I have never quite bought the notion that democracy delivers a government no better than what its people deserve. The phrase, often repeated in anger or haste, is clever, but it ignores political realities. We do not deserve the government we get if the government we get is the consequence of fear and uncertainty, poverty, weakened democratic institutions, systematic racism, gerrymandering and a system stacked in favor of those in power.
Malaysia votes on May 9 and almost every projection has Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, claiming electoral victory for the 14th consecutive time. To be precise: This coalition or a predecessor has governed Malaysia (and before it, Malaya) for over 60 years, without a break. Barisan Nasional and Co. probably is the longest-ruling political alliance in the world.
But Wednesday’s election — hashtag: #GE14 — is being called “the mother of all elections” for other reasons as well.
Our disparate and desperate opposition recently came together to create the closest thing Malaysia has had to a two-party election, with all opposition candidates agreeing to campaign under the flag and logo of the People’s Justice Party of Anwar Ibrahim, who is in prison on sodomy charges (again). Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s nonagenarian ex-prime minister, has reunited with Mr. Anwar — a former deputy he sacked and first had jailed — to lead the opposition against the very system he created and helped fortify during more than two decades in power.
What’s more, Mr. Mahathir is doing this by campaigning for the political party that was set up to fight injustices allegedly perpetrated while he was in power. But never mind that. Facing a Trumpian Mr. Najib — another ex-protégé of his — who promises to “Make Malaysia Great,” Mr. Mahathir has pledged to save the country from this scandal-ridden government.
Over nearly a decade in office, Mr. Najib and his administration have been plagued by wild allegations, ranging from various counts of financial impropriety to conspiracy to commit murder. Among all the kaffeeklatsch and the hearsay, all the tales of lavish living and cronyism, one story line stands out: a case of kleptocracy so immense that it is has spawned criminal and regulatory investigations in at least 10 jurisdictions around the world.
The scandal in question has to do with the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, which Mr. Najib set up in 2009 to spur economic development in Malaysia. According to the United States Department of Justice, money from the fund has been used to purchase ritzy apartments in Manhattan, mansions in Los Angeles, paintings by Monet and Van Gogh, a corporate jet, a luxury yacht — and even to finance the making of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Some $681 million may also have wound their way into our prime minister’s personal bank accounts.
Yet 1MDB will play little to no part in Wednesday’s election.
Why? For one thing, from the outset Mr. Najib used his power and influence to interfere with investigations into the scandal. He replaced the attorney general who was getting ready to file criminal charges against him and sacked cabinet members who were openly criticizing the government’s handling of the allegations. Four members of the parliamentary accounts committee charged with investigating the case were promoted to cabinet positions, and the committee’s work was suspended.
The Najib administration aggressively went after the media, blocking internet access to independent websites like The Malaysian Insider, The Sarawak Report and Medium. It suspended the publication of The Edge Weekly after the newspaper ran an investigative piece making the same claims the United States Justice Department would make about a year later.
In recent times, the Malaysian government has pushed through restrictions on free speech, arrested individuals for sedition and introduced repressive laws — including one, ostensibly aimed at terrorists, that allows suspects to be detained indefinitely and another that punishes individuals for maliciously spreading “fake news.”
While all of this was happening, Mr. Najib was off doing statesmanlike things: hobnobbing with world leaders at important economic summits, negotiating trans-Pacific trade deals, golfing with President Obama, building ties with China and setting up Malaysia as a key regional force in the fight against terrorism.
It must have helped that 1MDB was far too vast and far too complex a scandal for many people to fathom. In any event, the administration’s strategy of information suppression and distraction worked. Because here we are, facing the mother of all general elections, and Malaysians still are not paying attention to this kleptocracy scandal, perhaps the biggest in the history of the world.
Last September, in a survey of Malaysian voters aged 21 to 30 by the independent pollster Merdeka Center, just 6 percent of respondents said they still cared about 1MDB and approximately 5 percent about Mr. Najib’s integrity. According to the social-media observer Politweet, the number of people tweeting about 1MDB dropped from 85,118 in 2015 to 19,459 in 2017.
This administration now has near-complete control over the government, the various bodies tasked with investigating the scandal and the media. We don’t murder journalists in Malaysia yet, but we have become very good at making life difficult for them. Mr. Najib’s administration has successfully wagged the dog and manipulated the electorate into thinking that the scandal doesn’t matter. Come May 9, he may win yet another election in spite of it.
About a month ago, a series of videos titled #namasayanajib, or #mynameisnajib, began appearing here as ads on YouTube. The videos feature a boy — who just happens to share our prime minister’s first name — and his many adventures as he encounters various situations that allow him to display his virtues. He is hardworking. He is honest. He is enterprising. He is everything a good Malaysian should be.
In one episode, young Najib is accused of stealing a watch, when all he did was put it aside for safekeeping. In another, one of his classmates accuses a teacher after money from their school goes missing. When the boy is proved wrong, Najib lectures him about jumping to conclusions without knowing all the facts. (We never find out who is responsible for the theft.)
I don’t know if Barisan Nasional ultimately is behind this thinly veiled propaganda. But the video series’s 13 moralistic tales appear to be a mythmaking exercise designed to invite the public to associate Najib the prime minister with Najib the boy and make us feel like the country’s leader is one of us. Maybe even a bit better.
Which makes me wonder: If so, do Najib’s sins then also become our own, especially if we re-elect him?
Umapagan Ampikaipakan is the host of The Evening Edition on BFM 89.9, Malaysia’s only independent English-language talk radio station.