US seeks allied regime in Malaysia as millions funnelled to opposition

Nile Bowie
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. Originally from New York City, he has lived in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly a decade and was previously a columnist with the Malaysian Reserve newspaper, in addition to working actively in non-governmental organisations and creative industries. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.
US seeks allied regime in Malaysia as millions funnelled to opposition
As Malaysia gears up for its most critical general election ever, a prominent opposition figure has come forward with allegations American foundations organized protest rallies and channelled funds to opposition political parties.

In early May 2013, Malaysia will face its most competitive political battle since its independence in the form of an election that pits Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has governed the country since 1957, against the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition that has received extensive training and backing from US government-funded foundations.

Washington has often seen Malaysia’s leaders as stubborn, and as the unpopularity of the ruling coalition increases, organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have significantly greased the wheels to improve the US-friendly opposition’s chances of coming to power through multi-faceted media campaigns and support for anti-government street demonstrations.

On one side, Malaysia’s former PM Dr. Mahathir Mohamad often caught the ire of Washington for his unceasing criticism of Israel and US foreign policy, while the incumbent PM Najib Razak has toned down the rhetoric and has pursued a business friendly approach with the West, while deepening economic ties with China.

On the other side, de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who formerly served as Deputy PM under Mahathir’s government, leans closely to the United States.

During his political tenure, Anwar was sacked for implementing IMF austerity measures while Mahathir spearheaded Malaysia’s recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis through currency controls and protectionist measures. After his political fall, he served as Chairman of the Development Committee of the World Bank and IMF in 1998, and later chaired the Washington-based Foundation for the Future, a US-funded think-tank established by Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the former US Vice President. Anwar enraged many in Muslim-majority Malaysia when he stated that he would support a policy to protect the security of Israel in an interview with the Wall Street Journal – a stark contrast to the ruling coalitions’ firm stance in support of Palestine. Anwar’s unique credentials and close ties to the US political and financial establishment make him undeniably preferred in Washington

The National Endowment for Democracy or NED, is a Washington-based foundation that supports democratic initiatives and US-friendly opposition groups abroad, provides over $1 million to various projects in Malaysia each year. The NED has regularly come under fire because of the overtly political nature of its programs, and because senior US political figures have leading roles in the foundation.

In addition to funding electoral watchdogs, human rights monitors and news websites that slant toward the opposition, the International Republican Institute has received millions for its Malaysian programs, which assist “political parties and their associated think tanks in being effective representatives of their constituencies.” IRI is chaired by conservative Senator John McCain, known for his extremely aggressive position in favor of Israel and US conflicts overseas, while other leading figures have held senior foreign policy positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations. “IRI works in countries important to U.S. interests, where we can make a difference… IRI focuses on three tasks: helping political parties broaden their appeal, ensuring that they rule justly once elected and aiding civil society in guaranteeing good governance… IRI can help catalyze the efforts of democratic activists in a country -- so long as they want change more than we want it for them,” writes IRI’s president, Lorne Craner, who previously held a position in the US State Department.

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs also receives a huge budget for their Malaysian projects. Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, a famous cheerleader for American exceptionalism and NATO militarism, chairs NDI. In addition, both former US Senator Thomas Daschle and former AIPAC director Kenneth Wollack have high positions in NDI. Malaysia’s opposition coalition won historic gains in the 2008 elections and took control of key states such as Penang and Selangor. According to the NED’s website, IRI received $802,122 in 2010 to work with“state leaders in Penang and Selangor to provide them with public opinion research, training and other resources to enable them to be more effective representatives of their constituents”. IRI claims that it “does not provide direct funding to political parties” in Malaysia, but their lack of transparency, significant budget and emphasis on helping broaden the appeal of political parties in opposition-held states suggests at the very minimum that funding is taking place indirectly.

NED is funded primarily through the US Congress, within the budget of USAID, the US agency for development assistance, which is part of the US State Department – this means that the money NED gives to foreign countries comes from public funds paid by US taxpayers. Funding mostly flows to its two main component parties, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). NED is required to publish its financial disbursements, but this doesn't apply to the smaller foundations that it in turn finances, such as the IRI and NDI, both the main recipients of funding in Malaysia.

According to the NDI’s official website, it conducts “state-level parliamentary workshops in Selangor and Penang” because “opposition parties have had limited experience in government, many of the parliamentarians elected in 2008 lacked a fundamental understanding of parliamentary processes and of representing constituent concerns.” Starting from 2007, Malaysians have shown support for Bersih, an electoral watchdog group known as the ‘Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.’ Bersih has organized rallies calling for electoral reform, which many criticized as being as thinly veiled anti-government protests due to the participation of key opposition figures. Bersih coalition leader Ambiga Sreenevasan, recipient of the US State Department’s Award for International Women of Courage, has under pressure conceded that Bersih accepted funds from US government-linked foundations such as NDI, and the Open Society Institute, headed by billionaire financier George Soros. Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, a Malaysian senator and former opposition figure, has recently issued statements detailing American involvement in funding and organizing the Bersih rallies.

Aziz said that Americans from US-based foundations were calling the shots and outlining the functions and operations of Bersih. “In the meeting, I was offered to head the watchdog because they said I have the credentials, integrity and credibility for the post. They told me that the movement was to ensure free and fair elections in the country,” said Tunku Aziz, disclosing that he was offered some $4,000 monthly plus other perks and allowances for his position. Aziz also accused Malaysia’s opposition leader of using Bersih to channel support to his political campaign, “Anwar makes good use of his international networking to get these funds. I don’t know whether Bersih leaders knew it or not. But Bersih is Anwar’s vehicle to receive international funds under the guise of democracy and free and fair elections. Bersih is not a non-partisan independent organisation. It’s Anwar’s baby.” Aziz resisted overseas funding because he claims it compromises national integrity and dignity. “Local organisations should justify their existence to Malaysians, not to foreigners. Local organisations should not owe their existence and allegiance to foreigners,” he stressed.

Upon closer examination of the language used by these foundations, when they claim to be working toward “broadening the appeal of political parties,” a critical question comes to mind – when does so-called ‘democracy-promotion’ become political interference? The work of the NED has ostensibly blurred the line between the two, while masking their overt backing for actors they support in the benign language of electoral transparency, freedom and the promotion of human rights. Malaysia’s ruling coalition is far from perfect – it is unwilling to address issues of high-level corruption, elite opulence remains a huge problem, and racial minorities feel animosity over ethnic-based affirmative action policies that favor the Muslim majority. The opposition coalition, which has vowed to eliminate authoritarianism and elite graft, has released a manifesto that some have lauded, while others have been more skeptical of. NED does not conduct a single democracy initiative in neighboring US-ally Singapore, despite having a less democratic environment than that of Malaysia – so what could be motivating Washington to spend so much attention on supporting Malaysia’s opposition coalition?

Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room – the real purpose of America’s resurgence of interest in the ASEAN bloc is to fortify the region as a counterweight against Beijing. PM Najib Razak has attached primary importance to Malaysia’s relationship with China, as he looked to Beijing to revive Malaysia's export-oriented economy after the 2008 global financial crisis. Sino-Malaysian exchange in areas such as finance, infrastructure development, science and technology, and education have never been higher. China has been Malaysia's largest trade partner, with trade figures reaching $90 billion in 2011 while Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner among ASEAN nations. Washington’s backing for Malaysia’s US-friendly opposition must be seen in the context of its moves to bolster its military muscle and dominance over the Asia-Pacific region in line with its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. Malaysia has sovereign rights over the Straits of Malacca, China’s most critical supply routes that transport oil and other materials vital to its continued economic development. Aside from its strategic location, Malaysia has a booming economy that averages around 7 percent annual growth, it is the world’s third largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) after Qatar and Indonesia, and the country has holds over 4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

Malaysia is a key player in Southeast Asia, and Washington is doing what it can to tip the scale in favor of the opposition after its success in the 2008 elections. In 2013, the opposition coalition is relying on votes from those dissatisfied with the status quo and a large demographic of young voters who want to challenge the ruling coalition’s infallibility at the polls. Under the watch of the ruling coalition, Malaysia was transformed from an exporter of rubber and tin into a key industrial player with a strong domestic automobile industry. The ruling coalition has overseen stable economic growth, while promising 3.3 million new jobs in the high-income sector and attracting multi-million dollar investments. As critical elections loom in the country and critics ask whether the untested opposition is able to guarantee continued growth, voters deliberating between the ruling coalition and the opposition will also indirectly be choosing between China and the US. The results of the upcoming election are expected to be the closest ever, and the potential for political turbulence is at an all-time high. The millions that have been funnelled to Malaysia’s opposition is proof that Washington has a regional agenda of its own.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.