By Holly Reeves
Malaysia’s game of thrones is playing out in blood-feuds and bitter politics. It is Najib versus Mahathir, as the two powerful houses pit their wits to win the prize of the kingdom. The hit television show has us all on the edge of our seats, but the fight for Malaysia? It seems nothing but another repeat.
Prime Minister Najib Razak the eldest son of Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister. His uncle, Hussein Onn, was the third. Some would say with this bloodline he was born to sit upon the seat of power in Malaysia. Others say that his family’s time has passed.
Like those ficitional lords of Westeros, Najib has proved adept at survival by the liberal use of money and patronage to shore up allies. He is also quick to use his power to divide, silence and jail opponents in politics and civil society.
In this tale of friends and foes, Najib was once the youngest parliamentary member in Malaysia’s history – taking his father’s seat when the latter died suddenly in 1976. From 1982 to 1986, he was Chief Minister of Pahang, before entering the federal Cabinet of Mahathir Mohamad as Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in 1986.
From colleagues to clashes
He and Mahathir, the other great contender in this story, were originally close colleagues. Following his appointment at a young age he quickly showed his skills in understanding the game. He served Mahathir’s government in cabinet posts at energy, telecommunications, education, finance and defence.
Mahathir led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, a period when the economy grew an average 6.3 per cent annually. He was famous for rejecting an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Malaysia during the 1998 Asian financialcCrisis, instead introducing capital controls and pegging the ringgit.
He advocated a moderate brand of Islam and stressed modernisation, but had little tolerance for dissent and used sedition laws to curb it. He eventually stood down to allow Abdullah Badawi to take over in 2004. Najib served under him as Deputy Prime Minister.
And then Najib seized his moment. The 2008 elections saw terrible results for the ruling Barisan National coalition and Abdullah resigned. His hand-picked successor was Najib Razak, now leader of both the United Malays National Organisation (UNMO) and, in turn, the country.
An embattled leader
His time as prime minister has been mixed. His supporters say the Malaysian gross national income has grown by 47.7%, 1.8 million jobs have been created, and private investment in the country has more than tripled since the establishment of his Economic Transformation Programme in 2010.
On the global stage, relations with both China and the US have never been better. President Barack Obama recently described Malaysia’s voice as being “critical in the debate that is taking place internationally around terrorism.”
However in 2013, he reinstated detention without trial, and reforms to pro-Malay policies he promised when he assumed the leadership largely did not materialise. Growth has slowed. Earlier this year he introduced a value-added tax on goods of 6 per cent, supposedly to fund development projects.
And no story of Najib is complete without the corruption allegations. The purchase of two French submarines in 2002 while he was defence minister, and the thoroughly-reported irregularities in the 1MDB strategic development fund brought to light by the Wall Street Journal last year.
Walking into disaster?
It is these suspicions that have, so far, irreparably severed the connections between the once-allied Najib and Mahathir. The elder statesman believes that Najib, his former banner man, has become poisonous to the success of UNMO. That his behaviour in office will cause a disaster at the ballot boxes of the next general election. That Malaysia needs a new leader.
Conveniently enough, he has a suggestion. In a perfect play in this game of dynasties his preferred choice is said to be his own son; the same son that Najib blocked from taking up an UNMO vice-presidency in 2013.
However, despite Mahathir’s noisy efforts to stir dissent, Najib steadfastly remains the warden of Malaysia. He has largely neutralized his most influential critics within UMNO, including Mahathir and former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Yassin was sacked and his allies have been isolated.
Despite this, both Muhyiddin and Mahathir remain loud and present in their criticism of Najib, though it is unclear whether this has changed the minds of any UMNO cadres. Their priority is alleged to be securing their own positions and they do not see any other viable candidates for prime minister. As much as the two outlier politicians may protest; without the support of the party, or the people, Najib’s territory is safe.
And so, as powerful families vie to secure their own future, Malaysia continues to play the game of thrones.
Not for glory, or honour, or to serve democracy; because it has no other choice.