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.
Lack of leadership unfortunately goes beyond one man. The king, Abdullah Ahmad Shah, has signaled that his support for current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's cabinet is tenuous, admonishing lawmakers to approve the budget for 2021. Last Sunday, he denied Muhyiddin's plea to sign off on a state-of-emergency declaration. The prime minister would have obtained funding and other rule-making powers by executive order — not an insane idea, given the deep recession and surge in Covid-19 infections. The more corrosive impact would have been effectively freezing challenges to Muhyiddin by suspending parliament, where he holds a wavering, paper-thin majority.
Unlike neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines, politics in Malaysia seems unable to throw up newcomers or mold-breakers. Flawed as they are, presidents Joko Widodo and Rodrigo Duterte testify to the abilities of their respective countries to renew leadership. Should Muhyiddin be toppled in coming weeks, Malaysia would be on its fourth government in three years. That's a dramatic shift, given that one bloc led from independence in 1957 until 2018.
Malaysia seems to be stuck in 1998, and the great political and economic upheaval of the Asian financial crisis. Anwar Ibrahim, who was struck down as Mahathir's heir-apparent back then, always seems to be on the cusp of becoming prime minister, only to stumble — or be jailed. He's making another gambit. Najib Razak, the former premier convicted of corruption in the 1MDB scandal, remains a force within the leading political party. They're all of a younger generation than Mahathir, but it's hardly a victory for youth; Muhyiddin is 73.
There's far more to Malaysia's woes than Mahathir spouting bigotry, or his infighting with rivals and the monarchy (whose power he curbed in the 1980s, earning undying grudges that helped nudge him out in March). As I wrote in March, Malaysian society is riven in ways redolent of Brexit and Donald Trump. Once among Southeast Asia's most stable and prospering nations, deep cleavages have opened up around urban and rural populations, the politics of race and faith, and degrees of comfort with globalization.
The current intrigue can be traced to flaws in the country's design. In the years after World War II, a depleted U.K. was eager to shed colonies as quickly as possible. In Malaysia, power was to be shared between secular nationalist elected leaders and the traditional rulers. Under this compromise, the royals kept reserve powers and a degree of cultural and religious authority. Executive government lay with the prime minister. The North Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah — demographically and religiously more diverse than the peninsula — joined in 1963, along with Singapore, which left two years later.
These jigsaw pieces held together as long as there was rapid economic growth and one dominant political party, the United Malays National Organization, that reflected majority opinion among ethnic Malays. They get stacks of privileges, especially in government and state programs, while citizens of minority Chinese descent have historically controlled much private sector wealth.
Those conditions no longer exist; the country has evolved even if politics hasn't. Najib led UMNO to its first defeat, in large part because of the stench of graft hanging over his tenure. Far from being a leader in Southeast Asia, the country increasingly seems to be in thrall to China and the Gulf states. Sabah and Sarawak are flexing their muscles, wanting a greater say over their own affairs and more revenue from oil drilling in their waters. Islamic fundamentalists are well-entrenched and have made steady inroads into the hold of secular parties.
That means that players like Mahathir are prone to dog whistles. Malaysia isn't a failed state, but the process of descent has begun. Covid-19 has stripped away the economic growth that used to paper it over. The flailing structures of state and their inconsistencies are there for all to see. Without a public health emergency and the deepest economic hole in decades, the slumber at the helm would be sad. In the pandemic era, it's tragic.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement