by the Malay ruling class to secure its interests against Chinese merchants and businesspeople.

Without an explicit orientation towards raising the living standards of ordinary Malaysians across all ethnic groups, the movement can be too easily isolated and UMNO’s bag of tricks will keep it in power for years to come.

By Jason Wong


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