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Peaceful transfer of power is just what Malaysia needs

Mahathir Mohamad is making the right moves as comeback prime minister. His reform pledges are what Malaysians who voted for change want and the country needs for its economic potential to be unleashed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 8:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 8:33am

The peaceful transfer of power in Malaysia that foreign governments and investors hoped for has seemingly come to pass.

Mahathir Mohamad is making the right moves as comeback prime minister, ensuring a pardon and freedom from prison for political ally and former rival Anwar Ibrahim, making appointments that signal a more inclusive administration and taking steps to fulfil election promises.

His reform pledges are similarly necessary, with emphasis on fighting corruption and restoring the rule of law and rebuilding institutions such as the judiciary and police. It is what Malaysians who voted for change want and the country needs for its economic potential to be unleashed.

Such a transition would not have appeared likely given Malaysia’s political circumstances. The ousted ruling coalition had been in power for all of the country’s 61 years and had jealously guarded its hold through eroding the independence of institutions and censoring the media.

The bitter rivalry between Mahathir and former prime minister Najib Razak and acrimonious exchanges during campaigning looked destined to ensure a rocky handover. But the process was instead peaceful, with both sides appreciating the necessity of the leadership changing hands in an orderly manner.

One of Mahathir’s election pledges was that Anwar would take over as prime minister after “one or two years”. The former protégé and then opponent, twice jailed on spurious sodomy charges, agreed to a political partnership to rout Najib at the ballot box.

His wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, has made history by being appointed Malaysia’s first woman deputy prime minister. Anwar has wisely given Mahathir a wide berth, opting to plan strategically.

Malaysia’s Mahathir: good news for China, not so much for the US

The returned leader has much to do. A key election issue was allegations of corruption within Najib’s government and an investigation has been opened into the ex-premier’s alleged involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund scandal.

The politics of race are deeply entrenched, causing disparity and discontent for minority Chinese and Indians. Mahathir’s appointment of Lim Guan Eng as finance minister, the first Chinese to helm the ministry for 44 years, will go a way towards changing perceptions.

So, too, will Azizah’s appointment for the role of women in society, the quashing of Anwar’s sodomy conviction to the gay and lesbian community and the decision to scrap a controversial 6 per cent goods and services tax.

Managing the new coalition government with a mix of ideologies and views on the way forward will be challenging. But the new leaders have a strong mandate to rule. Malaysia’s people have a crucial role; they have to work peaceably together to assure the stability the nation needs to thrive and its neighbours and the region expect.