Malaysia After Mahathir

HONG KONG, Jan. 19, 2009 - Barry Wain offers blunt assesments of Malaysia's "exposed" economy and a lurid government murder scandal. (4 min., 3 sec.)

HONG KONG, January 19, 2010 - Corruption in Malaysia is spiraling out of control, according to Barry Wain, Writer-in-Residence at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and author of the new book Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times. Wain made the charge in a talk before the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in which he addressed a number of problems currently besetting the nation of 28 million people.

"The place has always been corrupt," Wain alleged, "and it has deteriorated markedly and shows up in Transparency International's annual report. In UMNO (the ruling party), people join to get advantages in business, to get contracts. They expect to make money by joining the party. UMNO itself as a party needs to reform, but it needs to be part of wider reforms to stamp out corruption."

A former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal, Wain blamed Malaysia's controversial affirmative action program for the exodus of talented Malaysians to neighboring Singapore, which has prompted concerns of a brain drain. "Its benefits are no longer accruing to Malaysians who need it most—the poorest. They are accruing to the best-connected Malaysians, basically those connected to the ruling party."

Meanwhile, the predominantly Muslim nation is beset by worsening ethnic tensions triggered by political considerations. "When UMNO is in trouble," Wain said, "when it looks like it's losing its appeal, it harps on about Malay domination that flows into Islam and religion, and gets nasty. I think inter-ethnic relations have deteriorated and I'm a bit worried about the way it might go, particularly if UMNO starts getting closer to defeat."

Wrestling with the long-term decline of his party, Najib Razak—who became Prime Minister last April—has been hindered by the pervasive patronage system that was in place under former premier, Mahathir Mohamad. To make matters worse, Wain continued, Najib's reputation has been tainted by a scandal in which one of his key advisers was acquitted in the murder of his ex-lover, a Mongolian model.

"It is potentially very embarrassing for the prime minister to be implicated in such a grisly murder this way. His attitude is to ride it out and hope it goes away. Unless he comes clean and makes a statement and explain the connection, it may haunt him for a long time," Wain speculated.

With a rising level of discontent, the disaffected have turned to the coalition of opposition parties led by Anwar Ibrahim, the former finance minister. A one-time protégé of Mahathir Mohamad and UMNO stalwart, Anwar spent almost 20 years in the party until losing favor with Mahathir. 

"Malaysians will have to make up their own minds how much they trust him. There's certainly a prevailing view that he changes too quickly and too often and cannot be trusted," observed Wain.

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Center