If Malaysian leader Najib Razak thought he already had problems at home, now he also needs to worry about a "Jokowi effect" spreading from neighbouring Indonesia. Last Monday, fresh-faced Joko "Jokowi" Widodo took the helm of the world's fourth-most-populous nation. Throughout Southeast Asia, young voters have been gripped by the rise of this small businessman – effectively a nobody – to his nation's highest office. Jokowi isn't the scion of any political dynasty or wealthy family, the normal routes to power in Southeast Asia. He's a self-made outsider known for hands-on solutions and personal incorruptibility.
Voters have to ask themselves why Jokowi's story can't be replicated in their own countries, many of which are crying out for more credible, effective leaders. Najib has particular reason to be concerned. His personal background – as the son of Malaysia's 1970s Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein – is one of privilege. More importantly, even as hopes rise that Indonesia might finally achieve its true growth potential, Malaysia seems consumed by petty political infighting and religious small-mindedness.
Najib is hardly alone here. If anything, next-door Thailand seems even more paralyzed by political divisions. But Malaysia's failings are especially frustrating because they are so unnecessary.
Consider this: Jokowi is Indonesia's fifth president since dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998, and the second to be elected directly by the nation's 250 million people. In contrast, the political establishment that's controlled Malaysia for six decades is still trying to silence opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Since 1998, Anwar has faced many questionable trials and prison sentences on charges ranging from corruption to sodomy. The latest verdict is due this week – just days after Jokowi publicly buried the hatchet with his political opponents, who pledged to work with him to move Indonesia forward.
Malaysians are understandably angry about surging living costs. Meanwhile, earlier this month, local politicians from Najib's United Malays National Organisation raised a stink about provocative posters for Oktoberfest, which some Muslim groups tried to ban. There's even a debate among some UMNO members about whether Muslims should be allowed to touch dogs.
Even though Malaysia's government is technically secular, religion is increasingly being wielded as a political weapon. This week, a delegation of opposition lawmakers visiting Canberra urged Australia to speak out against creeping Islamization in Malaysia. "In an environment where the state subtly and indirectly endorses criticisms and intimidation against a minority, it is easier for the messages of radical groups like IS to take hold," delegation leader Rafizi Ramli told reporters.
Malaysia cannot afford to get bogged down in such side issues. To increase the country's competitiveness, Najib should have begun scaling back the four-decade-old affirmation action program that favors the ethnic Malay majority; instead, he's expanded it. Malaysian leaders should be striving to improve the investment climate through stronger corporate governance, and expanding education and training to raise productivity. Subsidies for state-connected companies need to be scaled back and eventually eliminated.
No one's saying that Indonesia doesn't face immense hurdles, too. As skilled and well-meaning as he may be, Jokowi can't single-handedly eradicate the endemic corruption and dysfunction that has relegated millions of Indonesians to poverty. Despite the current bonhomie in Jakarta, he still confronts a determined and well-financed opposition keen on protecting vested interests.
But Malaysians should remember that globalisation enables all economies to grow quickly. If their country refuses to open up and become a true meritocracy – the kind of place where a figure like Jokowi could come to power through the ballot box – neighbours like Indonesia and the Philippines will steal away investment and industries. Then the problems they're focusing on today won't seem so large.