Who Cares About 1MDB When Bridges Are Collapsing?

Corruption doesn’t resonate the way it used to in Malaysia, as jobs, the economy and Covid-19 top voters’ concerns.

AS a jury in Brooklyn weighed the fate of a former banker accused of conspiring to loot a Malaysian state fund, villagers about an hour’s drive from the country’s power center, Kuala Lumpur, had a more parochial concern.

A bridge in a coastal settlement in Kuala Selangor — a politically contested region — had collapsed in 2019. Despite politicians’ promises, it lays in ruin.  That bridge is vital to the fishing community, according to Muhammad Zabar bin Arssad (picture), who has lived in the area for all his 63 years. Far more important to livelihoods than anything transpiring in a New York courtroom. “1MDB is an urban conversation, something for people in KL to talk about,” he said, referring to Kuala Lumpur. “It doesn’t really matter here. The bridge does matter.”

His perspective is vital to understanding the disconnect between worldwide disgust at the scandal — in which billions of dollars were looted from 1Malaysia Development Bhd. — and recent gains by the party that governed Malaysia when the pillaging occurred. Those electoral advances reflect the current state of ambivalence in the Southeast Asian nation. What was once frustration has given way to resignation: Covid persists and the economic recovery has lagged behind neighbors. Clean government matters but jobs and health care matter more. Handouts come with the territory.

The 1MDB scandal was about as consequential as you could get in 2018, when opposition parties joined forces and swept Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organization from power for the first time in seven decades. Najib, who was subsequently convicted of corruption and is appealing, has rebuilt his base and is again a plausible candidate for high office. 1MDB is increasingly yesterday’s news. The bloc elected in 2018 amid a flowering of reformist hopes splintered two years later and, in a twist of parliamentary intrigue, was returned to the opposition. UMNO is back in office as part of a new conservative coalition. Recent contests in the states of Johor and Melaka produced strong results. Najib starred in those campaigns.

The trial of Roger Ng, the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker who was found guilty last week, was dutifully reported by Malaysian media. (Goldman arranged some bond deals for 1MDB.) But the coverage had a perfunctory feel to it. Front pages in the domestic press last week expressed outrage not at the people behind 1MDB, but at Singaporeans driving across the border to fill up on subsidized gas. Najib has latched on to the issue. “Najib has created an aura or an impression that the wind is blowing his way,” said Ei Sun Oh, principal adviser at Pacific Research Center, and a former aide to Najib. “After the pandemic, people are poor and his message is: I will take care of you.”

Though long an UMNO backer, Muhammad in Kuala Selangor said people were prepared to give the opposition a chance in 2018 because it was led by Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian ex-premier who came out of retirement to challenge Najib. “People thought Mahathir did a good job the first time. I liked him myself, but I was shocked at the chaos that followed his resignation.”

A few hundred meters away, Lim Chon Kiat, a fishmonger of Chinese descent, laments the fall of the Mahathir coalition two years ago. “There are some villagers who don’t know what 1MDB is, but most people have heard of it,” said Lim, a supporter of what’s now the opposition. “Corruption was an issue then. It still matters now.” Without Mahathir at the helm, the opposition does have a harder sell, he concedes.

That bloc’s current leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is now the politician under pressure. Anwar claimed in late 2020 that he had the numbers to form a government. He never got the chance to test that assertion on the floor of the lower house, where the person who commands a majority gets to lead the country. Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance, or PH, has struggled in recent state polls.

Barring an upset, the government assembled after the next election will be composed of UMNO and at least one other major party. The chances of an outright win by the opposition are slim unless something major happens to alter the dynamics. That’s bad news for Kuala Selangor incumbent member Dzulkefly Ahmad, who won the seat for PH in 2018, wresting it from Najib’s UMNO.

It’s one thing to have an issue that galvanizes voters. It’s quite another to be able to peddle it. Najib, ultimately, is proving a better salesman. Even after his national defeat four years ago, he matters to conservative ethnic Malay voters in the way Donald Trump remains a force after his 2020 loss.

Unlike Trump, though, Najib still holds electoral office. I wouldn’t bet against him. — Bloomberg