Skip to main content
February 23, 2019

A lesson or two from Malaysia


For anyone interested in Kenyan politics, the big news last week was from Malaysia, where a former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had stepped down 22 years ago, returned to the premiership at age 92.

Partly, this was intriguing because it comes at a time when there is controversy over the intentions and plans of Raila Odinga, himself a former PM and still one of Kenya’s dominant political figures.

His opponents had declared Raila as long overdue for retirement; while his supporters were apparently mulling over whether to line up to vote for him one more time, come the 2022 presidential election.

Now with Malaysian voters having raised a 93-year-old leader to high office, it is safe to speculate that if Raila can successfully position himself as a key unifying figure, he may yet have 20 years of active politics ahead of him.

Malaysia is of significance because — like Kenya — it is part of the group of African and Asian nations that gained independence from Britain in the late 1950s to early 1960s. But while Kenya is still a relatively poor agrarian nation, Malaysia has long been an ‘upper middle-income’ nation from as far back as the late 1970s.

For where Kenya has singularly failed to industrialise, Malaysia has long diversified its economy from the previous dependence on exports of raw materials to the development of fairly advanced manufacturing, services and tourism sectors.

But economic differences aside, there was one thing barely mentioned in the local reports of the stunning return to power of Dr Mahathir Mohamad: That such an amazing victory could never have taken place in Kenya.

We have seen enough of Kenyan presidential elections by now to know that a serving Kenyan President simply cannot lose an election, irrespective of how the votes are cast. And this is not because Kenyans don’t know how to count. Rather it is because any Kenyan electoral commission, properly understood, is a deeply corrupt auxiliary of the Executive.

So, the question of who will ‘win’ any Kenyan presidential election is generally decided in private within the inner sanctums of power; not by the masses who turn out to stand for hours in long queues on election day, usually under a blazing sun.

And it is only because in Malaysia  to some degree at least independent institutions work as they are supposed to, that it was possible to dislodge a corrupt serving President, once the opposition found a unifying figure to lead their effort.

Kenyan electoral commissioners would have had instructions conveyed to them before the first ballot was cast as to what sort of outcome they were expected to ensure. And they would have been happy to oblige.

This detail long obvious to any keen observer  was finally unmasked by the Supreme Court last year in its historic declaration as to the “illegalities and irregularities” revealed in the presidential election.

The lesson from the recent political developments in Malaysia, then, is that having functioning independent institutions is no small matter.

And for a near-perfect example of the failure of Kenyan institutions to function as they should, the one thing which surely beats the corruption, ineptitude and deadly chaos of our elections is our water management infrastructure.

And this applies as much to the functioning of the regulatory bodies as in the implementation of specific water supply projects.

Over the current protracted rainy season, we have seen the nation’s largest and most expensive dam to date, the Ndakaini Dam, which is key to the water supply of our capital city, fail to fill up.

Indeed, looking at the levels of water in that dam, you would barely guess that it had rained in Kenya at all.

Yet at the same time, we see the Tana River overflow continually with such force that about 50 per cent of Tana River county is submerged.

And in Solai, the water stored in a privately owned hillside dam, which we are now told was illegally constructed — but had nonetheless been in place for 20 years — breaks the retaining walls and unleashes a massive and deadly flood onto the villages below, killing more than 40 people.

Poll of the day