A New Dawn Now for Malaysia?

The Khmer Times, 11 May 2018

The opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) stunningly won the Malaysia election with 113 seats out of 222 seats. It marked an end to the six-decade rule of Barisan Nasional (BN) which only received 79 seats compared to 131 seats in 2013 election. Some regional observers called it a “people tsunami” and “a new dawn for Malaysia”.

The main triggering factors were the people’s aspirations for change, alleged rampant corruption particularly relating to the mismanagement of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and the deeply unpopular goods and services tax (GST) introduced by the government.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad who used to rule the country with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003 managed to unite the fragmented opposition coalition and grasped the political opportunity stemming from the downturn of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s regime.

PH was formed in September 2015, consisting of four main political parties namely the Democratic Action Party, People’s Justice Party, National Trust Party and Malaysian United Indigenous Party.

Dr Mahathir has a mixed leadership legacy. While he has proven his wise stewardship in economic development, he had been ruthless in cracking down dissent. Some have referred to him as “the master of all evils”.

The injustice upon Anwar Ibrahim – then Dr Mahathir’s deputy – by jailing him for sodomy, seriously damaged Dr Mahathir’s reputation and legacy. It seems that Dr Mahathir acknowledges his mistake and is trying to restore trust with Mr Anwar the founder of the People’s Justice Party.

The new government is facing complex national issues such as corruption, social injustice, and income inequality. Dr Mahathir has been advocating for a knowledge-based economy. He might continue implementing his vision 2020 that was formed in early 1990s with the aim of transforming Malaysia into a “fully developed country”.

The PH promised to implement ten agenda items within its first 100 days in office. Those promises include scrapping the GST, targeted petrol subsidies, squashing Felda settlers’ debts, enabling housewives to contribute to the Employees Provident Fund, streamlining minimum wages, returning the status of Sabah and Sarawak according to the Malaysia Agreement 1963, suspending PTPTN higher education fund repayments for those earning below RM4,000, a “healthcare” scheme for all, opening investigations into scandals, and reviewing mega projects.

These are quite ambitious and reek of a populist policy agenda. If the new government cannot deliver its promises, it will potentially lead to a significant decline in legitimacy and popular support. The opposition alliance remains institutionally weak and political trust within the coalition is fragile. It requires a strong, collective leadership to get things done.

BN, now the opposition party, can win back power in the next election if it can restructure its leadership, insert new visions, and embraces innovative ideas. The failures give BN a great deal of lessons – it needs to keep reforming and responding to people’s aspirations. Complacency and overconfidence are the causes of failure.

One of the challenges for the new government perhaps is how the 1MDB scandal should be reviewed and handled. Will Mr Najib be charged? Dr Mahathir’s blog reads, “He [Najib] also knows the direct consequences for him if he loses. He would be charged in court and he may find himself in jail”. Will such a measure affect political stability? Can political reconciliation be reached between the PH and BN? These are hanging questions.

On the foreign policy front, it is expected that the new government will slightly veer away from China. The opposition leaders have run down Mr Najib’s administration for being too close to Beijing. Dr Mahathir said at the press conference yesterday that his government may renegotiate some deals with China.

Concerning the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, he said, “We have no problem with that (BRI), except of course we would not like to see too many warships in this area because (a) warship attracts other warships.”

Another interesting trend to observe is Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea and its role in Asean. Will the new administration change its position on the South China Sea from a “safe and low-key approach” to a more proactive approach?

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