A man attends a protest against a Malaysian government being formed without new elections, at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on February 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

After China finally found an ideology that was relevant to its unique social challenges, its economic transformation over the past decades has been spectacular. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. If anyone visits China now and compares it with developed economies such as the US or the United Kingdom, they will be in awe of what the Chinese have done.

Yet critics and democracy proponents have been slamming China. The hard truth is that democracy in its current form has failed in many economies around the world.

Unrestrained corruption, cronyism and nepotism have resulted in many of them underperforming, compromised by party politics and a growing income disparity that is making the poor poorer and the rich richer. This is just untenable.

With the US presidential election taking place in November, it is imperative for the Americans to take a hard look at its current state of affairs and decide if the party politics of the Democrats and the Republicans defines their democracy.

Democracy has been hijacked by unscrupulous politicians and it is hurting the very people that it was supposed to protect. To stay relevant, democracy must be reformed holistically to address such new realities.

Democratic malice in Malaysia

Malaysia has been plagued by the fallout from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Beside the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars, the credibility of the country also took a massive hit. The people, together with some non-governmental organizations, protested. May 2018 thus became the critical milestone of real democratic change in Malaysia.

At that time, a new coalition was voted into parliament and its primary purpose, under a new social compact, was to initiate critical reforms at every level of the public sector so as to curtail any potential exploitation by unscrupulous politicians that might lead to a repeat of the 1MDB crisis.

There is no room for party or money politics if the well-being of Malaysia is to come first, and this underpinned the new social compact between the people and the new government.

With the potential loss of billions in easy money, lucrative contracts and kickbacks at stake, this meant that Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister before the recent upheaval, had to take on many powerful opponents, both within Malaysia and also some from outside of the country. Change is a dangerous business even for the world’s oldest statesman, as evident by the recent upheaval where power changes every other day.

Many democracies are also suffering from this same malice but unlike Malaysia, they have not been able find anyone who is capable or has the courage to take on these powerful enemies of the people. As such, what is happening in Malaysia now is to be expected. While change can be chaotic, it is inevitable, as nothing good can happen without some discomfort.

The audacious effort to effect real democratic changes placed Malaysia way ahead of the US, the UK and many others.

Change management

Trying to make sense of what is happening in Malaysia these past days can be a challenge as every news event is sensationalized, sometimes to draw readership and other times to confuse that readership. With more politicians waiting to face their time in court and probably prison time, money politics is now at its peak.

From the perspective of change management, the reality is much clearer as everything must be factual and evidence-based, not emotionalized or sensationalized. The truth of the matter is that many of the corrupted politicians have been working overtime for a simple purpose. Mahathir and his reforms had to be derailed at any cost. It is now or never and money is not an issue.

If Mahathir was brought in to effect critical changes so as to reform the country for the good of Malaysians, then the same line of reference must be used now to look at the many changes and reforms that the government has put into action thus far.

Fighting corruption, nepotism and cronyism

To fight corruption, Mahathir had to restore the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and also its Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), which in turn initiated several criminal proceedings against many high-profile individuals.

That included former prime minister Najib Razak, members of his family and others closely associated with him. This is evidence-based reality that the reforms were working and hurting corrupt politicians.

Yet in the US, the recent impeachment proceeding against President Donald Trump was largely a private affair between the Democrats and the Republicans. What the House of Representatives proposed, the Senate could derail.

If both the House and Senate were to collude, then Americans would be victims of the very democracy they had advocated. Is this really what people in a democratic society aspire to these days, when politicians get to control anything and everything?

This contrast is critical. It shows why so many democracies are suffering from serious income disparity where despite working harder, a large part of their population are getting poorer while a small group of elites are getting richer.

It is not meaningful to be blaming unrestrained capitalism or neo-capitalism. The hard truth is that all such malice is the result of unrestrained corruption, cronyism and nepotism. At the center of it all are the corrupt politicians.

Big business of politicking

Without the interference of corrupt and unscrupulous politicians, bureaucrats can restraint capitalism, as they always err on the side of caution to safeguard their citizens. But when politicians are given unrestrained access, they will tinker with their constitution and, in the process, legalize even corruption. This is already happening in many democracies, Asia’s included.

Politics is now probably the single biggest business in the world. Corrupt politicians and interest groups that lobby them with bribes perversely trample even religion, as they have no conscience or sense of morality. That is how powerful and unrestrained corruption has become.

This explains why there are growing protests in dysfunctional democracies around the world where people and unions are fighting to regain their basic right to throw out such wayward politicians.

In this light, the Malaysians should be complimented, as what they have been doing is gaining results. Evidently, these reforms and changes are hurting many corrupt politicians and their cronies, and explain why they used money politics and high-powered connections to stop Mahathir and his reforms before they found themselves behind bars.

The inevitability of political impasses

Like in business management, change requires political leadership and collective consensus. Malaysia has both. When progress reaches a critical crossroads, the chief executive will have to go to the board and let shareholders decide if they want to bring it to the next level and address any pressing issues.

If the board decides to proceed with the reform, they must also address any underlying issue before returning the mandate back to their chief executive. Only then can the CEO get back to the business of real reform and not be distracted or undermined by any party politics or agenda.

This helps to explain why Mahathir decided to thrust the reform back to the people by resigning. Trust would have been lost if he had allowed any political pacts between the coalition partners to take precedent over the existing social compact. 

Can Malaysia be the catalyst to progressive democracy?

Party politics, money politics and dirty politics are the new scourges that kill the souls of many nations and rob the people of their basic rights to live meaningfully or be economically viable. Malaysians, their NGOs and the new government have done much to quarantine these scourges.

At this critical crossroads, if they still aspire for real change and reform, then they must return to the basic line of questioning. If Mahathir was brought in to effect these critical changes so as to reform the country for the good of Malaysians, then they have to continue to find ways to empower him so that he can focus on the job at hand, prepare the next generation of leaders and not be disrupted by corrupt politicians.

The economic fundamentals of Malaysia are still strong. If it can weather this political storm and come out united and as desired, then it may just be an inspiring case study for many other faltering democracies seeking to effect desirable changes.

Corrupted and rogue politicians must be stopped in every democracy, especially in the US, the primary champion of democracy. As such, there is a pressing need for a real case study to galvanize the quest to move real democratic reform forward.

If Malaysians can garner their collective resolve to fight against the enemies of their people who are corrupting their democratic system, then Malaysia may just be the catalyst of change for other democracies.

Joseph Nathan has been the principal consultant with several consultancy agencies in Singapore for the past 28 years. For Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, he undertakes consultancy via JN Advisory (M) Sdn Bhd. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia.