How ‘polarising’ former strongman Mahathir Mohamad could bring unity to Southeast Asia

Richard Heydarian writes that the ageless, tough-talking new Malaysian prime minister is well equipped to help Asean assert its voice and influence global affairs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 9:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 11:27pm

Malaysia’s election stunner, which brought a nonagenarian back to power, is expected to have immense strategic ramifications for the region. At the remarkable age of 92, Mahathir Mohamad is the oldest elected leader on Earth, yet is far from a spent force. 

The return of the still fiery and feisty leader, who spent two decades in the previous century ruling his country with an iron fist, is likely to mean a more assertive Malaysian foreign policy. 

If anything, Mahathir is set to reassume his historical position as one of the titans of Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He will be inclined to push for a more strident and cohesive collective stance on central geopolitical and humanitarian issues facing the region. 

To be fair, domestic political exigencies will absorb much of the newly minted Malaysian prime minister’s attention. After all, he is overseeing a de facto regime change in the wake of Barisan Nasional’s first electoral defeat in history. 

Paradoxically, the Malaysian opposition had to reach far into the past, recruiting a former strongman to carve out a new democratic future. As part of a grand bargain with the opposition, Mahathir is expected to pave the way for his former rival and deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, to take power in the coming years. 

Malaysia’s Chinese projects: Mahathir to respect all agreements

In the meantime, the Malaysian leader has to address the public clamour for improved economic conditions, and especially rising housing costs and youth unemployment. More crucially, he will have to oversee the potential prosecution of former prime minister Najib Razak, currently under a travel ban amid the 1MDB corruption scandal. 

Yet, Mahathir, who is likely to enjoy two more years in power before embracing a permanent retirement from statesmanship, is also certain to introduce major changes in Malaysia’s foreign policy. 

First of all, he has indicated that he plans to reset bilateral relations with China, the Southeast Asian country’s most important economic partner. Unlike the previous administration, which developed an intimate relationship with Beijing, Mahathir views China as a mixture of threats and opportunities. 

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Certainly, the pragmatic new prime minister will seek to maintain mutually beneficial investment ties with China, which has offered close to US$134 billion in long-term investments. 

His presidential council of elders includes finance and central bank luminaries as well as Chinese-Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, who is likely to encourage the preservation of robust ties with Beijing. 

But the Mahathir government is expected to institute greater scrutiny of large-scale Chinese real estate and infrastructure projects that were signed during the corruption-plagued Najib administration. 

In particular, the new government could review Guangdong-based Country Garden’s US$100 billion luxury flat project in the state of Johor. The other Chinese-led project that could face greater scrutiny is the US$13 billion East Coast Rail Link, which aims to connect Kuala Lumpur’s metropolitan centre to less developed eastern regions. 

While these projects don’t benefit local industries and citizens, any serious re-examination of them could have a chilling effect on investment sentiment. Thus, the new government will have to strike a balance between good governance reforms and overall investment sentiment. 

For decades, Asean has lacked a central figure to assert its voice among the great powers. The tough-talking and outspoken Mahathir is well positioned to fill the gap. 

The Mahathir administration also could adopt a tougher stance in the South China Sea, where Malaysia occupies several land features contested by China. In particular, Malaysia controls Swallow Reef in the Spratly Islands, a reclaimed land feature with advanced civilian and naval facilities. 

Eager to maintain cosy relations with Beijing, the Najib administration had taken a relatively quiescent approach to the disputes. The new Malaysian leader, however, has called for a more strident assertion of his country’s claims in the area, especially in light of China’s rapid land-reclamation activities and deployment of advanced military assets at nearby disputed land features. 

Malaysia also is concerned about the growing presence of Chinese fisherman and para-military forces within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. 

Given his gravitas and stature, Mahathir could leverage his seniority and influence in Asean to call for a more coherent regional response to the maritime disputes. He has already indicated his preference for negotiating a mutually acceptable arrangement that would preserve stability, prevent conflict and protect the interest of smaller claimant states. 

Mahathir also is likely to call for a tougher regional stance on Myanmar’s Rohingya humanitarian crisis that resonates heavily in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country. 

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In recent years, the prime minister has been an outspoken critic of the Myanmar government for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority. He would be expected to pressure Asean to adopt a more robust statement on and call for a swift and irreversible end to the ongoing campaign of persecution in Rakhine state. 

Above all, the charismatic Mahathir can bring a greater sense of urgency and vision to a whimpering regional body that has sorely struggled to assert its importance and maintain internal coherence. 

For decades, Asean has lacked a central figure to assert its voice among the great powers. The tough-talking and outspoken Mahathir is well positioned to fill the gap, re-enacting his historical role in steering Asean towards a greater role in shaping global affairs. 

In a surreal twist of events, the polarising former strongman can act as a force for unity and purpose, both at home and across the region. 

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author