The news that former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been stirring the pot and undermining his successor Najib Razak should come as no surprise. The 89-year old Mahathir has form in this game. Six years ago he worked to bring down his successor Abdullah Badawi after the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) ruling party performed poorly in the 2008 elections. As one observer of Malaysian politics put it last week, Mahathir’s latest antics mean he has now undermined two of his predecessors, all his rivals, and both his successors.
The focus of the current stoush ostensibly concerns the management of the 1 Malaysia Development Bhd., a national investment fund which has chalked up RM42 billion ($11.5B US) in debts over the last five years. But Mahathir has been gunning for Najib for some time. Criticisms began after Najib (who is also Malaysia’s Finance Minister) dropped plans for a “crooked bridge” that would connect the country with Singapore. Mahathir accused him of “shameful” weakness in the face of Singaporean government opposition. He also condemned the government’s use of British consultants as a throwback to the days of colonialism.
Mahathir has also gone after Najib and his wife Rosnah’s “lavish lifestyles”, after the Indonesian magazine Tempo published details of luxury watches and expensive designer handbags. Leaving no doubt about his views, Mahathir concluded, “I feel that he is not fit to be the prime minister of this country.”
To observers of the fractious world of Malaysian politics this is nothing new. But coming at this time, the instability could have wider consequences. In 2015 Kuala Lumpur holds the rotating Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is responsible for ushering the group towards its ambitious goals for an ASEAN Economic Community by the end of the year. After Myanmar’s successful but cautious time in the chair last year, observers had high hopes that Malaysia might be able to forge a more cohesive ASEAN and push forward with some ambitious initiatives, before Laos takes over in 2016.
This weekend’s 26th ASEAN Summit will give us a sense of how Malaysia will fare. The hosts are looking for ASEAN leaders to declare their support for a Global Movement of Moderates – a personal initiative pushed by Najib. Malaysia is talking up the need for a more “people-centred” ASEAN and also working on a post-2015 Economic Vision that will chart the region’s economic direction for the next decade. It remains to be seen if the Summit offers some respite for the beleaguered prime minister or is over shadowed by his domestic travails.
New Zealand will be watching the Summit closely. In 2013, Prime Minister Key launched an ASEAN Strategy Paper, which noted that “New Zealand’s interests are increasingly converging with the evolving future of ASEAN.” Exports to the region hit $4.3 in 2013. New Zealand would welcome a more integrated Southeast Asia – not only as growing market of 600 million people – but also as an influential grouping of small and medium states in a region in which great power politics seems to be reasserting itself.
This year, Malaysia also has a special role in the celebrations marking New Zealand’s 40th anniversary as an ASEAN Dialogue Partner. A wide range of activities and initiatives are planned, culminating in a Commemorative Summit between Prime Minister Key and the ten ASEAN leaders to be held in Kuala Lumpur.
For the time being, Najib retains support within his party. But he will keenly remember the fate of his predecessor, Mr. Badawi, who seemed secure but was eventually brought down by Mahathir’s sniping. One early test of the Prime Minister’s popularity may come in a May 5 by-election in Rompin. Whether Mr. Najib will still be Prime Minister when John Key comes calling later in the year remains to be seen.
Photo Credit: Firdaus Latif