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Governance the Mahathir way?


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The world watched in awe as just two months after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was elected his predecessor was arrested this week. The rapid progress has focused international attention on Malaysia’s new government to demonstrate its commitment to political transparency as the criminal case of former scandal-ridden ruler Najib Razak gets underway and provided a benchmark to other governments on how to achieve results on their own anti-corruption pledges.  

Najib’s Tuesday arrest and subsequent charges — three criminal breach of trust counts and one offense of abuse of power — are a major development in a multibillion-dollar corruption case that’s stained the country’s image for years. According to international reports the charges are related to $ 10.6 million that was deposited into Najib’s personal bank account from a former unit of state investment fund 1MDB — a small fraction of the total $ 4.5 billion that the US Justice Department says was misappropriated from 1MDB.

The 1MDB case is seen as a way for Mahathir to uphold his campaign pledges of restoring rule of law and abolishing graft in a country where deeply rooted patronage and cronyism have stymied economic and political reforms. To boost the country’s health, its imperative for Mahathir’s team to show that the premier’s office will no longer be exploited, experts have said. 

This rapid movement by the Mahathir Government, just two months after assuming office, to arrest a former Prime Minister no less, shows the incredible importance of political will and its integral part in governance. Mahathir despite his advanced age and criticisms over his own previous rule is still smart enough to understand that in order to hold onto the ground swell of support that swept him into power he most deliver results – fast. 

It is this kind of decisive action that Sri Lanka’s public has also been hankering after for the past three years with limited results. Politicians that are swept into power on a platform of good governance cannot afford to allow “business as usual” to flourish under their watch. They are expected to disrupt the process decisively and quickly and to, more than anything else, present tangible results. 

Obviously the Najib-Mahathir saga is far from over. Najib’s legal proceeding is seen as a test for the new government to see how they are carrying out the rule of law. From the perspective of the investment community, this has to be seen as a positive sign because it shows mettle and a willingness to address underlying problems. 

The troubles of 1MDB have not only dented Kuala Lumpur’s reputation with foreign investors, they’ve worsened government coffers — national debt was found to be almost 60% higher than previous estimates due to previously hidden liabilities related to 1MDB. 

Some critics called Tuesday’s arrest “politically motivated” given the long-standing animosity between Najib and Mahathir. What is interesting is that while the case is inherently political the new Government has not come under fire for staging a political witch hunt. This is partly because Najib’s future is now entirely in the hands of the courts and the arrest happened at the start of a term when the public are much more open to change. Perhaps the most crucial aspect is that much of the public believe that a crime was committed and wish to see justice done. A government that is smart enough to understand and tap into these dynamics is usually able to hold its popularity and ultimately power. Sri Lankan politicians would do well to take note.


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