Malaysia’s first transition: from kleptocracy to democracy


Malaysia’s king has agreed to pardon a politician whose case has gripped national politics for two decades, says new PM Mahathir Mohamad. Anwar Ibrahim (left), once considered a potential future leader, was jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy after falling out with the government, the BBC reports:

But Mr Mahathir, the PM under which he was first jailed, just won an election on a pledge of freeing him. He has indicated he will hand power to Anwar within a few years.

It has taken 61 years, but Malaysia is set to finally have its first-ever transition of power since the British left, Foreign Policy reports:

The country’s 92-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, came out of retirement to lead the opposition to Najib Razak, the scandal-ridden leader of the Barisan Nasional (BN), or “National Front,” the coalition that, under different names, kept a firm clutch on power ever since Malaysia became a modern state. It’s a bright spot for Southeast Asia, where authoritarianism is ascendant across the board.

How Malaysia’s new leaders will govern together is a big question. Many of the members of Mr. Mahathir’s broad coalition have little in common with him beyond their outrage over the towering list of corruption accusations against Mr. Najib, and the governing party’s stifling grip on power, the New York Times adds.

“There is a lot of work to be done to undo the years of unbridled power,” said Cynthia Gabriel (left), executive director of the nonprofit Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, based in Kuala Lumpur:

Ms. Gabriel added that she expected the new government to properly investigate Mr. Najib and the missing money, and to begin cooperating with the United States Justice Department, which is investigating the theft of Malaysian government money and its laundering through American financial institutions, and other foreign inquiries.

“But for now, the power has been returned to the Malaysian people, as we have ushered in a two-party system,” said Ms. Gabriel.

The 1MDB affair revealed the complicity of global financial institutions, including major international banks, in kleptocratic money laundering, Gabriel wrote for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

The US Justice Department claims the prime minister pocketed $681 million for himself, the CSM adds. Some of the 1MDB money was spent in the US, such as in the making of the Hollywood movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The scandal is the largest investigation in the history of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.

Ever since reports in The Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report on 1MDB alleged massive corruption involving the upper echelons of the political and corporate elite of Malaysia, the term kleptocracy gained much political currency among activists and critics of the BN regime, notes one observer.

For now, Mr. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is expected to be deputy prime minister, the second-highest post in the new government, the Times adds:

James Chin, a Malaysian who is the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said Mr. Mahathir was elected as a “transitional figure” to rebuild the country’s government and pave the way for Mr. Anwar, to succeed him.

“His role is to put the institutions back in place, and he is supposed to keep the seat warm for Anwar Ibrahim,” Mr. Chin told the Times.

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