Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad became internationally known in 1997 when he blamed Wall Street and Jewish bankers for deliberately causing the Southeast Asian Financial Crisis. He viewed every drop in the Malaysian stock market and value of the Ringgit as a global conspiracy. He stridently denounced foreign intervention and meddling in Malaysia’s domestic affairs. Now, however, he may be seeing some utility in foreign pressure being brought to bear on Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Ironies abound!

"I did not ask any foreign governments to interfere. I said that all the means to redress in this country has been shut down by Najib (Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak).

"So, I will tell the foreign press about this," the former prime minister told reporters after attending the Human Life Advancement Foundation Forum on Nation Building in early April.

Mahathir is referring to international investigations that are underway to look into the 1MDB scandal and the possible misuse of US, Singaporean, and European banks to transfer funds.  1MDB is the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, a government run (and heavily indebted) sovereign wealth fund from which $681 million was transferred in to Najib’s personal accounts.  Najib claims the money in his account was a gift from the Saudi royal family for his re-election campaign and most of the money has found its way back into the 1MDB.   Attorney General Apandi Ali has tried to put the scandal to rest and has shut down an inquiry by the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission.  But, foreign investigations are proceeding on a variety of issues.  France, Switzerland, the US, and Singapore are all probing different Malaysian financial dealings, some of which involve Najib directly, some of which do not.   Now that the focus is not on himself and his allies but is on Najib, Mahathir has acknowledged that international pressure from financial watchdog agencies and from the foreign press might be useful in continuing to put pressure on the discredited (but-still-clinging-to-power) Najib.

Prime Minister Najib Razak is also facing continued pressure from some factions within his own party, political opponents, and Malaysian society at large. In response, Najib’s government has increased repression, purging opponents and using draconian laws to shut down critics.

The second irony is the common cause which now exists between elder statesman Mahathir and opposition forces in Malaysia.  When in office, Mahathir was not shy about using the security apparatus and the legal system against his opponents.  Now, however, Mahathir has joined opposition rallies and protests in the capital.  Most recently, an alliance of sorts has formed among former political antagonists: Dr. Mahathir has met with leaders of the reformasi movement (from 1999), along with disgruntled party leaders from UMNO, civil society activists from Bersiah (an organized umbrella group which has held rallies and activities to demand cleaner and more transparent governance and elections), and leaders of opposition parties and this diverse group has signed a Citizen’s Declaration against  Najib.  The Declaration calls for political reform.

While the impetus for this gathering has been the immediate scandal surrounding Najib, there is a larger point to this unusual confab which is the deep skepticism that the country can just muddle its way through this crisis.  Malaysia’s economy is too dependent on natural resources and the slowdown in China’s growth, coupled with continued slow growth in Europe, along with the prolonged scandal which has spooked international and domestic investors has resulted in a weak economic forecast for the country.

The third irony is that this whole situation has produced an internal security dilemma.  In response to the increased criticism from a wider array of voices inside and outside of Malaysia, Najib’s government has intensified censorship on multiple media outlets, made overtures to the conservative wing of the Islamist party PAS, and (taking a page from Mahathir himself in the 1990s) portrayed the Declaration as a conspiracy to topple the government — measures that have only deepened the ongoing crisis of confidence with the Prime Minister.

As long as Najib clings to power, these conflicts seem unlikely to be resolved.  However, there is a possibility that if Najib steps aside, that meaningful political reform could be on the agenda.