Opinion World

Malaysia’s Political Tsunami

In the recent Malaysian national elections, an underdog coalition swung into power by promising reform. It is now actively working towards overhauling policy.

‘Malaysia’s Leader Betrays the Future,’ read an opinion piece in New York Times on October 7, 1998. The ‘Leader’ in question, was then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and the ‘Future’ was his charismatic deputy Anwar Ibrahim, whom the former got jailed on various disputed charges.

Fast forward twenty years. A 92-year-old Mahathir teams up with bete noire Anwar to form a coalition named Pakatan Harapan (alliance of hope) to defeat the longest ruling coalition Barison Nasional in what has become a historic 14th General Elections in Malaysia.

When Malaysia went to polls on 9 May this year, the arithmetic of a Pakatan Harapan (PH) win did not add up. The incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak looked strong, despite being facing massive corruption charges, growing discontent about rising living cost, a messy GST and widespread instances of kleptocracy. He relied on years of majority appeasement, constituency gerrymandering and a stable economy. In the end, Pakatan Harapan (PH) won 125 seats, with a vote share of 45.56%, in the 222 member Parliament, the Dewan Rakyat. Not only that, PH wrested 8 state assemblies in the simultaneously held elections.

In a rally just before dissolving the Parliament, Najib Razak said, “I don’t detect a Malay tsunami. Malay tsunami would mean a rejection of Umno. I don’t see that.” In a country with deep seated racial divisions, fueled for years by his party Umno (United Malays National Organization) the biggest bloc in Barison Nasional (BN) and with rise of radical Islam in the political space, only a massive swing in ethnic Malay and young voters for PH could have ensured an upset. And ensure it did, though official figures of voting pattern are awaited. Najib must really have been surprised to see that ‘Malay tsunami’ turn against him and Umno. Many are calling it a ‘Malaysian’ tsunami.

A Curious Coalition

Pakatan Harapan that was formed in 2015 comprised of Anwar Ibrahm’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), Lim Guan Eng’s Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Abdul Hadi Awang’s Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS later split and the splinter National Trust Party (AMANAH) remained with PH. In a major development in November 2016, there was a split within Umno with Dr Mahathir heading the breakaway Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) which joined PH officially in March 2017.

In a television interview, Anwar Ibrahim described meeting his former mentor-turned-tormentor Mahathir, after a gap of twenty years, as a déjà vu.

Barison Nasional which had been in power since the independence of Malaysia in 1957 had Umno, as the largest political party. The heavyweight of Umno ensured there was no pressure on the coalition. However, PH does not have that luxury. While Mahathir is currently the Prime Minister, his party has just 13 MP’s in the Parliament. The bulk of seats of PH, 50 of them, are with Anwar’s PKR. The next largest bloc in PH is the centre-left, multiracial DAP with 42 seats. These parties have differing views on issues of race, religion in politics, affirmative action and economic policies thereby creating a ground for pulls and pressures in the coalition.

Selecting Mr Lim Guam Eng, an ethnic Chinese, as finance minister and the appointment of Mr Tommy Thomas, a non-Malay, non-Muslim, Indian-origin attorney general has already caused both PM Mahathir and his deputy Wan Azizah Ismail to state that there is no undermining of Islam – the state religion, and Malay interests. Ethnic Malays constitute nearly 70% of the population, Chinese and Indians form 23% and 7% respectively. While Pakatan Harapan rode on a liberal vote wave, the rise of hardliner Islam in Malaysian political space has worried many. The rise of PAS, and its call for Shariah law implementation, has now been halted and might see a decline under the new regime.

Mission Mode Government

The new government in its first month, has played to its constituency with a palpable sense of urgency shown by the world’s oldest premier Mahathir. In the race to meet the 100-day campaign pledge, Mahathir’s government has made a slew of moves.

Perhaps in the biggest signal to its constituency which voted PH to power, Najib Razak was grilled by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on May 23 and his wife Rosmah on June 5 in the infamous 1MDB corruption case. It was in this scandal that $618 million of public fund, meant for long-term development of the country by strategic funding in energy, real estate, tourism and agribusiness, was found in Najib’s personal account. MACC is making inroads into this corruption scandal which involves many politicians, businessmen and is spread over many countries. However, the opposition is predictably calling it a witch hunt.

Rising living costs was one of the most prominent pre-poll issue, largely attributed by the public to the GST regime (uniform tax of 6% unlike India’s four-tiered slab) that Malaysia adopted in April 2015. PH which promised its abolition has kept its word while riding on increasing oil price, nominal growth of 7 to 8%, to make up for the loss of proceeds. It must be noted that Malaysia is a high income country, with average income of $9500 and is aspiring to break into the developed country group by 2020. Malaysia will move back to Sales & Services Tax (SST) regime starting September this year.

Mahathir has set up a five-member Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) to advice on economic matters. The CEP has done well to instill investors’ confidence which was shaky post the surprise result. However, a certain section of people fear that the CEP could become an unelected power center. Indians would do well to compare the Indian National Advisory Council (NAC) of the UPA era (united Progressive Alliance) with the CEP.

In a novel move, when the new government realized that the country owes approximately 1 trillion Ringgits in debt, it initiated a crowdfunding called Tabung Harapan Malaysia (THM), and riding on the new wave of support has collected 43 million Ringgits as of 06 June. Large projects, many of which have huge Chinese investment, have come under review in light of this large debt, bringing the theory of Malaysia distancing itself from previous regime’s China proximity to the fore.

Ghosts of the Past

In what came as a surprise to many, even within the government, Dr Mahathir announced the cancellation of Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) almost unanimously. The decision has wide ranging implications and the unilateral nature of it being raised a few brows with reminiscence of the authoritarian 22 year rule of Mahathir during which corruption spearheaded, press was muzzled, civil liberty was restricted and institutions like judiciary and police compromised. However, reform (both of self and of institutions) has been the plank on which Mahathir has engineered a massive turnaround in Malaysian politics and he has shown early signs of having consigned his dubious past to the flame.

In the current arrangement, Mahathir is to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim after being in the PM’s chair for two years. This time, in all likelihood, he will not betray the future.

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About the author

Sambit Dash

Sambit Dash is a faculty in Melaka Manipal Medical College, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. He is an alumnus of Takshashila Institution. He comments mainly on topics related to education, healthcare, science, Malaysia and Odisha.