TO SEE HOW Malaysian upside policy has increased, consider the case of the previous Prime Minister, Najib Razak. In 2018, the party he led lost power for the first time since independence. The main allegations of massive corruption against Mr. Najib, who denied the wrongdoing, admitted that nearly $ 700 million had entered his bank accounts. Shortly after leaving office, the police seized a bling wave that belonged to his wife, Rosmah Mansor, who also denies any crime. It included 567 handbags, 423 watches and 14 tiaras.
Najib faces more than 40 corruption and abuse of power charges, but his star is rising again. His chutzpah made him an unlikely hit with the country’s moped gangs, who got into the habit of calling him bossku (“My boss”). Thanks to the skillful use of social media, Mr. Najib has reinvented himself as a man of the people. He describes himself as the victim of a show trial. This week, the 94-year-old man who replaced him as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who was once the mentor of Mr. Najib, expressed his perplexity that “people kiss the hands of thieves and call them bossku. “
It is unlikely that Mr. Najib’s reinvention will go so far as to bring him back to the center of politics, even if he manages to escape imprisonment. Apart from everything, Ms. Rosmah is too widely hated. But his rebirth reflects poorly Dr. Mahathir and the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan. It held great promise for power. By forging an alliance between the native Chinese, the Indians and the Malays, he offered an encouraging alternative to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has long pursued an often unpleasant form of identity politics that has flattered the Malay Muslim majority. Equally refreshingly, Pakatan also promised inclusive economic growth and an end to pacification.
So much for that. Under Pakatan, everything is subject to internal quarrels over the future leadership of the coalition and therefore the work of the Prime Minister. In a pre-electoral pact, Dr. Mahathir agreed to lead the government for only two years before handing over to Anwar Ibrahim. Twenty years ago, during Dr. Mahathir’s previous tenure as Prime Minister, he viewed the young and brilliant Mr. Anwar as a threat and had him imprisoned on charges of corruption and homosexual acts, which are illegal in Malaysia. The divide between the two men came to define Malaysian politics, prompting Mr. Anwar to leave the Malaysian national organization in power (UM NO), the kingpin of the BN, and transform the country’s fractured opposition into real contenders for power.
Yet in 2018, the two enemies saw the use of each other. Mr. Anwar was again in prison, where Mr. Najib also had him deported, and was therefore banished from politics. This meant that the opposition needed a credible leader. Dr. Mahathir, who, on retirement, had denounced Mr. Najib and UM NO, could bring a crucial slice of Malaysian voters to Pakatan. Having helped secure Pakatan’s victory, Dr. Mahathir also obtained a pardon for Mr. Anwar.
But those who whispered that two lions cannot live on the same mountain were right. Dr. Mahathir is now vague about when he will resign, as a pro-Anwar campaign attempts to discredit the Prime Minister and his allies. Last year, a video was released that claimed to show an ally, the Minister of the Economy, Mohamed Azmin Ali, in bed with a man. Mr. Azmin denies that it was him. But if the personal attacks echo Mr. Anwar’s past treatment, consider that almost all political insiders believe that the pro-Anwar are responsible for the dissemination of the video.
Meanwhile, Mr. Anwar’s former research assistant is pursuing his political secretary for alleged assault (he denies it). Other modernizers, including Mr. Anwar’s daughter, backed away from the tone of the debate. All this leaves the direction of Malaysian politics unclear. Dr. Mahathir may still give the floor to Mr. Anwar later this year. Or he can try to abandon Pakatan and forge a new government that targets the Malays, including the rump of UM NO and conservative Islamists. A straw in the wind is the government’s unreserved refusal to convict a fiery TV evangelist, Zakir Naik, wanted in India for money laundering. The Prime Minister worryingly says that he can work with anyone except Mr. Najib.
Meanwhile, regional leaders wonder what is happening on earth. One entrepreneur says that the lack of political leadership has a “dreadful effect” on the investment climate. Indeed, it is a blow to reform in general.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Sex, lies and videotape”