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Malaysia: A Second Chance

Mahathir Mohamad was always a curious character. He was prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years, and although he did not enrich himself many of his cronies did very well from corrupt practices that he did little to curb.

He was a ruthless authoritarian who had his own deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, jailed on a trumped-up charge of sodomy when Anwar called for economic and political reforms in 1998. But he preserved Malaysia’s basic democratic institutions when ethnic resentments threatened to overwhelm them, and he left the country in good shape economically when he retired at the age of 75 in 2001.

It’s unlikely that he ever imagined he would be returning to power at the age of 92.

Like Mahathir, his successors in office came from the United Malays National Organisation, a party claiming to represent the Malay half of the population that has dominated every ruling coalition since 1957. He criticised them from time to time, but he remained a loyal member of UMNO until the flagrant corruption of the last prime minister, Najib Razak, drove him to quit the party in 2016.

Najib’s thievery was big and brazen. $4.5 billion disappeared from a state investment vehicle called 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) on his watch, and $700 million of it ended up in his bank account. (He said that it was a gift from a friend in the Middle East.) Many other people in his government also got large sums of money, but only Najib bought a hundred-metre yacht complete with helicopter pad and movie theatre.

The theft began shortly after Najib won the 2008 election, and by the 2013 election so many Malaysians were aware that something was seriously wrong that the opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim (who had been released from jail in 2004), got a majority of the votes. It didn’t win the election, however, because Malaysia’s first-past-the-post election rules gave Najib’s coalition more seats.

By now the US Department of Justice and the FBI were going after $1.7 billion of 1MBD money that had been spent or hidden in the United States – “The Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale,” said Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe – but Najib just carried on as before.

When Anwar Ibrahim’s support continued to grow, Najib had him arrested, tried on another sodomy charge, and jailed for five years in 2015. The following year Mahathir Mohamad quit the ruling party because he was “embarrassed” by the corruption, and popular protests began in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Najib didn’t even blink.

Last year Najib dismissed his own deputy and the attorney-general for making critical comments about the scandal, and in January the new attorney-general he appointed declared him free of any guilt over the affair. That was when Mahathir Mohamad’s patience ran out, and he declared that he would lead the opposition coalition against Najib in the 2018 election.

He promised that he would immediately get a royal pardon for Anwar Ibrahim if he won, and would hand over the government to Anwar within two years. Although nobody quite trusted him, enough voted for him anyway, and the Malay-dominated coalition led by Najib lost power for the first time in the country’s history.

Mahathir has already sprung Anwar from prison, and the American, Swiss and Singapore authorities are all eager to help him track down where the stolen money went. He even thinks he can recover most of it. And Najib Razak has been ordered not to leave the country pending further investigations into his fortune.

A happy ending to the tale, but there is one more service Mahathir could do for his country, and he is the only person who can do it. Only he has the prestige, and now also the power, to end the special legal position enjoyed by his fellow Malays.

Malays are, on average, more rural, less well educated and poorer than the other half of the country’s population (Chinese, Indian and indigenous people). In an attempt to improve their lot and win their votes, successive Malay-led governments have granted them large educational and commercial privileges.

Perhaps special access for Malays to Malaysia’s crowded universities should remain, although it is irksome to better-qualified students of other groups who are frozen out. But the rule that allows only Malay-led companies to bid on most government contracts is holding the entire economy back and has the main source of corruption for the past six decades. Mahathir could and should kill it.

The four-party coalition he leads includes many Malays but is not dominated by them. At 92, he has no future political ambitions and can afford to annoy the entrenched clan of Malay ‘businessmen’ who live off padded government contracts.

If he acts now, he would give the country a second chance to become what it could be: a prosperous, spectacularly multi-cultural Asian version of Switzerland (without the mountains, of course).
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“By now…before”; and “The four…contracts”)

United States: The Wells Are Poisoned

Donald Trump may not win the election next week – although he is at least going to come close – but even if he loses, the wells are poisoned. Either “Crooked Hillary” becomes president, and spends the next four years fighting off legal challenges and fearing assassination by some of Trump’s more deranged admirers. Or Trump becomes the 45th US president, and the United States becomes the world’s biggest and most dangerous loose cannon.

The race was probably always closer than the opinion polls suggested. The last-minute decision of FBI director James Comey to hint publicly that he MIGHT reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” (his words) use of a private email server when she was secretary of state has undoubtedly made it closer.

Inevitably, the media took this to mean that he HAD reopened the case, and it is hard to believe that he did not act with malice aforethought. As John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, said: “Director Comey’s letter (to Congress) refers to emails that have come to light in an unrelated case, but we have no idea what those emails are, and director himself notes they may not even be significant.”

So what did Comey think he was doing when he sent Congress a letter stating that maybe, when he had the time to look into these emails, and if they turned out to be from or about Mrs Clinton, and if there was new information in them that changed his previous conclusions, then he might consider reopening an investigation against her?

It was contrary to FBI policy to publicly trail a possible investigation like that, and both Comey’s own staff and the US attorney-general advised against it. But Comey was a lifelong Republican until he let his registration lapse some time after he was appointed to the FBI job three years ago by President Obama.

Trump was already claiming that the election was “rigged” against him, and that he might not accept a Clinton victory. Comey has created an equal and opposite likelihood that Democrats will regard a Trump victory as illegitimate, and refuse to accept him as president. Either way, it will be the “birther” conspiracy all over again, but this time in seven-league boots.

This is almost entirely Trump’s fault. With constant lies and threats and personal abuse, he has brought the entire electoral process into disrepute, and the American media have let him get away with it because he was “entertaining”. As Les Moonves, chairman of the CBS television network, admitted eight months ago, when Trump was just starting out: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Many billions of dollars of free publicity later, this ignorant and bombastic “sociopath” – the word that Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s premature autobiography “The Art of the Deal”, uses to describe him – stands on the threshold of great power. And Schwartz, in an interview with The Observer last weekend, was very frightened about the possibility that he would become president.

“Staggeringly dangerous. Worse than I imagined when he began to run….He’s way more out of control in the last couple of months than I’ve ever seen him. He doesn’t have any core beliefs beyond his own aggrandisement and power.” Schwartz didn’t even find it over the top to talk about a Trump presidency in terms of martial law, an end of press freedom, and nuclear war.

We must hope that really is over the top, but we should also bear in mind that Tony Schwartz has probably spent more time actually talking to Donald Trump (while writing the book that launched him as a celebrity) than any other non-family adult has done in the past thirty years.

But the omens are not good if Trump loses the election either, because that doesn’t mean that Clinton wins it. At least not for the very large chunk of the American population who will have voted for The Donald.

Hillary Clinton would have to preside over a bitterly divided country in which almost half the population believe she has stolen the presidency – and there is a strong possibility that Trump would start sending out coded calls for violence.

He already did this once, in August, when he was whipping up a crowd with accusations that Clinton would override the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which most gun-owners believe enshrines the right of American citizens to own weapons.

If Clinton created a majority in favour of gun control on the US Supreme Court, Trump warned the audience, then that’s it: “Nothing you can do, folks.” The pro-gun crowd started to boo, and after a little hesitation Trump added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Like most public incitements to violence, it was veiled and oblique, but it was also unmistakable. It would be heroically optimistic to believe that Trump would not serve up more of the same if he loses the election. One way or another, it is going to be an ugly and frightening time in the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“So…Obama”)