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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

In the transition of power in Malaysia, Mahathir's party must eschew vengeance 

New Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has so far displayed extraordinary energy and determination, writes Sholto Byrnes

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks to staff from Prime Minister office during his first monthly assembly as prime minister in Putrajaya. Vincent Thian / AP
Malaysia's new Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks to staff from Prime Minister office during his first monthly assembly as prime minister in Putrajaya. Vincent Thian / AP

It has been another tumultuous week in Malaysian politics. On Wednesday, Anwar Ibrahim walked free from prison, having been granted a full royal pardon at the urging of new Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – who is also the man under whom Anwar, his deputy back in the 1990s, had been originally jailed.

Then late that same evening, police began raids on the main residence and other houses connected to Najib Tun Razak. Until just a week before, Mr Najib had been Malaysia’s leader. Now pictures are circulating of him dozing on a sofa because the search – said to be connected to suspected money-laundering – went on almost until morning.

Many are jubilant at Anwar’s release while others have been transfixed by the details of the ongoing raids on the homes of Mr Najib, his children and a close associate, which produced lorryloads of handbag boxes, huge amounts of cash (which Mr Najib said was not his but donations for the election), and a safe which hadn’t been unlocked for 20 years as the key had been lost, and which took most of a day to drill open.

The initial 13 members of Dr Mahathir’s new cabinet were also announced, heralding the first Malaysian Chinese finance minister – Lim Guan Eng – in 44 years. It also produced a brief stir after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration realised that Dr Mahathir couldn’t be education minister as well as prime minister. Their manifesto had specifically pledged that the PM would not take any other portfolio but everyone had forgotten (they thought it merely banned him from also being finance minister).

The small hiccups are mostly not minded. If the new cabinet has taken some time to form, well, the falling of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government for the first time since independence in 1957 was an unprecedented change and if PH hadn't finalised the line-up before the election, that only went to show they hadn't really expected to win – and neither had anyone else.

The goodwill that is tangible towards the new government is still very much in evidence and doubtless will remain so for months to come. But the new government must make sure that it works to keep it.

It was not just Mr Najib’s friends who objected to the timing of the police raids, for instance. Even Anwar's daughter Nurul Izzah thought it was over the top. “As former victims of early dawn police raids, I must stress my disagreement in ransacking any home at such an ungodly hour,” she tweeted. In another search, complained Mr Najib, the shoes of his nine-month-old grandchild were taken.

PH offered a new and better kind of politics. Now they have to follow through. Practices and tactics that they condemned in opposition cannot now be used against their foes if they are to live up to their promise to be different.

Prosecutions over 1MDB – the state development fund from which $3.5 billion was allegedly misappropriated – and other matters are clearly in the offing, and they are widely welcomed. But there is a balance to be struck too.

While there are senior voices warning against the excessive treatment of members of the former government, cautioning that the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” must be upheld, there are also those who are clearly out for revenge.

In a country still scarred by the race riots of 1969, which caused hundreds of deaths and the declaration of a state of emergency, there is a justifiable wariness about a small spark risking a greater conflagration.

On the economy, reducing the goods and services tax to zero per cent from June 1 is affordable now because of the high oil prices – but what happens when they go down again? The new administration will have to be financially responsible while simultaneously fulfilling the high expectations they have stoked on issues such as rising costs of living, which is not an easy problem to turn round quickly.

But PH have some very experienced people on their bench, such as the well-regarded former central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz and Daim Zainuddin, twice finance minister during Dr Mahathir’s previous premiership, which should reassure markets that have been jittery since the shock election result.

There was a strong sense during the campaign of what PH was against; less what it was for. Some of the promises, such as repealing the anti-fake news bill, may now not be kept.

Similarly, suggestions that Malaysia will now pivot completely away from China are almost certainly wrong. Dr Mahathir has always had a very strong pragmatic streak under his fiery rhetoric. Some of his actions in office may be more incremental than anticipated. Radical supporters might have to be patient and wait for Anwar to take up the baton in two or three years’ time.

From his time in office so far, people (such as myself) who said that Dr Mahathir was surely too old to be premier again have to admit that he displays extraordinary energy and determination for a 92-year-old. He is the victor and he deserves his chance to put his stamp on the direction of the administration.

Anwar has also displayed remarkable forgiveness to Dr Mahathir and Mr Najib, both of whom he accuses of having jailed him unjustly and that is to be admired.

Although the new government didn't win an overall majority in the popular vote – not surprising in what is now a three-plus party system – there is a general feeling of wishing them well. That is a precious sensation after such a bitter and divisive campaign.

The PH administration needs to hold onto it so that all Malaysians, even those who were defeated, can continue to celebrate a peaceful, first-time democratic transition of power that could be an example to the world – but only if they eschew vengeance and keep that sense of difference and promise.

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