Malaysia is drifting dangerously


Najib must resist the temptation to clamp down on freedoms for narrow political interests

David Pilling, Financial Times

Is Malaysia falling apart? The very idea seems absurd. After all, is it not one of southeast Asia’s wealthiest and most stable countries, with regular elections and a solid middle class?

Unlike Thailand, presently under military rule, Malaysia is not prone to coups. Civilians have run the country since it won independence from Britain in 1957. Unlike Indonesia, which has only just graduated from low-income status, it has long been relatively prosperous. It is praised for being a moderate majority Muslim nation; 60 per cent of its 30m people are Muslim, predominantly Malay, with about 25 per cent ethnic Chinese and the rest Indians and other ethnic minorities. Yet non-Muslims are free to drink beer and eat pork. The race riots of 1969, in which many Chinese were killed, are a distant memory.

Scratch below the surface, however, and Malaysia is undergoing a slow-motion political crisis. True, you could plausibly have said much the same at any point since 1998 when Anwar Ibrahim, the mercurial leader-in-waiting, fell out with Mahathir Mohamad, who ran the country for two decades until 2003. Since then, although the United Malays National Organisation has extended its run to almost six decades, the political system has been inherently unstable. Last year a three-party coalition led by Mr Anwar won just over 50 per cent of the vote, which brought it close to power although the system is stacked in favour of the incumbents.

If something has been rotten in the state of Malaysia for some time, this year the sense of crisis has come to a head.

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