Democracy Fades in Malaysia as Old Order Returns to Power

Democracy Fades in Malaysia as Old Order Returns to Power

Democracy Fades in Malaysia as Old Order Returns to Power

BANGKOK — The members of Malaysia’s Parliament, wearing face masks to match their crisp white uniforms, convened this week in the vast lower house chamber for the first time this year.

Malaysia’s king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, sat on an ornate golden throne and spoke for half an hour. No questions were allowed. No votes were taken. Afterward, Parliament was adjourned until July.

This is what passes today for democracy in Malaysia.

Voters made history in 2018 when they ousted the scandal-stained governing coalition that had dominated the country for more than 60 years. But in recent months, that result has been reversed, all without a new election or a vote in Parliament.

With an assist from the country’s king, politicians from the previous government are back in power in a new coalition. Like autocrats around the world and across the region, Malaysia’s new leaders have used the coronavirus as a pretext to erode democratic norms, suspend the rule of law and consolidate power.

Muhyiddin Yassin, the newly appointed prime minister, and his allies have benefited from restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus, but which have also limited the ability of opponents to organize and challenge them.

The new governing coalition includes the former prime minister, Najib Razak, who is accused of siphoning billions of dollars from a government investment fund he once controlled.

Mr. Najib, now a mere member of Parliament, attended Monday’s session before heading to court on Tuesday for a hearing in his corruption case. He faces dozens of criminal charges and multiple trials, assuming the new government continues to prosecute him.

Last week, the government dropped money-laundering charges against Mr. Najib’s stepson, the Hollywood producer Riza Aziz, and it will apparently allow him to keep $83 million of the quarter-billion in government funds he was accused of receiving.

In a blistering statement posted Thursday on his blog, Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister who once mentored and later helped to oust Mr. Najib, criticized the new government for dismissing the charges against Mr. Riza.

“He is going to retain money stolen by him and be acquitted as well,” wrote Mr. Mahathir, who will turn 95 in July. “The public is disgusted and angry. Is this the kind of justice practiced in Malaysia?”

Mr. Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, came out of retirement in 2018 to defeat Mr. Najib and his ethnic-based party, the United Malays National Organization, in a stunning upset election victory.

But squabbling within Mr. Mahathir’s coalition, including over when he would step aside as prime minister for his rival, Anwar Ibrahim, helped bring the government down in February after only 21 months.

Key members of the coalition defected, including Muhyiddin Yassin, who at times had been an ally of both Mr. Mahathir and Mr. Najib.

“This government may not be the government that you voted for,” Mr. Muhyiddin said in a speech to the nation soon after taking power. “But I want all of you to know that this government cares for you.”

Malaysia’s kingship is a largely ceremonial position that rotates every five years among the country’s nine hereditary sultans. But the Constitution gives the king one important power: to appoint a prime minister who, in his estimation, has the backing of Parliament’s 224-member lower house. No vote is required.

In his address to Parliament, the king explained that he had needed to step in and end the leadership stalemate.

“Surely, every contest will have a conclusion,” he said. “The country’s political wrangling could not be allowed to fester without any end.”

Mr. Anwar, now the leader of the opposition, has called the new ruling coalition a “backdoor government” that took power in “a coup.”

“The issue of legitimacy is still hanging,” he said in an interview. “They don’t even have the courage to test their majority.”

The timing of the pandemic helped Mr. Muhyiddin consolidate power despite holding a razor-thin majority in Parliament.

He became prime minister just as the coronavirus was taking off in Malaysia, after a gathering of an Islamic revivalist group, Tablighi Jamaat, became one of the biggest sources of the virus’s spread in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Muhyiddin’s government imposed social distancing measures that slowed the virus’s spread but also, conveniently, minimized opportunities for his opponents to mobilize against him.

He canceled Parliament’s March session because of the pandemic, and limits on public gatherings have prevented the kind of protests seen in the Najib era, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding his resignation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Muhyiddin has been building support by handing out perks to members of Parliament, making 73 of them ministers, deputy ministers or special envoys. He also named at least 19 lawmakers to key positions in government-linked companies. If his leadership ever comes to a vote, he needs the support of only 113 lawmakers to retain power.

“Covid-19 allows them to do all sorts of monkey business,” said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania. “Everything is up for grabs.”

As of Thursday, Malaysia’s Ministry of Health had recorded a total of 7,057 confirmed coronavirus cases and 114 deaths.

On Friday, Mr. Muhyiddin entered quarantine at home after attending a meeting Wednesday with an official who later tested positive for the virus, his office said. It said Mr. Muhyiddin had tested negative for the virus.

Parliament was required to convene by last week because it had not met for nearly six months. Normally, sessions run for several days. But citing the virus risk, Mr. Muhyiddin kept the session short and refused to allow motions, including an attempt by Mr. Mahathir to call for a no-confidence vote.

“We cannot accept the reasoning that because of the pandemic we can only meet for two hours,” Mr. Mahathir told reporters afterward. “This will spell the end of democracy, as we cannot speak as representatives of the people.”

Perhaps the new government’s most significant action to date has been dropping the five money-laundering charges against Mr. Riza.

Mr. Riza, who produced“The Wolf of Wall Street,” was accused of receiving $248 million from the investment fund his stepfather controlled, known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad. He faced five years in prison on each count and total penalties of up to $1.2 billion.

Under the terms of the dismissal, he must return about $108 million, in addition to $57 million in assets he had already forfeited to the United States Department of Justice. But in a summary of the agreement, the new attorney general, Idrus Harun, makes no mention of Mr. Riza returning the remaining $83 million.

“I would have never sanctioned this deal,” said Tommy Thomas, the former attorney general who oversaw Mr. Riza’s prosecution under the previous government.

“It is a sweetheart deal for Riza,” Mr. Thomas said, “but terrible for Malaysia.”


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