In the wake of the landmark and controversial bill prohibiting ‘fake news,’ Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, announced the dissolution of the current Malaysian government, effective 7 April 2018, paving the way for a general election earlier than expected. Originally predicted to take place in August, the dissolving gives Malaysia just 60 days to hold its 14th general election. According to the New York Times, the actual date will be announced by the electoral commission next week.
However, worldwide pundits are predicting, as Ramadan begins on the 15 May, the 14.9 million voters will go to the polls by early May. Therefore, it will not be long before we see the “do-or-die” battle, as The Straits Times paints it, between Najib’s “Make Malaysia Great with Barisan Nasional” campaign and the four-party opposition alliance led by Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamand. According to the Washington Post, Mahathir returned to politics and joined forces with his ‘enemies’ two years ago, over the 1MDB scandal with the aim of ousting Najib.
1MDB refers to the the alleged hundreds of millions of dollars Najib has stolen from the government-run fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, that he had set up in 2009 to invest in property, infrastructure and energy projects. Thus, this election will be a referendum on Najib as he runs for his third term in the wake of the corruption scandal.
However, recent developments including the redrawing of the electoral boundaries, the ‘fake news’ bill, the de-registration of Mahathir’s political party, and the raises given to 1.6 million civil servants illustrate that Najib is preparing to win by manipulation; entrenching the country further into corruption, reducing its electoral integrity and worryingly, experts warn, bringing it close to civil war.
Liew Chin Tong, quoted in the New York Times, summarizes the enormity of this election: “If the opposition loses again, there will be no hope left. I worry that some people will end up leaving Malaysia.” As an ethnic Chinese strategist for the opposition Democratic Action Party, Tong is well placed to assess the impact that the Najib’s re-election will have on the stability within the region. As he asserts the ethnic basis of the election, with Najib appealing to rural ethnic Malays for support and redrawing the electoral boundaries approved in March which allow their vote to matter more, may increase ethnic tension in the nation and force people of Chinese and Indian descent out of the country. In a potentially worse case scenario, it may allow for increased racial conflict and related violence within the state.
Moreover, the redrawing of boundaries is just one of the recent acts that has reduced Najib’s electoral integrity. They also attempted to dissolve Mahathir’s opposition party on Thursday, 5 April, due to missing paperwork. The attempt has thus far been unsuccessful, because as CCN explained, the Registrar of Societies has given them a further 30 days to file the paperwork. However, Mahathir is unable to currently campaign and use the party logo. Thus, as Bridget Welsh, a professor of political science at John Cabot University who specializes in Malaysian politics, stated in CNN, “The rationale for this is that among less educated and less informed voters this will neutralise some of the Mahathir effect.” Thus, Najib is improving his position to win by “paralyzing his opponents” as Mahathir himself put it when accusing Najib of cheating to the New York Times.
Another way he did so was through the catch all ‘fake news’ bill approved by the Malaysian Government on Monday, 2 April. According to Amnesty International, this “Can be – and will be – used to crack down on peaceful government critics. This bill cynically uses new Twitter jargon to pursue an old policy: criminalizing free speech.” Therefore, in the future Najib will not be held accountable to the general public, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty within the state allowing for its disintegration.
Altogether, Fahmi Fadzil, the communications director for the opposition People’s Justice Party comment, quoted in the New York Times, that “It’s like a civil war in Malaysia right now. I’ve never seen this country so divided” is both apt and deeply concerning. The level of corruption leading up to this election is not acceptable, and if successful will allow the Prime Minister Najib Razak to gain a full monopoly and entrench the country into further corruption, with 1MDB only just scratching the surface.
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