When it comes to Malaysia, what you see is not what you get.
Despite financial scandals that have dominated headlines, particularly those involving state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), Prime Minister Najib Razak's position looks secure and the country is doing rather well economically, said Mr Ong Keng Yong, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large.
"Singaporeans going to Malaysia always think they know Malaysia very well... But sorry, you don't know Malaysia because what you see is not what you get," said Mr Ong in a special address at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday.
Media reports this year have highlighted Datuk Seri Najib's supposedly precarious position. Investigations are ongoing into the RM2.6 billion (S$850 million) discovered in the Premier's bank accounts while 1MDB's racking up of RM42 billion in debts has sparked calls for Mr Najib's resignation, led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad.
Although this has led to a perception of a leader in deep political crisis, Mr Najib's position appears largely assured for now, said Mr Ong, who is also executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. He served as high commissioner to Malaysia from 2011 to last year.
The approval rating for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has hit an all-time low and approval of Mr Najib's Umno among Malays has plummeted to 31 per cent - the first time this has gone below the 50 per cent mark.
But despite such falling ratings, the Umno machinery could impede a change in leadership, Mr Ong said. As long as Mr Najib enjoys support in the states of Sabah and Sarawak, Mr Ong noted, he will be able to command a majority in Parliament and does not have to fear any vote of no-confidence.
"The number of MPs from Sabah and Sarawak is about 47, and as long as they don't change, I don't think any vote of no-confidence in Parliament can succeed," he said.
Mr Reme Ahmad, The Straits Times assistant foreign editor, said Mr Najib controls a big majority in Parliament and maintains a strong grip on Umno.
"I use the analogy of Game Of Thrones: The king is weak but he still controls the Iron Throne. He cannot be toppled because he is using the same fortress that Mahathir built for him," he said.
Mr Ong noted that the Malaysian economy is "doing very well, all things considered" although it feels the strain from bearish commodity markets, especially the fall in the prices of oil and gas.
Malaysia's gross domestic product growth last year was 6 per cent, while this year it is growing at 4 to 5 per cent - higher than Singapore's growth, which is under 3 per cent, he said.
"The situation in Malaysia, in spite of all the scandals, is not so dire as to make us all worry about the business conditions and the economy," he added.
Mr Shannon Teoh, The Straits Times Malaysia Bureau Chief, said Bank Negara reserves are healthy and the economic fundamentals remain strong despite the weakening of the ringgit. "It was only when Najib sacked his deputy and the Attorney-General in July that the market reacted. People started panicking over there," he said. During that time, the US dollar hit a new high against the ringgit.
The social situation in Malaysia, however, bears watching, Mr Ong said. Communal divisions may be exploited by groups seeking to promote their own interests.
He said the rise of religious conservatism is one of two key things that non-Malays are worried about. The other is their children's education and future, which is something they are more concerned about than the political clout of ethnic minorities, said Mr Ong.