How Ethno-Religious Divisions Stymie Anticorruption Reform in Malaysia–and What to Do About It

In 2018, Malaysia surmounted the biggest test of its democracy since gaining independence from Britain in 1963—the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. That change in leadership occurred in the wake of the 1MDB scandal—one of the largest kleptocracy schemes ever uncovered—which implicated former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The repudiation of Najib and his party, UNMO, in the 2018 election was seen by many as a hopeful sign that the Malaysian people were no longer willing to tolerate the systemic corruption that had long been seen as business as usual. To be sure, the leader of the victorious coalition in the 2018 election—nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamed, who had previously served as Prime Minister from 1983 to 2001—was an unlikely champion of anticorruption and good governance reform. Yet in 2018, Mahathir’s victory was cause for hope that there would finally be genuine systemic reform.

Within two years, that hope had all but vanished. Prime Minister Mahathir was forced to resign in the middle of his first term in office and was replaced by UMNO politician Muhyiddin Yassin, who had served as Deputy Prime Minister under Najib. What went wrong? In an earlier post, I explored how a free press and multi-party government may have contributed to the failure of Mahathir’s coalition. But that is not the whole story. Those democratic institutions were susceptible to manipulation because of the deeply embedded ethnic and religious divisions that have been a defining feature of Malaysian politics since independence. By exacerbating racial and religious tensions, UMNO managed to convince key voting blocs that the biggest threat they faced was not corrupt politicians, but rather their neighbors who look and pray differently. In short, the reformist coalition ultimately failed because the Malaysian populace lost sight of their common enemy: the corrupt system of governance robbing them all.

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