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World News /05 Jan 2019
01.05.19

Where is Mahathir’s New Malaysia?

On New Year’s Eve, Malaysian politician Lim Kit Siang – part of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition which pulled off a stunning victory in last May’s elections – boldly pronounced that “2019 will probably be the most decisive year in the nation’s history” which will determine if PH’s plan for a “New Malaysia” is a feasible aspiration or a pipe dream.

Yet delivering on “New Malaysia” is proving to be a massive challenge for the government led by nonagenarian former strongman Mahathir Mohamad. Indeed, the Mahathir administration has spent much of its seven months in power doggedly pursuing corruption allegations against the previous government while struggling to deliver on key electoral promises. As rifts have opened up between Malaysia’s various ethnic and religious groups, even many of PH’s most fervent supporters have become disillusioned, leaving the young government with serious ground to make up in 2019.

Flagging confidence amidst policy U-turns

Pakatan Harapan won a surprise victory in May 2018, ousting UMNO—Mahathir’s own former party— from power for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957. PH won 113 of 222 parliamentary seats on the back of an ambitious manifesto, exemplified by the 10 promises Mahathir pledged to fulfill in his first 100 days of office.

Mahathir, however, had to concede even before the 100 day mark that many of those guarantees were made under the assumption that he would never need to follow through on them: “Actually we did not expect to win, we made a thick manifesto with all kinds of promises,” Mahathir admitted in a closed-door meeting in August. Confronted with the harsh reality of governing—under more democratic conditions than characterized his first twenty-two-year-long stint as PM—Mahathir has been forced into a number of high-profile U-turns, on subjects from social welfare to highway tolls.

In the end, only two of the 10 pledges were fulfilled within PH’s first 100 days in power—one of which was a controversial decision to scrap a lucrative goods and services tax which had constituted 18% of Kuala Lumpur’s revenue. The extensive backtracking, unsurprisingly, has chipped away at public confidence in the ruling coalition; opinion polls suggest that Mahathir’s approval ratings slumped 19% between June and December 2018.

Political infighting holding back progress

The 1MDB scandal, in which billions were apparently embezzled from a Malaysian state development fund, has thrown another wrench into the mix. Kuala Lumpur has so far failed to bring reported mastermind, Jho Low, back to Malaysia to face justice, while it has aggressively prosecuted outgoing prime minister—and Mahathir’s former protégé— Najib Razak for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

Najib and his supporters have insisted that the charges against him are unfounded and politically motivated. It’s an assertion that holds some water given Mahathir’s history of eliminating his friends-turned-rivals through judicial means: in 1998, after a disagreement over financial policy with Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir had Anwar sacked and thrown into prison on sham sodomy charges.

When Anwar was initially sentenced, he condemned Mahathir in the strongest possible terms, telling the judge that “the pronouncement of your judgment today was a mere formality, according to [the] preordained script of the conspirators. [Mahathir] is a coward who would not take responsibility for his own evil.”

The two men have since very publicly buried the hatchet after Mahathir secured a royal pardon for Anwar in exchange for his support in the 2018 elections, but their decades-long feud has only given way to other bitter spats within Pakatan Harapan. A hard-fought internal party election, for example, has turned into a “renewed proxy war” between Anwar and Mahathir’s supporters. The squabbling has badly shaken PH’s unity and held back its progress on the ambitious reforms which propelled the coalition to its startling victory in May.

Old ghosts: religious and racial rifts

On top of its concrete manifesto promises, part of Pakatan Harapan’s electoral appeal lay in the way the coalition grouped together parties representing different ethnic and religious groups, spawning hope that Malaysia had moved beyond the race-based politics which Mahathir had espoused in his first premiership.

PH’s first seven months in power, however, have paid to the notion that the alliance’s victory has erased centuries-old divisions. If anything, rifts amongst Malaysians seem to be growing. In recent months, violent riots have broken out over a proposal to relocate a Hindu temple to make way for property development; tensions reached a fever pitch after a Malay Muslim firefighter was killed in the melee, leading hundreds of thousands of Malaysians to demand the resignation of the national unity minister.

What’s more, divisions are growing even within the roughly 60% of the country’s population which is Malay Muslim. Urban Malays have complained that his administration has been slow to tackle human rights issues such as child marriage and LGBT rights, which came into sharp focus after two women were publicly caned for having sexual relations. On the other hand, conservative groups have criticized Mahathir’s government for becoming overly progressive to “appease the vocal urban voters,” while a former minister accused Mahathir of having “mortgaged” the values he once believed in, particularly Malay nationalism, to return to power.

Back to basics

Though much of the shine has worn off Pakatan Harapan’s historic victory, a narrow majority of Malaysians continue to support Mahathir’s government, suggesting that the world’s oldest head of state still has a slim chance to unify a divided populace and build the “new Malaysia” which his pre-election manifesto envisioned.

Pakatan Harapan politician, Rafizi Ramli, highlighted in December how polarized Malaysia has become and suggested that PH’s slipping approval ratings are a result of its having lost focus. Rather than offering up excuses for why election promises have yet to be fulfilled and “one political drama after another,” the coalition must concentrate on concrete economic reforms, chipping away at the country’s mountain of debt and raising the standard of living. Otherwise, the New Malaysia risks looking a lot like the old Malaysia.

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