Who cares about 1MDB when the bridges collapse?

As a jury in Brooklyn weighed the fate of a former banker accused of conspiring to plunder a Malaysian public fund, villagers about an hour’s drive from the country’s center of power, Kuala Lumpur, had a more parochial concern .

A bridge in a coastal settlement of Kuala Selangor – a politically contested area – had collapsed in 2019. Despite promises from politicians, it is in ruins. This bridge is vital for the fishing community, according to Muhammad Zabar bin Arssad, who has lived in the area for 63 years. Far more important to livelihoods than anything that happens in a New York courtroom. “1MDB is an urban conversation, something people in KL can talk about,” he said, referring to Kuala Lumpur. “It doesn’t really matter here. The bridge matters.

His perspective is key to understanding the disconnect between global disgust at the scandal – in which billions of dollars were looted from 1Malaysia Development Bhd. – and the recent gains of the party that was ruling Malaysia when the looting took place. These electoral advances reflect the current state of ambivalence in the Southeast Asian nation. What was once frustration has given way to resignation: Covid persists and the economic recovery is lagging behind neighbors. Clean government is important, but jobs and health care matter more. The documents come with the territory.

The 1MDB scandal was about as big as it gets in 2018, when opposition parties joined forces and swept Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organization from power for the first time in seven decades. Najib, who was later found guilty of corruption and appealed, has rebuilt his base and is once again a plausible candidate for high office. 1MDB is increasingly yesterday’s news. The bloc elected in 2018 amid a blossoming of reformist hopes split two years later and, in a twist of parliamentary intrigue, was returned to opposition. UMNO is back in power as part of a new conservative coalition. Recent competitions in Johor and Melaka states have produced strong results. Najib starred in these campaigns. The trial of Roger Ng, the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker who was found guilty last week, has been dutifully reported by the Malaysian media. (Goldman arranged bond trades for 1MDB.) But the coverage had a superficial feel. Last week, the front pages of the national press voiced outrage not at the people behind 1MDB, but at Singaporeans crossing the border to fill up on subsidized petrol. Najib looked into the matter. “Najib created an aura or a feeling that the wind was blowing in his direction,” said Ei Sun Oh, a senior adviser at the Pacific Research Center and Najib’s former assistant. “After the pandemic, people are poor and his message is: I will take care of you.”

Although a longtime supporter of UMNO, Muhammad in Kuala Selangor said people were ready to give the opposition a chance in 2018 because it was led by Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian former prime minister who is came out of retirement to challenge Najib. “People thought Mahathir did a good job the first time around. I loved him myself, but was shocked by the chaos that followed his resignation.

A few hundred meters away, Lim Chon Kiat, a fishmonger of Chinese origin, deplores the fall of the Mahathir coalition two years ago. “Some villagers don’t know what 1MDB is, but most people have heard of it,” said Lim, a supporter of what is now the opposition. “Corruption was a problem then. It still matters now. Without Mahathir at the helm, the opposition finds it harder to sell, he concedes.

The current leader of this bloc, Anwar Ibrahim, is now the politician under pressure. Anwar claimed in late 2020 that he had the numbers to form a government. He never had the chance to test that claim on the floor of the lower house, where the person who commands the majority happens to run the country. Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan Alliance, or PH, has struggled in recent state polls.

Barring upheaval, the government assembled after the next elections will be made up of UMNO and at least one other major party. The chances of an outright victory for the opposition are slim unless something major changes the dynamic. This is bad news for outgoing Kuala Selangor member Dzulkefly Ahmad, who won the PH seat in 2018, snatching it from Najib’s UMNO.

It’s one thing to have an issue that galvanizes voters. It’s another to be able to peddle it. Najib, finally, turns out to be a better seller. Even after his national loss four years ago, he matters to ethnic Malaysian conservative voters in how Donald Trump remains a force after his 2020 loss.

Unlike Trump, however, Najib still holds electoral office. I wouldn’t bet against him.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Singapore and Malaysia come together, if only for the cake: Daniel Moss

• We need better reminders than Pfizer and Moderna: Faye Flam

• Street vendors face a sanitized future: Adam Minter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was Bloomberg News’ editor for global economics and led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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