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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 15:52 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 15:52 | SYDNEY

The Interpreter's best of 2016: Malaysia's Najib hangs on

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4 January 2017 08:38

Given the political and legal trouble in which Malaysian PM Najib Razak found himself in 2016, it is a small miracle he survived. Here's how The Interpreter tracked Najib's journey though 2016, starting with a prescient piece from James Chin on the Teflon Prime Minister:

What many foreigners and analysts fail to appreciate is the enormous power concentrated in the hands of the prime minister. In theory, the PM rules through a coalition government. In practice, he exercise his powers like a feudal king. He holds what are, arguably, the three most powerful offices in Malaysia; in addition to prime minister he is also finance minister and chairman of the National Security Council (NSC). He controls tenders and contracts worth billions of dollars and, through the NSC, can shut the country down by declaring an emergency. On top of government contracts, he can appoint anyone he likes to thousands of board positions in government-linked companies (GLCs). It is generally accepted these GLCs occupy the commanding heights of the Malaysian economy. Many of these board positions come with generous perks and allowances paid for very little work, other than attending board meetings.

In March, Greg Lopez wrote of Najib's diminishing room to manoeuvre:

UMNO's foundational myth and ideology as the protector of the Malays, and guarantor of the 'social contract' (the ethnic bargain) is now increasingly being challenged, not only by opposition parties, but by UMNO stalwarts themselves. UMNO's performance as reflected by the Najib administration, while mediocre (but not terrible by global comparison) has been criticised by Malaysians suffering from long-term institutional degradation, an out-dated economic model, and a political system unsuited for the contemporary challenges their country faces. Against this background, those behind the Citizens Declaration represent a serious challenge to Najib.

But by May it was clear to Greg Lopez that Najib had strengthened his hold on power:

All powerful individuals who were brave enough to oppose the prime minister have been cut down to size. As demonstrated through the sackings of then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and then minister for rural and regional development Shafie Apda, Najib has systematically separated his detractors from the power, patronage and machinery that would have been required to topple him.

Reinforcing that theme, Zubaidah Nazeer in July listed three reasons Najib was not going anywhere. Reason 3 was his foreign friends:

US-Malaysia relations initially blossomed under Najib as he forged a closer friendship with his American counterpart, President Barack Obama, who became his golf buddy. The US needs regional support to combat extremism and mitigate the rise of an ever more aggressive China. It sees Malaysia as a crucial partner on both fronts and Mr Najib’s ouster could undermine what has been a constructive and important relationship. Malaysia is trying to play the US off against China, which has become an important friend to Najib since this scandal broke. China provided a lifeline to 1MDB when China's state-owned energy company invested in 1MDB’s energy assets worth US$2.3 billion soon after the Chinese Premier promised to help Malaysia overcome its economic woes. 

Photo by Flickr user Firdaus Latif.

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