In the span of just a few months in 2018, national elections roiled Malaysia and brought what seemed like a landmark change to the Southeast Asian state. The country had been a longtime autocracy: Malaysia had been run by essentially the same coalition since it gained independence in 1957, and that coalition had used extensive gerrymandering, handouts of state funds, control of most broadcast and print media, and other tactics to ensure its continuing hold on politics.
Yet in Malaysia, despite gerrymandering and a crackdown on opposition politicians and civil society before the May 2018 elections—as well as a re-election war chest reportedly amassed through a web of flamboyantly shady deals that spanned continents—Prime Minister Najib tun Razak and his coalition seemed at risk.
Najib, though, was not only getting help from his massive war chest, gerrymandering, and other dirty tactics. He and his UMNO party also had seemingly benefited, in the run-up to the May 2018 elections, from Chinese government attempts to influence the Malaysian vote.
Beijing attempted to influence the election both through soft power, playing on this seeming warmth among the Malaysian public, and through covert and possibly corrupt means, also known as sharp power. Beijing particularly cultivated Chinese Malaysians. Leading up to the election, the ethnic Chinese party in Najib’s coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), noted that it helped facilitate Chinese investment in Malaysia. Party literature claimed that “voting [for Najib’s coalition] equals supporting China,” and the Chinese-language media in Malaysia regularly highlighted pro-China views and silenced opponents of Beijing.
These efforts were, at least, somewhat open. But China also may have used clandestine and more coercive means to bolster Najib, in addition to more transparent soft-power tools. According to the Wall Street Journal, which saw minutes from previously undisclosed meetings, as Malaysia’s election loomed, Chinese officials told Najib that Beijing would pressure foreign countries to back off investigations into the graft-ridden, tanking 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, which was hemorrhaging money, and would even bail it out if the administration gave China stakes in Malaysian pipeline and rail projects.
China completely failed. On election day, Mahathir’s coalition stunned Najib and his coalition to sweep into power.
Malaysia is hardly unique as a place where Beijing had invested heavily in influence efforts but, initially, got relatively little to show for it. China has long tried to influence other countries but had modest abilities to do so. For more on China’s failures—and possible turnaround in Malaysia and elsewhere—see my new Washington Monthly excerpt.