The breakout of real democracy in a Muslim-majority Asian country has gone largely unnoticed here in Washington, but we ignore it at our own peril. Malaysia’s fragile democratic experiment is a crucial opportunity for the United States to prove its commitment to its own values and to win a key battle in the strategic competition with China.
Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting, emerged from more than a decade of wrongful imprisonment last year and joined forces with his jailer Mahathir Mohamad to toss out Najib Razak, whose tenure as Malaysia’s leader broke records for corruption and authoritarian tendencies. Overcoming rigged elections, the Mahathir-Anwar coalition peacefully took control of the government by promoting a platform based on ethnic diversity, reform, accountability and social justice.
The 93-year old Mahathir, now the prime minister, has promised to hand over the post to Anwar and step aside within two years. Pending his long-awaited turn in power, Anwar has been touring the world, urging support for a new type of government and politics in Malaysia and the region. He is baffled that the issue is not more of a priority here in Washington, he told me during an interview.
“I think you should look at the broader picture. We are democrats, we are true to the ideals of the United States,” Anwar said. “I’m proud to say the change is quite indigenous. But having said that, now having achieved some measure of success, you should support that.”
Anwar said the new Malaysian government is beset by challenges on all sides. Huge debt, empty public coffers and the burden placed on the government by the continuing saga surrounding Najib, whose corruption trial was delayed this week. Najib faces more than 40 charges, mostly related to his alleged involvement in the theft of $4.5 billion from a government fund he controlled called 1MDB.
The 1MDB scandal is so massive, it has sparked investigations into executives and officials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, giving those governments motive to defend Najib, their longtime ally. The Chinese government is also heavily invested in Najib, having worked with him to strike huge infrastructure projects that the new government is halting or investigating because of predatory terms and even more alleged corruption.
Mahathir is already realigning Malaysia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; he shut down a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism center and is pulling Malaysian troops out of Saudi Arabia because of the conflict in Yemen. Mahathir has been more cautious about criticizing China publicly.
Anwar has no problem criticizing China on one huge issue: the Chinese Communist Party’s internment of up to two million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang province without cause or due process.
“China must explain,” he said. “I think this is a tragedy not only for the Uighurs but also for the Muslim world. You can’t say one million people are all perpetrators of terror. The problem is most countries are quite muted.”
Most Muslim countries can’t speak up to Beijing on behalf of the Muslim Uighurs because they have poor records of mistreating their own citizens, Anwar said.
“There’s a problem of governance and accountability in the Muslim world,” he said. “I think China would say, if [Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi] were to bring it up, ‘Why don’t you look in your own backyard.’ “
At Canada’s Embassy on Monday night, Anwar gave his longer pitch for using democracy and capitalism mixed with social justice to push back on the current trend of rising nationalism, extremism and authoritarianism. He warned against authoritarians that use the “trappings of democracy” to lull the free world into complicity.
“The ambivalence of advanced democracies in light of these clear abuses of power along with the tacit approval of the corporate sector and other international institutions is quite distressing,” Anwar said during his speech, which was hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy. “The survival of autocrats and dictators is largely due to the tacit approval of the West. This is a fact not lost on the people suffering under these regimes.”
During our interview, Anwar criticized the inconsistency, contradiction and arrogance of U.S. foreign policy, going back decades but continuing to this day. He said the Malaysian people have watched U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump support autocratic rulers while paying only occasional attention to human rights and democratic values.
What Malaysia needs from the West right now, according to Anwar, is not public interference but, rather, substantive support: more development assistance, more investment, more security cooperation, more training, and more help with good governance, justice and accountability to help settle the past and move on to the future.
A truly democratic Malaysia might not always align with U.S. policy. Some in Washington are concerned about Anwar’s closeness to Islamist leaders in Turkey and Qatar. Mahathir’s government has closer relations with Hamas than Israel.
But there’s a reason autocratic regimes such as China and Saudi Arabia still ally themselves with those forces inside Malaysia who want it to turn back to authoritarianism. Their interests are aligned – and opposed to ours.
The United States must support those who are trying to uphold the international system based on rule of law, open markets, human rights and democracy – because that system is what gives us the strategic advantage. Preserving it is the only way to preserve our own security, prosperity and freedom.
I asked Anwar what he thought about the fact that the forces of authoritarianism, nationalism and extremism are on the rise while the free and open societies seem to be losing.
“In Malaysia, we won,” he said with a smile. He then quickly added, “It’s not over.”