Mahathir must now rebuild Malaysia’s judiciary and police, two institutions he once eroded, to restore people’s faith
Lynette Ong says Malaysia’s success now depends on having a fair judiciary, police, press and economic policy – all areas where Mahathir got poor marks in his first stint as prime minister
I grew up in Malaysia during the Mahathir Mohamad era when the country was part of the coveted Asian tigers club that boasted strong economic growth. Yet, much of the prosperity came at the expense of curbed political expression and restricted civil liberties. The recent election outcome that ended the six-decade rule by the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), caught many in the diaspora community by surprise, myself included.
I study how authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments tilt the level playing field to stay in power for as long as they can. Thanks to electoral boundaries egregiously drawn to their favour, BN continued to claim victories in the last few general elections before the most recent one, despite consistently losing the popular vote. Malaysia is among the worst offenders of gerrymandering in the world, a common election-cheating tactic used by the incumbents to deliver a favourable outcome.
By manipulating how electoral boundaries are drawn, BN could give rural voters greater weight at the expense of the urban population that tends to support the opposition. On top of that, vote-buying by the BN and the Malay Umno party machinery consistently helped to deliver goodies and political support in rural areas.
How, then, did the opposition alliance, the Pakatan Harapan, which faced such a strong headwind, manage a landslide victory this time? Many see it as a “Malaysian tsunami” or people’s revolt against the Najib family. Others give credit to Mahathir for leading an otherwise splintered opposition alliance that had difficulties getting their act together.
Also, the election took place against the backdrop of an escalating cost of living that erodes the purchasing power of the middle class and squeezes the poor. Juxtapose this against the profligate lifestyle of Najib Razak and his Hermes-handbag loving wife, Rosmah, and we conjure up an image of the people’s triumph against a kleptocrat.
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To put it into context, elections have rarely resulted in a change of government in Southeast Asia. Further, in the recent memories of the region where kleptocrats were overthrown – Suharto of Indonesia in 1998 and Marcos of the Philippines in 1986 – both incidents were preceded by violent riots and mass protests. The fact that the regime change in Malaysia has taken place without bloodshed makes it even more remarkable.
Despite the euphoria, it is important to recognise that much remains to be done to move the country forward. Over a long period, the law and judiciary, instead of delivering justice, have been used by the government as a weapon against political opponents and dissidents. Anwar Ibrahim, then leader of the opposition, was thrown in jail on the trumped-up charge of sodomy to disqualify him from contesting elections.
Make no mistake, though, it was Mahathir who first manipulated judicial sentencing to eliminate his then heir-apparent turned political opponent. No doubt Najib’s administration made it far worse. Under Najib, the government continued using the court to hand out sentences selectively for political ends.
Mahathir’s government also routinely invoked the Internal Security Act to round up political dissidents without trial. Najib’s government passed the National Security Act earlier this year to allow it to declare martial law in areas deemed to be under “security threat”. A few weeks before the most recent election, his government also passed the Anti-Fake News Act aimed at limiting criticism against the government in traditional and social media.
Law enforcement also suffered a significant decline in legitimacy under Najib’s rule. The police force in the 1980s and 1990s during Mahathir’s time was certainly not immune to bribery or petty corruption. Nevertheless, the reputation of the force took a nosedive under Najib’s rule with obstruction of due process in several high-profile murder cases associated to the scandal-laden prime minister.
The judiciary and police are examples of the relatively strong state institutions Malaysia inherited from the British. They were undermined during Mahathir’s era, and then severely eroded further under Najib’s rule. These are two prime institutions the new government must concentrate their energies on rebuilding, to restore people’s faith.
The new government must also stem the long-standing brain drain problem that deprives Malaysia of much-needed talent to modernise its bureaucracy and drive its economy forward. It should start with the education policy that not only fails many young talented people but is also grossly inequitable in providing access across ethnic groups. The middle class that could afford and who have an opportunity logically opt to migrate overseas.
At the root of the brain drain problem is the New Economic Policy (succeeded by the New Development Policy), the affirmative action programme that was formulated in the aftermath of the racial riots in 1969. Research has shown that the policy not only fails to raise the living standard of the Malay populace, it widens the gap between the haves and have-nots among Malays.
The country may have just witnessed political democratisation, but its economy is likely to get worse before it gets better, even when the new government is taking swift action to address the 1MDB scandal. Cronyism has long forged the nexus between politics and economics in Malaysia whereby politicians hand out pet projects without open bidding to their cronies in exchange for political patronage.
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The new government is set to reappraise the large business conglomerates that run major industries and projects from the Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast to the state of Sarawak in Borneo that have been allocated state resources. While this is necessary to break up the cronyistic networks of the previous regime, it may dampen some economic activities and hurt growth in the short to medium term.
Some cast doubt on Mahathir’s intention to engineer a sea change to the political system. After all, he was the initiator of the process of reversing institution-building, which ultimately paved the way for further abuse of power by his successor. Others doubt his capacity to steer reform into the future, given his age.
Irrespective of that, it is time to look beyond the personality to the institutions that could act as checks and balances to the political leaders in power, whoever they are. A robust democracy hinges on vigorous institutions rather than strong personality.
Lynette H. Ong is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She writes about authoritarian politics, and is an expert of China. Follow her on twitter @onglynette