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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

In the Malaysian election, the overwhelming desire for a new government was undeniable

Amid the excitement at historic change, it should not be forgotten that a good man – Mr Najib – went down badly and he deserved better, writes Sholto Byrnes

The wave for change in the Malaysian election was unstoppable. EPA/STR
The wave for change in the Malaysian election was unstoppable. EPA/STR

According to the Rahman prophecy – which began circulating in the 1960s as a way to predict Malaysia's first six prime ministers – the Barisan Nasional coalition (BN), which had ruled ever since independence in 1957, would fall after the initials of the country’s prime ministers spelt out the name of the country's founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman. And so it came to pass: R for Rahman, A for Abdul Razak, H for Hussein Onn, M for Mahathir Mohamad, A for Abdullah Badawi and N for Najib Razak. Last week it became a self-fulfilling prophecy with the BN reduced in the general election to 79 out of 222 seats in parliament while the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) crossed the victory line with 113 seats, which combined with the eight won by their allies in Sabah, Warisan, gave them a solid majority.

The incumbent Mr Najib spent Wednesday and Thursday trying to form a unity government. The Islamist PAS would have definitely come to his aid but its 18 seats were insufficient to command parliament and attempts to persuade others to change party (very common in Malaysia) were unsuccessful. In an outcome no one had predicted, 92-year-old Dr Mahathir was sworn in again – 15 years after stepping down after a 22-year period in office – as the country’s seventh prime minister on Thursday evening, only this time as head of the PH coalition.

It was a devastating blow for Mr Najib, a man of great dignity and courtesy, with considerable achievements to his name – with millions of jobs created and years of very healthy growth, he was the author of unpopular but absolutely necessary structural reforms that were lauded by the World Bank and the IMF, while India’s Narendra Modi described his record on combating extremism as “an inspiration for the entire region”.

These were either discounted by, or not properly communicated to, the Malaysian people. The wave for change was unstoppable. This was fuelled by anger at rising costs of living – blamed mostly unfairly on the imposition of the goods and service tax (GST) that the IMF and World Bank had recommended – and the worldwide focus on 1MDB, the Malaysian fund from which the US Department of Justice alleges billions of dollars were looted.

The finger has been pointed at Mr Najib as being a beneficiary to the tune of nearly $1 billion. He has denied all charges and Malaysian authorities have repeatedly cleared him. Nevertheless, it was a toxic combination and one which PH exploited to great effect. The overwhelming desire for a new government was undeniable.

Many Malaysians are euphoric. But what can they expect from their new government? In the short term, there will be plenty of emphasis on a cleansing of the Augean stables of institutions such as the judiciary, the anti-corruption commission and so on.

Whether this is needed or not, this will be welcomed. There is no doubt that most Malaysians are sick of the perception that corruption has become rife and that they have no recourse against abuses of power by the well-connected.

In the longer term, the contradictory wishes of a coalition that contains a party that only allows Malays as full members (Dr Mahathir’s PPBM), the Chinese-leftist DAP, the Islamist-lite Amanah, the more liberal and metropolitan but Malay-dominated PKR and the Sabahan nationalists Warisan, are bound to surface. Their economic policies, while popular, are also populist. No convincing answer has been given as to how they will fill the gap if they repeal the GST and reintroduce fuel subsidies as they promised to do.

There are also questions about when Anwar Ibrahim, the former BN deputy prime minister who was jailed first under Dr Mahathir and then Mr Najib and who has long been the de facto leader of the opposition, will be allowed to head the nation. Dr Mahathir was supposed to be a caretaker until Anwar, who is about to receive a royal pardon, was free to take office again. It would be easy to create a by-election for him to fight. There is no reason why he should not be premier within a very short time if the new administration so desired. But it seems he will have to wait up to three years. Why?

The world has rightly applauded Malaysia for conducting its first democratic transition. Mr Najib is to be commended for giving way gracefully. Dr Mahathir is also to be commended for saying that in power he and his allies “are not seeking revenge” – although stopping Mr Najib and his wife from leaving the country for a two-day break in Indonesia on Saturday is a worrying sign. (Suggestions that he was attempting to flee possible criminal prosecution are wrong. He could have done so easily on Thursday before Dr Mahathir was sworn in as prime minister. He didn’t.)

What that transition means, however, is also unclear. All the current estimates are that BN and PAS combined (which would have formed a government if the numbers had been there) won more votes than PH and Warisan. Under a more proportional electoral system, then, they might have won. So support for a Malay and Islam-centric politics in Malaysia is still very strong.

Despite the new government’s talk of racial unity, moreover, it should be borne in mind that the people who did most to undermine Mr Najib’s early 1Malaysia policy – the most far-reaching attempt to create a genuinely Malaysian identity in the country’s history – are politicians who are now key members of the new administration.

No one can deny Dr Mahathir his victory, for it is very much his. Without his iconic status and, in a racially polarised country, his reassurance that an opposition win would not mean Chinese dominance, the result would probably have been different. But amid the excitement at historic change, it should not be forgotten that a good man – Mr Najib – went down badly and he deserved better. Many of his most enlightened reforms, both political and economic, were opposed by the new, supposedly reformist government.

Ironies have always abounded in Malaysian politics. The new administration is no different. But all who love Malaysia must hope that magnanimity and a spirit of generous unity prevails and wish the new PH government from the bottom of our hearts the very best.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia