Malaysian PM Najib Razak is using the assassination of Kim Jong-nam to deflect heat from ongoing scandal and economic slowdown ahead of scheduled elections, writes Manjit Bhatia.
It’s comical when Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi demands that criminals backed by North Korea, China’s client rogue state, respect the “sovereignty” of his country’s laws. As home minister in 2013, Zahid had lavished praise on Tiga Line, the outlawed Malay gangsters. He also called on police to “shoot first” if non-Malay thugs threaten or kill his fellow Malays.
Meanwhile, police chief Khalid Abu Bakar requested the same abominable Pyongyang “authorities” to extradite suspects in Kim Jong-nam’s assassination at Kuala Lumpur’s budget carrier airport on 13 February. Khalid’s lightning-fast move here isn’t surprising, seeking fame and kudos. Yet, when it comes to netting official corruption’s big fish, including corporate leaders, and independently investigating prime minister Najib Razak, he disinclines at every turn.
Strictly speaking, Malaysia has not a single independent institution. Instead, patron-client relations rule. Others call it patronage. Simple example: Khalid is subservient to Zahid who is subservient to Najib who holds Malaysia’s purse-strings as finance minister. This buys him allegiance and serious protection in a country racked by state-ordained corruption, cronyism and some of the worst forms of racism. What has this to do with the Jong-nam case? Everything. And just as well — Malaysia-North Korea diplomatic ties are flexing for bust-up.
As baffling as the assassination was, it couldn’t have happened sooner. Malaysian elections are due mid-2018. Zahid and Khalid, like Najib, are hoping the matter of the half-brother of North Korea’s insane leader Kim Jong-un will grip Malaysians like a John Le Carre thriller. The state-controlled media is acting to orders of ensuring the case is lead news, 24/7. After all, Malaysians need distractions. Being a Muslim country — not an Islamic state — the visit of the king of Saudi Arabia this week has somewhat displaced the Jong-nam as the lead story, albeit temporarily.
Interestingly, the North Korean ambassador has had unprecedented scope in seen to attempt to interfere in police investigations. Also curiously, Malaysian officials didn’t refute the ambassador’s claim that South Korea and Malaysia were in cahoots, ostensibly to bring down the Jong-un dynastic regime. But when news outlets ran stories of a North Korean spy network operating in Malaysia, the episode moved from the bizarre to the whacky. Still, that’s exactly what Najib needs.
Problem is, the Jong-nam murder hasn’t absorbed Malaysians. They’re far more worried about their jobs future. Some factories have closed down; some others are moving offshore, to Vietnam, Burma and Bangladesh. The old ways of enticing foreign firms, via tax and other incentives, no longer work. These days China demands 99-year leases among its preconditions of investing in Malaysia. Like Singapore, Malaysia is struggling to establish anew its global competitiveness. For over a decade the international division of labor has shifted away from Asia’s first and second-tier ‘miracle economies’.
Nonetheless, Najib boasts a high economic growth rate for the country. At 4.2 per cent GDP for 2016, it is significantly lower than 5 per cent in 2015. Between 2000 to 2016, average GDP has been 4.73 per cent. The jobs outlook is even bleaker. Official statistics put unemployment averaging 3 per cent; last year it climbed to 3.6 per cent, with 3.5 per cent in 2015. Most credible economists, even the market type, know Malaysia’s official numbers are as rubbery as North Korea’s or China’s.
There’s no data for job participation rate in Malaysia. Yet it makes a better unemployment indicator, regardless or perhaps especially given the Najib regime’s propensity to embellish everything, including statistics. There’s sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest joblessness is far higher among Malays and Indians, the groups increasingly engaged in crime. There’s also extensive under-employment among Malays, Chinese and Indians. And Malaysians are struggling on a single income, where the ‘minimum’ monthly wage of MYR900 ($US200) is scarcely enforced.
Exacerbating Malaysians’ worries is inflation. At 3.2 per cent, it spiked after the introduction of a consumption tax. In Kuala Lumpur alone, credible estimates put inflation at least twice the “official” number. At 6 per cent GST, Malaysia was never ready for it, in the structural sense. Add the measly value of the Malaysian ringgit, inflation hits close to double-digits, in real terms, according to some investment banks’ research. Meanwhile, Najib will maintain taxpayer-funded personal income subsidies, mostly for the Malays, and he’ll boost ‘free money’ ahead of next year’s polls.
If Bank Negara, the central bank, isn’t manipulating the low currency, then it’s a ‘market godsend’ for this heavily export-dependent, natural resource-based economy. Yet after two years of the collapsing ringgit, Malaysia’s competitiveness hasn’t improved. Its budget deficit and national debt are ballooning. Najib is banking on a commodities boom as the manufacturing base is routed by global forces. Take the long-failed local auto industry: Proton is effectively sold off to cheap China money. Selling the farm is the last resort of a scoundrel. But don’t expect Najib to sell the family jewels.
Blockbusting official corruption remains front and centre in Malaysian minds. Najib’s sudden great wealth humiliates Malays and irks the others. Nobody believe a rich Saudi or the Saudi state had “donated” $US1.4 billion to Najib; almost everyone, including the Malays, believe it was siphoned from bankrupt state firm 1MDB – brainchild of its chairman, Najib. And those proceeds miraculously wound up in Najib’s personal bank accounts.
The 2018 polls should humiliate Najib but it won’t defeat him or the ruling UMNO party. Many Malays feel especially aggrieved at how easily the ruling class has enriched itself while Malay villagers eke out a meagre living from plots of land Najib has ‘given’ them. No similar generosity has been extended to non-Malays. Some Malays agree this is unfair; most, however, subscribe to Machiavellian politics. But it’s Malaysia’s banal inter-racial harmony that’ll suffer the more as a consequence.
The Jong-nam case is serious — on legal paper. His killing hasn’t caused Beijing’s eunuchs a twitch. But Najib is using the assassination to his own political ends. It’s what dastardly regimes or political leaders in trouble or on the people’s noses would do — exploit an awful criminal matter to cement their illegitimate and immoral positions.