Najib’s return is the last thing Malaysia needs

Are we ready for another season of CSI: Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s hottest crime show?

This next one looks to be a tour de force. The storyline: the impossible return of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak. When we last saw Najib in 2018, political karma had arrived. His arrest amid a money-laundering scandal that draped Malaysia in crime tape seemed a worthy finale. Those billions of missing dollars allegedly found their way into a Pablo Picasso painting, superyachts and a Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

But now a 2022 plot twist: Najib is cooking up a second act as leader with the help of his United Malays National Organization. In November, he helped UMNO win big in a Malacca state election. Talk now is of Najib leading back to power a party that until 2018 had controlled Malaysia for over five decades.

One can debate the nature of this yarn. Comedy? Tragedy? Cautionary tale? All of the above? This is deadly serious, though. It is Malaysia’s reality in 2022. And a reason to worry that one of the region’s most promising economies will stumble anew.

There is a cast of characters to blame for Malaysia’s political drama. We would be remiss not to point out how poorly the three men who have led post-Najib performed.

Officially, current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has held the reins since August. Malaysians, though, could be excused for fearing Putrajaya is on autopilot. He replaced Muhyiddin Yassin, who lasted 533 rather forgettable days from March 2020 to August 2021. Muhyiddin had wrestled power from Mahathir Mohamad, who at 92, grabbed it from Najib, his protege, in May 2018.

Najib first took power in April 2009. It was fate, really. He is the scion of the Abdul Razak Hussein political dynasty. It was during Razak’s 1970-1976 premiership that Malaysia implemented the New Economic Policy. It is now just a contradiction in terms. The affirmative action program advantaging the ethnic Malay majority shackles today’s leaders with some very old problems.

One is waning competitiveness as China races forward. And as neighboring Indonesia and Vietnam won the factory deals Malaysia once took for granted. When most of your workforce enjoys preferential treatment to public jobs, housing, education and investment, you have a warped-incentive problem that stymies innovation and productivity.

1MDB’s Tun Razak Exchange development project in Kuala Lumpur, pictured in May 2015: the defunct state fund embodied the opacity, dysfunction and rot of a political system serving only itself.   © AP

Najib had promised to dismantle an analog system stuck in 1971 to compete in the digital age. Instead, he went the other way. The state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, created in 2009 perfectly embodied the opacity, dysfunction and rot of a political system serving only itself.

Rather than raise Malaysia’s game, it prompted money-laundering probes from Washington to Zurich to Singapore. 1MDB’s missing billions helped finance DiCaprio’s 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And by the time 1981-2003, leader Mahathir reclaimed power from Najib, Transparency International ranked Malaysia with Cuba in its annual corruption perceptions index.

The subtext is that Malaysia has been devoid of big-picture reform for these 12 years, during which China changed everything. Virtually zero was done to make government more accountable, level corporate playing fields, incentivize startups, tame government debt or halt the brain drain of talent moving abroad.

Ride-hailing giant Grab was created by two Malaysians of Chinese heritage in a Kuala Lumpur garage. Their decision to headquarter in Singapore is an all-too-common reminder that Malaysia’s economy is not ready for global prime time.

Why, oh why, would Malaysia’s 32 million people tolerate a Najib sequel, never mind clamor for one?

This question will sound familiar to Filipinos watching their leaders engineer a return of the Marcos family nightmare, where President Rodrigo Duterte is setting the stage for a Ferdinand Marcos Jr. presidency later this year.

The same for 260 million Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump in 2020 and dread the idea of a twice impeached president making another run for the White House. And while China does not do polling, do a critical mass of Chinese really believe Xi Jinping as leader for life is a good idea?

Najib’s return is not a given. On Dec. 8, Malaysia’s high court upheld his conviction and 12-year jail sentence in connection with the massive looting of 1MDB. So, Najib must pull off a legal Houdini act as well as a political-revival act. UMNO also must make the case for an early national election.

Yet UNMO has not dominated Malaysia Inc. for five-plus decades by accident. Love it or despise it, UNMO has a proven knack for marshaling the money and influence needed to pull off daring political escapes.

Too often, it uses religion as a plot device. Look no further than Muslim-majority Malaysia refusing to grant visas to Israelis for a world squash championship it is hosting this month. It is the latest headache for an International Olympic Committee facing criticism for kowtowing to Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics in February. The IOC pledged to ban countries for political meddling in sport.

What a terrible look for a government with ambitions to make Kuala Lumpur an economic and investment hub. Worse still that the man and political party that covered the place in crime tape may get another shot at damaging the national brand.

It is a common trope of horror stories that the villain is never really, fully dead. A Najib 2.0 in a geopolitically vital economy should scare us all.

WRITER – William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”