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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Reforming Malaysia is a Matter of Time and Timing

By Ooi Kee Beng

For The Edge, 26 October 2018

Toppling a regime that had been in power for 61 years was forbidding, to say the least. But Malaysia’s voters managed to pull it off at the ballot box on May 9 this year. And it was done without any accompanying subsequent incident of violence, which for those who know Malaysia well, was the most impressive and encouraging sign in the handover of power.

It was never going to be easy either for the succeeding Pakatan Harapan coalition of parties to meet the expectations of an impatient population used to being sceptical of the intentions and the competence of its politicians. So it does not help that the four member-parties of the Pakatan had promised in a manifesto going into the elections that it would carry out 10 key reforms before the first 100 days of taking power were over.

Try as it might, it could not hope to keep all the promises that it had so urgently made. No doubt the large portion of the population are reasonable enough to be patient about reforms being delayed, and to realise that the 100-day deadline was just an easily comprehensible line to propose. At the same time, reforms had been so long in coming that the process of reversing Malaysia’s fortunes cannot really wait.

There are so many reforms needed in Malaysia at this time that the whole five-year mandate of the Pakatan can be expected to be plagued by public disputes about whether the four-party coalition government is doing things enough, doing things fast enough or backtracking too much.

To be sure, some key promises have been kept and several iconic changes made for the hope and the credibility enjoyed by the new government led by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to endure, at least for a while yet.

In fact, the promise to repeal the unpopular goods and services tax was immediately kept, as was the assurance that the 1MDB scandal would be thoroughly investigated. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife have both been charged on multiple counts of corruption.

Mahathir has also cancelled a 55 billion-ringgit rail project run by Chinese investors, and postponed another, which upset neighbouring Singapore somewhat. These have raised many eyebrows and excited Malaysia watchers about the independent and perhaps trend-setting role the country is now positioned to play in the regional strategic grid.

The recent releasing of Uighur dissidents by Mahathir, who then sent them to Turkey against China’s wishes marked Malaysia’s desire to stake out its own path on the international stage in the coming years. The Deputy Defence Minister, Liew Chin Tong, while on a recent visit to Australia had also announced that Malaysia wished to build ties with China based on an understanding of equal status between the two countries.

Several earlier decisions made by the Mahathir government, which have been highly welcomed include the appointment of a Chinese Malaysian as finance minister, and an Indian Malaysian as attorney general. An East Malaysian was made chief justice. These all seem aimed at breaking the strong racial barriers that had plagued Malaysian governance since the 1970s, and have indeed soothed much of the inter-ethnic irritation that had marked the country for decades.

In many ways, the unchecked dynamics of race-based affirmative action policy making carried out for too long explains why the once highly popular Barisan Nasional coalition that governed the country since independence could all of a sudden lose a general election despite its stranglehold on the electoral process. The corrupting of Malaysia’s once-respected institutions had been a slow but steady process accompanied by the sidelining of the rule of law by the race logic of the BN. Reversing that now may not take decades, but it will definitely consume the whole five-year mandate won by the Pakatan on May 9.

The plan by the Pakatan government is for Mahathir to lead the process for about two years before he hands over the reins of power to the man he stopped in 1998 from succeeding him—Anwar Ibrahim. The struggle between these two men thus took two decades to settle, during which time the governance of the country went from bad to worse. The 1MBD scandal involving the top echelons of power and billions of dollars in a money-laundering scheme cum corruption case that made the loyal Malay constituency turn its back to the Barisan, is but the tip of the iceberg for what had gone wrong with governance in Malaysia.

Mahathir himself, often blamed for allowing the rot to begin during his time in power in 1981-2003 in his eagerness to pull the country—screaming, as it were—into the ranks of developed countries, is now leading the reform movement ignited in 1998 by Anwar to unseat him. Irony of ironies indeed.

The first promise the 93-year-old Mahathir kept on being voted back into power was to engineer a pardon for Anwar Ibrahim from the Malaysian king. Anwar, the de facto leader of Pakatan who had been taken out of the electoral running by the former regime after being sentenced for sodomy, has since gone on to win a by-election most impressively, which puts him back in parliament as a member, smoothening his path towards taking over from Mahathir when the latter retires for good over the coming two years.

There was indeed some urgency to getting Anwar into position to take over. Despite his age, Mahathir is generally seen to be the hardest working minister in the cabinet today. Eager to put the country back on track and to right the many wrongs that he himself had committed during his first period as prime minister, he is naturally the one in the greatest hurry. How long his health will hold is one of the greatest worries at this time.

There are also bound to be deep disagreements within the Pakatan coalition over what reforms are needed, what reforms are not possible, and how those that are agreed to are to be prioritised. The next changes the government is making are the banning of the death sentence and the repeal of unpopular legislations that have allowed for detention without trial.

These are encouraging signs of a reformist government taking itself seriously.

The dictum that reforms are best carried out in a hurry may hold a great deal of truth, but in Malaysia at this time, the number of amendments and reorganisations needed are so many and cover such a large area in governance—and indeed are limited only by the imagination of the government and of the country’s many social activists—that much wisdom and patience are needed from all concerned.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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