Mohamad Hasan, or Tok Mat as he is popularly known, is UMNO’s deputy president, a member of the party’s supreme council, and an assemblyman for the Rantau state constituency. Photo: Twitter / Malay Mail

In an exclusive interview published by Asia Times this week, veteran Malaysian politician Mohamad Hasan unmistakably presented himself in the guise of a modernizer for his country’s development. 

In his role as deputy president of the ruling United Malays National Organization, Mohamad (or Tok Mat for short) arguably poses a threat to the UMNO establishment, which is barren of ideas. 

As a critical member of such an establishment, Tok Mat’s ideas and decision to speak out against criminally convicted former prime minister Najib Razak in our interview will be seen as a threat.  

It would be wrong perhaps to liken him to a Tony Blair, but in my view Tok Mat presents a vision for Malaysia that emphasizes probity rather than entrenched corruption, and economic openness rather than introverted distractions and poor economic governance and control. 

This is the importance of the interview he gave me and Asia Times. Tok Mat spoke with a frankness to me, a British journalist, that has sent shockwaves through Malaysia since the story’s publication. As a British author specializing in corruption and white-collar crime, he was talking to the right person. I was all ears!

Tok Mat knows much about the needs of industry and competitiveness, as he was once a highly successful car-industry executive. 

Media have of course picked up on Tok Mat’s comments on former prime minister Najib and on the damage he wreaked on the country by the 1MDB scandal that he oversaw (and was eventually punished for). In fact, that is only part of Tok Mat’s message. 

The key part of the discussion, which we plan to write about in more detail in upcoming stories, is the country’s need to attract foreign investment, to compete with its neighbors, to create and build new industries, to develop skills and training. He also wants the country to deal with those perpetrating human trafficking and engaged in the narcotics and other illegal trades. 

In short, his message is to modernize the Malaysian economy root and branch to bring and distribute prosperity. This should be a highly popular message on which people should be focusing were it not for an obsession with personalities and for a cynicism that, frankly, turns to UMNO’s history and reputation. 

For many, Tok Mat is articulating vapidly. They ask, what has he (or his colleagues) ever done to put into practice these fine words? When did he ever resign in principle over the action of people he is now criticizing? He may be talking the right sort of talk for an ambitious politicians looking for a new line, but what has he ever done to walk the walk?

The cynics will say that Najib is an easy target, especially as he is now building a political cult around his name and story in his attempt to smash his chains Houdini-like, flee his conviction in one bound and return to probity. 

At the best this looks embarrassing, at the worst a cynical ploy. Yet many are attracted to the strongman, “Bossku” or “Our Boss” as he is known, who can defy every vestige of protocol and propriety. Talking about personalities feeds the gossip columns and diverts minds from the real issues. 

Tok Mat, the born-again “modernizer,” says that the real break the country needs is to shake off its poor economic practices that obstruct investors from giving Malaysia their support and their funds. Najib is mere detritus, the legacy of a malign history whose stench still pollutes the air of Kuala Lumpur. The country needs some air freshener, some detergent to wash away the bad smell that hangs still over the country.

If only it were so simple!

As a journalist who interviewed Tony Blair in London back in the 1980s, before he became prime minister, I vividly recall his message. It was to throw out the red tape, the obstructions to trade, to prosperity. This is now Tok Mat’s message. Embrace modernity, banish bad practices, sweep with a new broom, clean out the Augean stables. 

Corruption is the hindrance to Malaysia’s open economy. When individuals create fake companies to steal from the state, pay and receive bribes secretly and manipulate decisions for their own benefit not that of the larger society, the population loses out economically. Cynicism of politicians increases. 

Perhaps worse than that is the damage to Malaysia’s reputation. Tok Mat makes much about his upset over the damage to the country’s reputation in the world, when it is associated with the taint of corruption. It hurts the economy. News of 1MDB spread like wildfire, he moans, to the detriment of Malaysia, while its perpetrators play with the Malaysian system of justice. 

The other loser from the taint of corruption is his party, UMNO. That troubles Tok Mat, who is a party apparatchik and key fixer. The foul smell of 1MDB in the case of Najib, and the multiple corruption cases that party president Ahmad Zahid is fighting, soil the UMNO name, as far as the deputy chairman is concerned.  

Many would argue that UMNO’s name has suffered many other blows from corruption among its leaders over the 62 years of its existence. The party’s racial exclusivism adds to its gross offensiveness for these critics. That is not the problem for Tok Mat, who bemoans the damage to UMNO’s reputation from Najib’s protracted, indeed interminable fight to find a loophole to overturn his conviction, and Zahid’s own barrage of cases. 

Pragmatism is the name of Tok Mat’s game. He sent Najib to play (highly successfully) to the UMNO party faithful in Melaka and Johor for their state elections, knowing that voters would at best overlook his conviction and at worst see it as an example of the former leader’s willingness to take on the legal establishment.

Tok Mat understands the value of assets (such as Najib’s reputation among the diehard UMNO followers), and he will put it to the use of the party. 

Whether Najib will be so readily available to pick up the phone when Tok Mat next calls asking for his help to support UMNO in an election is another issue. Tok Mat has opened a fault line in the party that won’t heal in a hurry. The pragmatist has made a cunning call that might lead him to the top spot in government.

Whatever the case, and for whatever motives, he set out a modernizing agenda that Malaysia’s leaders cannot close their ears to. 

Whether UMNO can throw off the shackles of the past to be the modernizing agent that Tok Mat advocates is still to be seen. That this establishment bastion has pushed out some new ideas has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. For many, the political agenda will never be the same again. 

Follow Nick Kochan on Twitter @NickKochan.

Nick Kochan

Nick Kochan is a financial and political journalist based in London. He has written extensively on financial and white-collar crime. He writes for UK newspapers and international magazines, and has written and co-written books. Kochan is also a lecturer and conference speaker on financial crime and politics.