Inside Story

What sort of country will Malaysia become?

Can the five parties of the governing coalition reconcile very different priorities?

Tim Colebatch 16 May 2018 2787 words

Free at last: Anwar Ibrahim leaves a rehabilitation centre in Kuala Lumpur today. Fazry Ismail/EPA

We had a magical experience. Malaysia, a country held back for so long by authoritarian rulers, suddenly became the democracy it had always pretended to be. For the first time, the people were allowed to change the government. It was a historic moment, and many Malaysians and others felt a sense of jubilation.

It was like how we felt two and a half years ago when Burma’s military junta finally allowed the people to elect Aung San Suu Kyi as their ruler.

What’s happened in Burma since reminds us that euphoria doesn’t last. Running a successful campaign from opposition doesn’t mean you can run a successful government.

The challenges facing Dr Mahathir on his return as prime minister are different from those faced by Aung San Suu Kyi, but they will be just as tough. And the same goes for Anwar Ibrahim, assuming Mahathir keeps his word and hands over to him as prime minister.

To an outsider — and not having been to Malaysia for more than a decade, I am one — this election surely marks the end of the kind of government Malaysia has experienced for half a century: one based above all on racial division, authoritarian controls and social conservatism, with economic liberalism and wage suppression added to attract foreign investment.

What will replace it remains to be seen. US President Franklin Roosevelt’s quip — “There are many ways of going forward, but only one of standing still” — was never more relevant.

The new government is a coalition of Malay supremacists, Chinese who want to push back, modern Westernised reformers, conservative Muslims, and Borneo tribals with their own agenda. Its 150-page election manifesto and its earlier alternative budget reflect this dissonance.

But overall, the main stream of its manifesto is a social democratic reform agenda — a free media, an independent judiciary, higher wages, lower taxes, more spending — albeit with nods to continued Malay supremacy. Their model is an Asian version of Sweden. Yet their leader is a man whose twenty-two-year rule as prime minister exemplified the authoritarian abuses he is now promising to overthrow.

It is an extraordinary paradox. Nothing exemplifies this better than the fact that two of the three senior ministers Mahathir appointed on Saturday — party leaders Lim Guan Eng of the (Chinese) Democratic Action Party and Mat Sabu of the (Muslim) Amanah — first became friends in jail in the 1980s as political prisoners sent there by Mahathir.

No one should underestimate this remarkable ninety-two-year-old. He was a formidable prime minister in every way, a highly competent leader and, for all his faults, he left Malaysia a better and much more advanced country than the one he took over in 1981. There was corruption, but it was minor compared to what happened after he handed over. (In 2003, Transparency International ranked Malaysia as the thirty-seventh cleanest country in the world; by 2017, it had slid to sixty-second.)

In fifteen years out of office, and unable to influence his successors, he has clearly experienced a very different side of politics. It is fair to assume that in returning to power as the head of a coalition of his former enemies, he has not only embraced them but also embraced a good number of their policies.

Yet as soon as he was sworn in as prime minister, the old lion has shown his power in familiar ways. While the alliance won a crushing victory (and his own party has just thirteen of its 113 seats) he probably believes that it was his decision to offer himself as its leader that made the difference between victory and defeat — and he may well be right.

He is certainly acting as if he rules. He decided that he, not the parties or their leaders, will choose who represents them in cabinet. And his promise that after leading the coalition to power, he will hand over to the former deputy PM he put in jail, Anwar Ibrahim, has now become a promise to hand over the leadership “after a year or two.”

The Anwar camp has taken this sagely. His wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the eye surgeon who is now in her husband’s old job as deputy prime minister, said on Tuesday it is more important to get the reforms implemented than to have Anwar take over swiftly as prime minister. Mahathir had already made up with his former deputy; he wasted no time in visiting Anwar in his prison hospital after being sworn in. Anwar was released today.

An early, unambiguous agreement between the two leaders on the timing of the succession will be essential to the success of their government. Anwar has been quoted as saying he is prepared to wait a year or so for it to happen. Anything short of a clear transition plan will raise questions about Mahathir’s real intentions.

It is apt that his coalition is called the Pakatan Harapan (the Alliance of Hope). But the hope will be fulfilled only as effectively as the alliance can stay unified and satisfy the expectations it has raised. And the divisions that will threaten that unity in government are deep.

An out-and-out autocrat has taken charge of a coalition of democrats whose key platform is to wipe out the autocratic state.

A coalition of Malay and Chinese parties will have to negotiate a watering down of the long-running New Economic Policy set up in the 1970s by the father of vanquished prime minister Najib Razak, Tun Abdul Razak. The policy was developed in response to demands by Mahathir — then a young firebrand within the ruling party — that Malays be given preferment in various ways to transfer economic power from the Chinese.

Its election manifesto, despite trimming earlier promises, remains fiscally irresponsible. With Malaysia already in deficit, the new government has promised to remove the goods and services tax, cut taxes on petrol and cars, abolish road tolls (gradually), and ease student loan repayments, while increasing the minimum wage by 50 per cent, providing government funding to political parties, and increasing spending on health services, science and technology, renewable energy, police and military pensions, investment in the five poorest states, and subsidies to farmers and low-income families.

That will be challenging.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the nature of Malaysia. Compared to most other countries — especially other Islamic countries — it has been a standout economic success. In real terms (adjusted for price differences between countries), it is now one of the thirty largest economies in the world. Its real output per head is now three and a half times what it was when Dr Mahathir first became prime minister in 1981.

Government debt is rising but manageable, and the country sells more to the world than it buys. Its 32.5 million people now have a per-capita GDP roughly 60 per cent of Australia’s, compared to 30 per cent when Mahathir began his long reign. Malaysia will not meet his old goal of joining the club of rich nations by 2020, but it is getting closer. And its economy is still growing by 5 per cent a year, with unemployment just 3 per cent.

Yet in terms of its people’s aspirations, and its potential, Malaysia is an underachiever. Its rich neighbour Singapore is a constant reminder of that. Malaysia relies on global investment rather than its own innovation — and the investment is there because its workers remain relatively low-paid.

In Australia, wage earners’ share of national income has now shrunk below 50 per cent, but in Malaysia, it is just 34 per cent. In parts of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown you could think you’re in the first world, but most of the country belongs in the third.

And it is a nation divided on racial faultlines. Every Malaysian is defined by his or her race. On the Malay Peninsula, about two-thirds of the people are ethnic Malays, but economic activity is dominated by the quarter who are Chinese. Malay-run governments discriminate against the Chinese in a range of ways — such as university entry, which is one reason why so many Chinese Malaysians study in Australia. In Borneo, there are similar conflicts between Chinese and the locals.

Malaysia is also an Islamic state, and many Muslims, especially in its poorer states, want it to become more so. Since 1990 the east-coast state of Kelantan has been ruled by the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, or the Malaysian Islamic Party), which abolished cinemas and required men and women to use separate supermarket queues and park benches, and which was prevented only by Dr Mahathir’s intervention from imposing sharia law punishments such as stoning adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves.

How do you rule such a divided country? The government of the Barisan Nasional (National Front), which effectively governed Malaysia from its independence in 1957 until last week, did it by suppressing freedom. The front was dominated by the traditional Malay party, the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, but it roped in the minorities through its coalition partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress, the largely Chinese party Gerakan, and local parties on Borneo.

Newspapers and television were forced to become government propaganda outlets. With rare exceptions, the courts did what they were told. People had few means to fight injustices or change attitudes. There were free and fair elections, and opposition parties were allowed to win state elections. But at federal level, elections were conducted on rigged boundaries — so that in 2013 the government was returned easily, even though most people voted for the opposition.

This is the country that Dr Mahathir has returned to govern with his former enemies. It is a country they want to change — but in different ways.

Malaysia’s new rulers form an extraordinarily diverse coalition. It comprises four parties inside the alliance, and a fifth outside it. They are:

The Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party), with forty-seven seats. This is the party of the jailed leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters. It represents a multi-ethnic, liberal, forward-looking Malaysia that rejects the race-based, authoritarian, conservative policies of the outgoing government — as well as ordinary voters who just felt the government of outgoing prime minister Najib Razak went a bit far in introducing a goods and services tax and pinching government money. (Malaysians are used to a bit of corruption, but the siphoning of almost A$1 billion of government funds into Najib’s personal bank account was something else.)

The Democratic Action Party, or DAP, with forty-two seats. This is the party of Chinese Malaysians. Significantly wealthier than the Malays, they face discrimination in other ways. They want that discrimination ended — and many want a Malaysia where people are no longer defined by their race.

The Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, in which pribumi, or “of the land,” is defined as Malays and tribal people), with thirteen seats. This is the party founded in 2016 by Dr Mahathir and former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yasmin in protest against the apparent corruption of Najib.

Amanah (National Trust), with eleven seats. This comprises the former moderate wing of the Islamic party, PAS, which was expelled in 2015 when the ulamas took control. The moderates took over an old minor party, renamed it Amanah and joined Anwar’s coalition. They have a multi-racial outlook, but they are essentially conservative Muslims.

The Parti Warisan Sabah (Sabah Heritage Party), with eight seats. Based in tribal North Borneo, it too was formed by a senior minister who broke ranks over Najib’s corruption. Shafie Apdal had been vice-president of the dominant UMNO. But this time he allied with Mahathir’s coalition, and throughout Sabah they supported each other’s candidates and stood just one in each seat.

Given Najib’s reluctance to concede defeat, it was fortunate that the result gave him no choice. The ruling coalition lost 40 per cent of its seats, and its vote slumped from 47 per cent in 2013 to just 34 per cent. With federal and state elections held on the same day, it also lost most of its state governments. Najib could not pretend to have been re-elected. It was an unambiguous rout.

Of the 222 seats, the four members of the Alliance of Hope won 113, while ten other seats went to Warisan and two independents supported by the alliance. Another eighteen went to the Muslims of PAS, who also retained government in east-coast Kelantan, and won next-door Terengganu.

The Barisan Nasional was left with just seventy-nine seats — and thirty of them are in Borneo, where the anti-government mood was less intense. It would have won far fewer seats were it not for the gerrymander, which meant that seats ranged from 20,000 voters in pro-government areas on Sarawak to 150,000 in urban areas dominated by the Chinese. (The alliance’s manifesto promises to reduce but not eliminate this disparity.)

On the mainland, in Mahathir’s home state of Kedah, the ruling coalition slumped from ten seats to two, and in Johor state, from twenty-one seats to eight. In Kuala Lumpur, it was completely wiped out. Given that much of its strength traditionally has depended on its ability to provide favours in return for finance, it will face a hard time rebuilding from opposition.

But to emphasise what a mosaic of views Malaysians still hold, the election results were very different from one part of the country to another:

The reform coalition won a landslide victory in Malaysia’s industrial heartland along the west coast: Penang, Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding state of Selangor, and south to Johor. This is the richest and most developed part of Malaysia, and home to most of its Chinese and Indians. They gave Mahathir’s team a massive victory, by sixty-nine seats to eighteen. This is where the alliance has most of its seats, and its MPs will force Mahathir to move further than he might like.

In the two states on the northeast coast, by contrast, which are overwhelmingly Malay, the alliance won no seats at all, and just 12.8 per cent of the votes. While that might reflect tactical voting by some of its supporters, the election was essentially a contest between the Barisan Nasional and the PAS, with the Islamic party the clear winner.

In the four northern states, it was more of a three-party contest. The alliance won twenty-nine seats to the Barisan Nasional’s twenty-four, while the PAS won 23.6 per cent of the votes but only three seats. Mahathir’s party won Perak and his home state of Kedah, while the old government retained its dominance in inland Pahang and distant Perlis.

And on Borneo, the reformers won the highest vote, but the old guard won most of the seats. Mahathir’s coalition won in Sabah, but Najib’s largely held on in Sarawak, which is grossly overprovided with seats in parliament.

One electoral footnote. With the Chinese voting overwhelmingly for the Anwar–Mahathir–DAP coalition, the election virtually wiped out the minority parties of the old ruling coalition:

From thirty-one seats in 2004, the Malaysian Chinese Association now has just one, which it won by just 303 votes. Gerakan was wiped out completely, and the Malaysian Indian Congress was left with just two seats, both won by about 600 votes. The old guard now consists essentially of UMNO and its Borneo partners.

All told, only the west-coast states gave the new government its majority. Its dominance of Malaysia’s most advanced and richest region will provide the engine for reform, but Mahathir — and even Anwar — will instinctively weigh up the reaction in the conservative northeast and on Borneo in deciding how far and fast to proceed. There will be constant tensions within the coalition.

Yet that may prove an advantage. The closest parallel in Australia was the election of the Whitlam government in 1972; it likewise had a utopian manifesto full of new spending promises, but it lacked anyone with previous ministerial experience. With Mahathir, Anwar, Lim Guan Eng (a Monash University economics graduate and chief minister of Penang for a decade), and former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, this team has plenty of experience in government.

But it will be trying to govern in a very different way from the past. It has promised a free media, an independent judiciary, an independent anti-corruption commission, a gutting of the powerful Prime Minister’s Department, the abolition of the raft of security laws used against political opponents — as well as higher wages, lower taxes and more spending.

Mahathir is ninety-two. He looked tired when I interviewed him in 2002, and he is a lot older now. Even Anwar is seventy.

At least they appear to be off to a good start. But every day will rephrase the core question: what sort of country do these five very different parties want Malaysia to become? ●