Political conflict in Malaysia, already high in 2015, has escalated in 2016.

And New Mandala readers in Canberra can get their head around the increasingly complex issue and deepening crisis with a public seminar taking place at the Australian National University this Thursday.

The panel features long-time Malaysia observers James Chin, John Funston, Miles Kupa and Ross Tapsell. Each will cover the ongoing political crisis from different perspectives including leaders and parties, the media, upcoming state elections, and Australia’s interests. They will also examine what the current state of play means for Malaysia’s political future.

Taking place from 5.30-7.30pm at the Hedley Bull Centre, the panel promises to be illuminating and lively. So make sure you get along if you can.

Here’s more detail from the panel’s publicity (also available online here):

In January the Attorney-General declared Prime Minister Najib Razak had no case to answer over a sum of nearly $700 million in his private bank account. It was not from the controversial government investment agency 1MDB, but a donation from a Saudi prince without consideration, and some $620 million had been returned because it was not needed. Najib welcomed the finding, saying the controversy was an unnecessary distraction and had now been comprehensively put to rest. It was time to unite and move on.

That hope has not been realised. Soon after the Attorney-General’s announcement the Wall Street Journal reiterated that the funds came from companies linked to 1MDB, and in fact totalled over $1 billion. The Swiss Attorney-General said his investigations had revealed a sum of around $4 billion misappropriated by Malaysian companies involved with 1MDB.

Opposition to 1MDB-linked issues has intensified in Malaysia, led by 90-year old former Prime Minister Mahathir. The sacking of Mahathir’s son from the post of Kedah Mentri Besar on 3 February, and ruling party UMNO’s suspension of former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin as deputy party leader on 26 February, has heightened tensions. (In July 2015 Muhyiddin was controversially sacked as Deputy Prime Minister.)

Mahathir resigned from UMNO on 29 February, then joined forces with erstwhile opponents from opposition political parties, UMNO dissidents, and civil society activists. They issued a Citizen’s Declaration calling for Najib’s resignation and institutional change, and launched a Save Malaysia campaign. For its part, the government has sought to contain dissent by tightening controls on the Internet, including blocking the popular The Malaysian Insider which closed some three weeks later, mooting an increase in penalties for leaking government secrets (from maximum seven years, to life plus ten strokes of the rotan), and stepping up investigations under the Sedition Act.

Do these events threaten UMNO’s long dominance of Malaysian politics? To what extent are proposed changes to the Malaysian Commission of Multimedia and Communications Act and Official Secrets Act a setback for democracy? How will these developments impact on a state election in Sarawak, due in a few months? And what is their relevance to Malaysia’s foreign policy and relations with Australia?

About the Discussants

John Funston is a visiting fellow with the Department of Political and Social Change, ANU. He has published several works on UMNO, and will focus on whether the Mahathir-led united front threatens UMNO’s rule.

Ross Tapsell
is a lecturer in the Asian Studies School of Culture, History and Language, ANU. He is a specialist on media issues in Southeast Asia, and will examine how far existing and proposed media restrictions limit freedom of expression in Malaysia.

James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania. He has written extensively on Malaysian politics, and has a particular interest in Sarawak state.

Miles Kupa is a visiting fellow with the Department of Political Change in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU. He was formerly a senior diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and was High Commissioner to Malaysia in his last posting.