Last November, at the 25th Asean Summit, Myanmar’s president handed over the ceremonial gavel of Asean chairmanship to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak. Standing under a banner that read: “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, Najib told delegates that, although it will be a “challenging” task, he was confident that Malaysia would be able to lead Asean through arguably its most important year. “We are conscious that the formation of the Asean Community will happen on our watch, and we will work tirelessly towards that ambition,” he said.
After almost a decade of planning, 2015 is the year in which the Asean Economic Community is slated to be launched, along with a tranche of other important structural changes. However, as Malaysia experiences rising levels of racial tension, social unrest and serious reservations about Najib’s legitimacy as leader, there are questions as to whether the nation and its prime minister are up to the job.
Prior to the general election of 2013, there had been optimism that the incumbent Najib was taking the country down a progressive path. During his first tenure in office, oppressive colonial-era laws were repealed, affirmative action policies favouring ethnic Malays over Chinese- and Indian-Malays were being dismantled and the economy was progressing nicely. Najib’s electoral campaign also inspired optimism by attempting to bridge the historical divide between ethnic and non-ethnic Malays.
However, the “1Malaysia” electoral slogan soon vanished, as did the optimism, after 85% of the country’s voting population went to the ballot box. Although the Barisan Nasional coalition – in which Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party is the largest – won the election, it did so without the benefit of the popular vote. Only 47% of the population voted for the coalition, but due to constitutional rulings on electoral districts it was able to take 60% of parliamentary seats. The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) led by Anwar Ibrahim, called electoral fraud and refused to accept the outcome.
The result also put an end to Najib’s earlier conciliatory rhetoric of ethnic integration when the non-ethnic Malay vote went overwhelmingly to the opposition. “It caused an uproar within the UMNO and deepened the belief that non-ethnic Malays were ‘ungrateful’ to the government,” said Nile Bowie, a political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur. “As a result, the ruling coalition has largely abandoned its conciliatory approach and instead shifted to consolidating power among the Malays.”
Since the election, ethnic tensions have escalated. With almost a quarter of the population identified as Chinese-Malay and another 8% being of Indian descent according to government statistics, Malaysia has a long history of racial division and antagonism.
According to James Chin, director of the governance programme at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute, the progress that had been made during the past decade now hangs in the balance.
“After the election, Najib was forced to turn to the right wing of the UMNO and abandon his plans for an inclusive Malaysia,” said Chin. “If you listen to his speeches at the UMNO meetings, it is quite clear that the idea of ‘1Malaysia’ is dead. In fact, some party delegates openly called for ‘1Melayu’ [ethnic Malay].”
Chin added that while there has not been any violence, the legitimacy of Malay supremacist groups that have the tacit support of the government is on the rise and non-ethnic Malays face daily criticism in newspapers, on the television and on the streets.
According to Nurul Izzah Anwar, a politician and the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, there is also growing disaffection among Malaysians over socio-economic issues.
“Salaries have been stagnant for the past 20 years, as have the country’s high levels of inequality,” she said. “Recently, debates about this have become more mainstream in society, although no policies have been implemented by the government to address it.”
Last May, an estimated 50,000 people protested on the streets of Kuala Lumpur as part of a rally led by a coalition of 89 NGOs and opposition political parties. Although the primary goal of the protest was to remonstrate against the controversial goods and services tax, which many Malaysians believe will lead to significant rises in the cost of living and that Najib pledged not to introduce during the elections, there were also calls for greater women’s, indigenous peoples’ and migrants’ rights, as well as an increase in the minimum wage.
In response to rising social unrest and increasing support for the opposition, the Malaysian government turned to what many have called repressive laws to curtail dissent. Statistics recorded by the human rights organisation Suara Rakyat Malaysia show that the number of investigations, arrests and convictions under the controversial Sedition Act rose more than fivefold between 2012 and 2014. In the first nine months of last year alone, 24 people were investigated under the act and eight were convicted.
According to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, this suppression is an attempt by Najib to maintain power. “It is clear that retaining power is more important to Najib than respecting rights or being seen as a ‘moderate’, which is his mantra any time that he speaks on the international stage,” explained Robertson. “This explains the full reversal by Najib on the Sedition Act.”
In 2012, Najib promised to repeal the colonial-era law. However, since the elections, his opinion has changed dramatically. At a UMNO annual party meeting last November, he told party members: “Not only will the law be defended, it will also be strengthened and reinforced.”
Other observers view the U-turn on the Sedition Act as Najib trying to fight off challenges from hardline UMNO members. According to Greg Lopez, a research fellow at Murdoch University’s Asia Research Centre, Najib has lost all “legitimacy” within the UMNO. “Since his ascent to the premiership of UMNO, Najib is the weakest leader the party has had,” Lopez said. “He remains PM simply because the party cannot agree on who to replace him with.”
Such a view was also taken by Nurul Izzah, who contended that Najib’s control over his party, and therefore the government, is so weak that even if he wanted to introduce reforms or progressive laws, he would not be able to, as they “would be rejected by the highly orchestrated UMNO assembly”, which now holds the power.
Yet it remains unclear whether Najib’s diminishing authority will affect Malaysia’s chairmanship of Asean in 2015. According to Lopez, while Najib might be losing clout at home, his position as a world statesman has so far been unchallenged.
“His personal relationships with the world’s top leaders are remarkable,” Lopez said. “As a leader from a developing country with a less than exemplary record on leadership, his ability to have the attention of the world’s top leaders – and have them speak highly of him publicly – provides him stature that [other] Asean leaders do not have.”
During US President Barack Obama’s visit to Malaysia last April, there was no mention of human rights or social unrest. Instead, Obama praised Najib for overseeing the country’s economic development and described the visit as a “new era of partnership” for the two nations.
Najib also received praise following the MH17 disaster. “Malaysia’s foreign policy is neutral and pragmatic,” said Bowie, “as demonstrated by the government’s restraint in pointing fingers and assigning blame to any party following the MH17 tragedy, and its ability to broker a deal with the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Even the opposition concedes that Najib handled that situation well.”
According to Bowie, despite domestic issues, Malaysia’s influence from a global perspective has generally been positive, and will more than likely continue in a similar vein during the next year. He added that, as an ally to Western powers, with good relations with China and respect from its Southeast Asian neighbours, Malaysia and its prime minister are well positioned to oversee Asean’s all-important 2015.
Najib’s ability to separate domestic and foreign politics will be key to Malaysia’s success as Asean’s chair. At the moment, his authority rests on the appeasement of his own party and silencing dissent. However, should discontent become more fervent then domestic issues will no doubt obstruct Malaysia’s position.
“Although it’s difficult to say when, there’s a sense that the Malaysian people’s dissatisfaction with the government may converge at some point before the next elections and bring about political instability or unrest in some form,” said Bowie.