Malaysia has long been considered as a case of electoral authoritarianism and so is its neighbor Singapore. After the Singaporean general election in 2015, many identified gerrymandering as the crux of Singapore’s electoral authoritarianism, but that is a symptom rather than the cause: the culture, preferences, and values of its electorates. The coming Malaysian general election serves as a precious opportunity to observe Electoral Authoritarianism in action and propagate itself, especially when Malaysia’s ruling party, whilst ridden with scandal, managed to win three 2016 elections.
In 2016, a group of Malaysian academics published a collection of their work titled ‘Collapsing Malaysia: an inspection of institutional corruption from 1MDB’ (馬來西亞大崩壞: 從1MDB看國家制度腐敗). Through detailed accounts of the fall and decline of Malaysian democracy, the book provided a structural analysis of the emergence of its Electoral Authoritarian Regime, and here are the ABCs of it.
A for Abuse of the police force
In the chapter ‘Prime Minister Connives with Police to Exploit Power’, Yap Swee Seng, the former executive director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), provided vivid accounts of the police acting as the PM’s personal enforcers. Near the end of July 2015, as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) formulated charges against Najib on the 1MDB scandal, its office was raided by the police. Four months later, Deputy Public Prosecutor for the Attorney General’s Chambers Kevin Morais was found dead in a concrete-filled drum, while his brother claimed that he was investigating cases related to the Najib and his wife before his untimely death. It is not hard to see why the abuse and politicization of the police force are closely linked with the excessive powers of the Prime Minister.
B for Boundless power of the Prime Minister
Compared to the constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom, Malaysian prime ministers enjoy much greater powers that come with very little checks from other branches. For example, in the UK and Australia, the statuary status of the Prime Minister was matched by his cabinet members, with the Chancellor (the treasurer in Australia) acting as a counterbalance. However, in Singapore and Malaysia, the powers of Prime ministers are expanded to the point of overriding other members of the cabinet – in Malaysia, the prime minister also serves as the Finance – a crucial background of the 1MDB scandal.
Rais Yatim, a minister under three PMs for thirty-nine years, channeled most of his political experience into academic writing. In his book titled ‘Cabinet Governing in Malaysia’, he argued that at first, the PM’s supremacy was a necessary measure against communist incursions and emerging racial politics, this expediency was cemented by, ‘the father of modern Malaysia’, former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. Not only did he consolidate the PM’s power through numerous amendments in the constitution, but he also assumed the position of the Finance Minister at the last two years of his reign, which in turn became a custom for his successors Abdullah and Najib. In 2016, ‘Finance Asia’ named Najib as Asia’s worst Finance Minister after the 1MDB scandal.
C for Constitution
Last but not least, we have to return to Malaysia’s constitution: it adopts the first-past-the-post-system which limits the room for smaller political parties and hence suppresses political diversity. At the same time, the ruling party tried to secure its victory through gerrymandering. Political scholar Phoon Wing Keong stated in the book’s introduction that the once mature democracy wilted into a sultanistic predatory State under Mahathir. 1MDB is only a natural conclusion following the collapse of the predatory state system.