Battles for legitimacy: The arrest of a former Prime Minister and what’s next after Malaysia’s historic election

Scott Edwards

Malaysia’s historic election, which saw the first change of government since independence, was met with widespread optimism. Former Prime Minister Najib’s recent arrest for charges related to corruption was also hailed as a vindication for this optimism. While this is justifiable, the arrest and other related events raises questions about just how the new government under Pakatan Harapan (PH – Alliance of Hope) will overcome a plethora of challenges, especially revolving around race and religion.

Najib’s arrest

Najib’s arrest has followed a frenzy of speculation and investigation over the former Prime Minister’s role in corruption related to the One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund where money flowed illegally into personal accounts (including, allegedly, Najib’s). Malaysian media (and the police) had a difficult time keeping up with the public’s appetite for news (and justice), especially regarding the extremely high-profile raids of properties belonging to Najib and his family members. His arrest came less than a week after police announced that 12,000 items of jewelry, 567 handbags and suitcases full of cash were among the stunning list of items seized. The day after, he was charged with criminal breach of trust and abuse of power, and the trial is expected in February 2019. Najib’s arrest has been seen as a movement from the old days of cronyism, patronage and corruption, and a win for the PH government who want to show that corrupt practices will not be tolerated and there is a now (legitimate) regime built on rule of law.

Race and religion

The arrest, however, and its surrounding events also serve as a warning to PH, that the significant challenges they were concerned about are coming to the fore. Najib’s response, both in the form of a personal video message and statements from his family, highlight his innocence in the frame of race and religion. His daughter argued that “you can paint a man black, but Allah knows”, and Najib ended his video (which featured clips of him praying) by stating "I will face all the challenges with strength. After all, Allah is all-knowing, merciful and caring." His day in court witnessed supporters engaging in candle-lit vigils, singing ‘Allah Selamatkan Kamu’ (Allah save you), and heckling the Attorney General for not using Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language. These events, centered on the Malay race and Islam have a strong resonance in Malaysia, despite hopes that the win of PH showed a lessening of race-based politics.

Najib’s party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) has long garnered legitimacy through appeals to ethnonationalism, based on the privileging (and protection) of Malay rights, as well as an increasing Islamisation. Umno was responsible forThe New Economic Policy (NEP), whereby Malay interests were prioritised economically, and they have a history of playing on the fear of other races who, it was argued, would take away Malay rights. References to Chinese Malaysians as immigrants (Pendatang), and events such as Hishamuddin (Former Prime Minister Najib’s cousin, and most recently former Defence Minister) waving his “Keris”, a Malay ceremonial dagger, at an UMNO assembly in what was perceived as a threat, demonstrate the strength of race-based politics focused upon by UMNO. Najib in particular used Malay communalism, and the racism and culture of fear used to try to create a common identity amongst UMNO and the Malays was perceived to have gotten worse under his tenure.

The recent elections within UMNO for party leadership positions further demonstrate how UMNO has chosen to not fight the same battle as PH. Those perceived as more progressive within UMNO, such as Khairy Jamaluddin, seemed to want to emulate PH in their programmatic focus with less emphasis placed on race. He failed to win the position of UMNO party president (though the results were perhaps closer than conservatives wanted), and the former Vice-President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi became UMNO party president. The election of Zahid represents that UMNO will be ‘business as usual’ in relation to their appeals to race and religion as their source of legitimacy, and that identity politics will be their main weapon.


This poses problems for PH, for both their internal consistency and for their support basis. PH is a multi-ethnic coalition with supporters from all races. They cannot make the same appeals without causing significant issues due to the balancing act they have to maintain, that UMNO doesn’t.

PH has to be sensitive to Malay rights, in order to not lose Malay votes attracted predominantly by Mahathir’s “Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia” (Bersatu – Malysian United Indigenous Party), Anwar’s “Parti Keadilan Rakyat” (PKR – Peoples’ Justice Party), and Mat Sabu’s “Parti Amanah Negara” (Amanah – National Trust Party). They cannot, however, alienate the rest of their base as all were responsible for their victory. If they make the same rhetorical appeals as UMNO, or fail to compromise on the extent of Malay privilege, they will lose a significant portion of their support – especially those among Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is perceived to be a Chinese party. There are already concerns about divisions amongst the support bases. There was media speculation, for example, that MARA University of Technology should end its policy of only accepting bumiputera students, that caused heated discussion from both sides. UMNO was able to come out as fully against such a change, while the constituent parties of PH found themselves in the position of having to placate their supporters without alienating the supporters of the other parties.  

Race is also potentially straining the relationships between the coalition leaders and parties. Anwar, for example, was reportedly unhappy that ethnic Chinese Lim Guen Eng was made Finance Minister. DAP leadership have also argued that they are not being represented in the cabinet, as they have received less ministerial posts than the constituent Malay-dominated parties. Race and religion is very much the elephant in the room that UMNO is increasingly drawing attention to, while PH attempt to maintain a balancing act.

This would be difficult in the best circumstances, but made worse by fact that they have their own tensions and face structural obstacles to success.

Race is not the only potential divider in the coalition. The leaders have problematic histories which requires a significant amount of forgiveness to work together. Mahathir has been responsible for the arrest of multiple party leaders, including Anwar, Mat Sabu and Lim Kit Siang. Former rivals are, therefore, working together on the basis that they (believe each other to) have common reform-minded interests. PH also has to work in the context of a bureaucracy and government which has been populated by UMNO loyalists over 60 years, meaning there are significant structural challenges. As such, any sources of division which can be politicised are likely to cause significant issues as patience is required while PH maintain their balancing act and undergo this momentous task.

Following the results of the election there was recognition that there may be some challenges. So far, however, things have been relatively optimistic. While Najib’s justifiable arrest has also been met with optimism, there should be caution about the divisions that its politicization can cause. This is especially true as it seems UMNO is maintaining its race-based identity politics despite hopes that Malaysia would be able to move on from such a divisive political environment. It raises further challenges for PH, meaning Malaysia’s ‘New Dawn’ may not be as bright as anticipated, especially if the coalition is seen (by both sides) as compromising too much, and not able to meet the expectations of its varied support bases, while UMNO stokes the fires.


Scott Edwards is a doctoral researcher with the ICCS (Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security) at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the development of trusting relationships in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and environmental security issues in Southeast Asia, as well as the politics and foreign policies of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Tags: malaysia, elections, Najib, corruption, 1MDB, Zahid

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