Malaysia Is Divided by Failures That Go Beyond Any One Man

Malaysia Is Divided by Failures That Go Beyond Any One Man

Deep recession, stale leadership and a royal comeback force a tough question: Does this country have a future? 

You know a parliamentary democracy is in deep trouble when a king has to tell lawmakers to pass a budget. That Malaysia’s monarch, usually a background ceremonial figure, has become so involved in basic government shows the breakdown in the political economy. But it goes wider than that. This is a country losing all sense of leadership.

Like waxwork figures, the dominant players in Kuala Lumpur are the same folks at or near the top of their game when I lived there in the 1990s. Few Malaysians could name a member of the royal families; the position of king is rotated among the hereditary sultans of nine states. But the country is now so skewed along political, cultural and economic divides that the current one has come out of the shadows to referee old feuds. The pandemic has aggravated these wounds.

Take Mahathir Mohamed, who ran the government from 1981 to 2003, and had a second spell as prime minister as the leader of his former opponents from 2018 until March. At 95, he’s still maneuvering for another shot. Mahathir would be remembered, with justification, as a nation builder if he knew when to gracefully bow out.

Instead, he manages to do Malaysia an incredible disservice, pressing buttons guaranteed to rile up segments of society and to spark outrage in the West. He was at it again Thursday, weighing in that Muslims had a right to kill millions of French people in response to “massacres of the past.” France urged Twitter to suspend his account. The post was removed.