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Will engaging reverse gear help Malaysia go forwards?

May 11. 2018
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By Andrew Sheng 
Special to Asia News Network

Like most Malaysians I went to bed in the early hours of Thursday morning after hearing news that the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition of four parties had won a simple majority of 113 out of 222 parliamentary seats in the 14th general election. It was earth-shattering news: the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government that ruled Malaysia for 61 years was now in opposition. 

Yesterday, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as the seventh prime minister of Malaysia, having served 22 years as the fourth prime minister from 1981 to 2003. In 2016, Mahathir quit the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the leading component of the Barisan government, and joined with former deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin to form Parti Pribumi. The Pakatan coalition comprises Parti Primbumi, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) led by jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (the National Trust Party). The last comprises a faction that split from the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). 

There will now be a period of political crossovers in which each party tries to bolster its majority at the parliamentary and state levels. The aftershocks from this election earthquake are not over by any means. 

Three trends behind shock result

In addition to the rejection of Najib Razak’s government on issues that include the 1MDB scandal, three key trends can be discerned from this year’s election, which was orderly and surprisingly quiet, with few of the rumbustious rallies that accompanied past elections. The Malaysian electorate has become much more mature, learning to be cautious and yet bold in voting for change. 

First, it is obvious that urban voters swung decisively to the Pakatan coalition. This trend has been clear for quite some time, as the urban population swelled with rural migrants. UMNO has traditionally depended on the rural vote for its support, but relied on its urban partners, the Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysia Indian Congress (MIC) and Gerakan (People’s Movement Party) to bolster the urban vote. 

This time round, the MCA, MIC and Gerakan were almost wiped out at the polls, with the MCA and MIC party leaders losing their seats and Gerakan winning no seats at all. 

This meant that the decisive gains were achieved in the more densely populated states on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, particularly with stronger majorities in Penang and Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Johor. The last was the birthplace and stronghold of UMNO, but this time round, even the highly respected veteran MP for Johor Bahru, Shahrir Samad, lost heavily. 

Pivotal was voting in the two eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, which together carried 56 parliamentary seats and were considered safe “deposits” for a Barisan majority. In the end, Pakatan and its ally Parti Warisan took 24 seats in Sabah and Sarawak. 

Secondly, PAS, the Islamic party that focuses largely on religion, lost two seats overall, but took back the east coast state of Trengganu, so that it once again controls two states – Kelantan and Trengganu. It was clear that the breakaway faction Amanah was not able to draw away sufficient “hardcore” votes to weaken PAS. 

What the rise of Pakatan reflects is that urban Malays elected for a change of government and improvements in economic livelihood rather than voting on religious affiliations. The non-Malay voters, on the other hand, were put off by the PAS push for Islamic hudud laws and were uncomfortable with UMNO’s flirting with PAS on areas touching on religion. 

Thirdly, what this general election has done is to bring more new faces and talent into the political arena. One of the weaknesses of multi-party politics is that under conditions of uncertainty, the tendency is to rely on recycled politicians rather than experiment with younger professionals. The new government has the opportunity to engage in generational renewal by bringing in younger leaders from more diverse backgrounds into positions of authority on change at all levels. Time is of the essence, as Mahathir has promised to stay on as prime minister for two years, before passing the baton to Anwar Ibrahim who will be 73 by then. 

Nothing would better signal restoration of the rule of law than the immediate release of Anwar Ibrahim from jail. 

To safeguard his legacy, Mahathir now has a unique and historic opportunity to address many of the issues that festered when he was prime minister the first time round. If the rule of law has weakened, it was partly because of the controversial steps he took to intervene in the legal institutions in the 1980s. He needs to strengthen the very institutions that protect the rule of law that he now upholds. 

On the economic front, he has inherited an economy that grew by 5.9 per cent last year. But as the saying goes, the GDP numbers look good, but the people feel bad. With oil prices back up to over US$70 per barrel, and Malaysia as a net energy exporter, the economic winds are favourable for making the necessary tough reforms. 

How to create good jobs in an age of robotics, even as more youth enter the labour force, is a pressing challenge not just for Malaysia but throughout the developing world. 

On the foreign affairs front, Malaysia will have to navigate between the growing tensions between the US and China. The feisty Mahathir has not minced his words on contentious issues like the South China Sea or, for that matter, where Malaysia stands as a leading voice among developing nations. 

In its unique way, Malaysia has voted for a generational change, but with the world’s oldest leader managing that transition. Most new governments enjoy very short political honeymoons, as expectations are high on delivery of change. It is always easier to oppose than to propose and implement. How smoothly that transition occurs will have huge impact not only for Malaysians, but for the region as a whole. 

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. 



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