The conviction of Malaysia’s former finance minister in a major corruption case will have far-reaching implications for the country’s domestic politics.
By Umair Jamal
Earlier this month, Malaysia’s former finance minister and a senior opposition leader, Lim Guan Eng, were charged with corruption over the construction of an undersea tunnel in Penang.
The 7.2-kilometer underwater tunnel project began in 2016 under then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government. The project, which is set for completion in 2025, has not begun yet as it is marred by corruption accusations and political controversies.
Lim is accused of taking bribes amounting to 10% percent of potential profits from the contract.
Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission has been investigating the case for years but had not pushed the case in the courts. It is possible that Malaysia’s ruling coalition put pressure on the commission to actively pursue the case in a bid to hurt the opposition.
Lim served as a finance minister in the Pakatan Harapan government, which collapsed in February. Malaysia’s new prime minister, Yassin Muhyiddin, was part of the Pakatan Harapan government and has now been accused of sidelining the previous prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, once his political ally.
By taking down a prominent opposition leader like Lim, the Muhyiddin government and its coalition partners are putting pressure on the opposition parties that have been trying to malign the current government.
Why has the Anti-Corruption Commission not brought charges against Lim before?
Malaysia’s current government relies heavily on the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party for political support and cannot afford to concede political space to opposition parties.
Mahathir, who was pushed out of UMNO, has been at the forefront of some of the recent pressure on the government. As an ally of Mahathir, Lim is likely viewed as one of the main challengers of the current government. Lim is a political heavyweight who Mahathir can use to exert pressure.
The current government is also trying to implicate Mahathir and Lim in another major corruption case, which involves its own coalition partners from UMNO.
The verdict against Lim is also likely the result of government pressure because of the timeline of the case itself. According to Lim, he was previously never questioned by anti-graft officials for allegedly taking bribes.
“Let me state that this is a baseless allegation and it is politically motivated to smear my reputation as well as my effort to execute my role as an opposition parliamentarian,” Lim told reporters recently.
Similarly, Lim’s lawyer, Gobind Singh Deo, has questioned the timing of the case. “This is a charge which relates to an incident alleged to have happened in 2011, some nine years ago, so of course we all know that there have been investigations,” Singh said.
The case picked up after the election of the new government in March, raising suspicions about the motives for the renewed investigation.
Is the government trying to level the playing field to make a deal with the opposition parties?
It is important to note that Muhyiddin’s government is supported by many political leaders who faced graft charges and were defeated in the 2018 general election. In this regard, the current government’s alliance with the UMNO is not working out well. A month ago, Najib, who is also an important member of UMNO, was convicted of corruption and money laundering by the country’s courts in the prominent 1MDB scandal.
UMNO may now be using its position to fight back against opposition leaders and parties that led the campaign against Najib and perhaps cost the party a victory in the 2018 general election.
Like Najib, Lim has not been sentenced to prison yet and may appeal the verdict. The Lim case will also be decided by political circumstances rather than strict interpretations of the law.
Has the government turned the tables on the opposition parties?
By politically tainting a close ally of Mahathir, the current government is attempting to turn the tables on the opposition.
UMNO is likely trying to malign opposition leaders that not only cost the party the 2018 general election but have also undermined its voter base and chances to win future elections. Lim was a very vocal leader of Pakatan Harapan during the 2018 election campaign, focusing on Najib and UMNO’s role in financial scandals.
The Muhyiddin government only has a two-seat majority in Parliament. Arguably, Muhyiddin’s best chance of holding onto power if a snap election is held anytime soon rests with UMNO’s political support. Thus, by maligning Lim, UMNO leadership and Muhyiddin are trying to place their main political competitors at a disadvantage.
Earlier this month, Mahathir announced the formation of a new political party which will not be allied with the opposition or the ruling coalition. With this new platform, Mahathir and his political allies, including Lim, could further split the voter base of the ruling coalition, particularly the UMNO. “Yes, it will break the electorate. I don’t like it but we need to do it,” Mahathir said in a press conference recently. He further added that in the past, Malay-based parties, including the UMNO, “under a different leader, always got a two-thirds [parliamentary] majority, but now the party is bad.”
In the coming days and weeks, both the opposition and the ruling coalition will likely focus on finding any shred of corruption-related evidence to malign their political competitors.