People power challenges Malaysia’s PM, but change from within most likely

Street protests in Kuala Lumpur have increased the pressure on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. The scandal centres on debt-laden national investment vehicle 1MDB on the one hand and a mysterious transfer of RM2.6 billion (US$700 million) into one of Najib’s personal bank accounts on the other.

The protests were organised under the banner of the Bersih (Clean) organisation. Bersih has long campaigned for electoral reform, including a previous round of street protests in 2012.

The demonstrations are a potent manifestation of the scale of disillusionment with the government. The protesters scored a publicity coup when nonagenarian former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad briefly joined them. Najib and his political party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), however, retain significant support among some sectors of society, principally rural ethnic Malays. Continue reading

Did naked tourists cause the Sabah earthquake?

Shortly before the Sabah earthquake that has claimed the lives of around a dozen climbers on Mount Kinabalu, a group of European tourists posed nude at the summit. Joseph Pairin Kitingan, the Deputy Chief Minister of the state and Huguan Siou (paramount leader) of the local Kadazandusun ethnic groups has publicly blamed these tourists for the earthquake, stating that they awoke the wrath of the mountain spirit.

Why would Pairin, a Christian lawyer who studied at Adelaide University, make such an apparently ludicrous claim? Certainly, this claim has been circulating the internet since the pictures of the tourists emerged. But to understand the particular sensitivity of this act, we need to place it within its local political context, where ethnic revivalism is as much a political as a cultural phenomenon. Continue reading