Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 September 2020

The 'new Malaysia' promised in last year's election has failed to materialise

Prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has yet to deliver on the reforms promised when he ended Barisan Nasional's grip on power

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, last year. Rahman Roslan/Bloomberg
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, last year. Rahman Roslan/Bloomberg

This time last year, Malaysia was in a state of shock after the Barisan Nasional coalition – which had been in government since independence in 1957 – lost the May general election. There was euphoria, too, not only felt by the victors. That the first ever democratic transition took place peacefully, with no attempt by the previous administration, headed by Najib Tun Razak, to cling on, was a sign of political maturity not always found in developing countries. The new government promised much. It seemed as though there was something for almost everyone to cheer.

One year on, the celebrations have been distinctly muted. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad marked the first anniversary of his return to power – he previously led the nation from 1981 to 2003 as the head of the United Malays National Organisation, part of Barisan Nasional’s coalition – with a speech in which he announced a new plan called Shared Prosperity, which aims to achieve sustainable and equitable growth and “harmony and stability among the people” by 2030. Just days before, however, he had given his own cabinet only five out of 10 for their work so far – hardly the most ringing of endorsements.

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration might have won a by-election in the state of Sabah last weekend but it was a seat it expected to retain. The previous three by-elections were all victories for the new Barisan Nasional opposition, in which Najib campaigned with a new motorbike-riding, man-of-the-people persona that appears to have gained some traction on social media. For an ex-prime minister facing an array of charges, mostly related to the 1MDB scandal, that could see him jailed for the rest of his life, he appears to be remarkably buoyant and relaxed.

Many agree that the initial period after PH won last year’s election was a huge missed opportunity, when there was such goodwill towards the new government

The PH administration has some achievements to be proud of, such as reinvigorating the country’s Electoral Commission and making efforts to improve scrutiny of the government of the day in parliament. But disappointment is widespread: at the U-turns on signing up to innocuous UN human rights treaties; over the perception that cost of living issues are not being addressed, a crucial factor in last year’s election; and that many of the promises in PH’s manifesto have not been implemented.

Dr Mahathir has answered the last point by saying that when the pledges were made, “we didn’t expect to win”, which might be typically frank but is hardly the most satisfying of explanations. Those expecting liberal reforms feel particularly let down.

Dr Mahathir and other friends of PH have said that the new ministers are inexperienced and should be given more time. But the home, foreign, finance and economic affairs ministers have all previously held high office while other highly respected ex-cabinet ministers are advisers or members of different PH component parties.

Many agree that the initial period after PH won last year’s election was a huge missed opportunity. It was then, when there was such goodwill towards the new government, that it had the political capital to make some tough decisions, such as changing the positive discrimination policy that favours Malays. They are, overall, a poorer segment of society – which includes many other ethnicities, mainly Chinese, Indian and other indigenous groups – but most economists concur that the decades-long programme has become a crutch that holds back both the economy and Malays themselves. Other reforms could certainly have been enacted, like repealing the draconian Sedition Act, which is so vaguely worded it can be used to arrest anyone for almost anything.

Instead, PH has spent much of its energy on an anti-corruption drive, targeting Najib and his allies. That might have been broadly popular – but it also left them floundering once the United Malays National Organisation, which dominated the previous Barisan Nasional government, teamed up with the Malaysian Islamic Party. The new coalition has claimed Islam and the rights of Malays are under threat from the new government, pointing to the large number of ethnic Chinese MPs in the PH coalition. As a result, the current administration, which only won 30 per cent of the Malay vote last year, has realised it must retain and build on that number if it is to win the next election.

But it also means that the “new Malaysia” that was anticipated is still dominated by the old discourse of race and religion – and on those, the new coalition is hard to beat.

Many said that Dr Mahathir, who has been accused of being authoritarian and a Malay chauvinist in the past, had changed when he came to head the opposition, now the ruling party, before the election. But there are many reasons to conclude he has not changed at all. He thinks he knows best for Malaysia and he thought Najib – his one-time protege – had to be removed. He might well feel satisfaction at achieving his goal after the former prime minister lost power and is now the subject of criminal charges. But those who hoped for a new Malaysia would be justified in asking if that was all last year’s election was really about.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: May 13, 2019 06:40 PM

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