WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION

In the wake of Malaysia’s recent election, Richard Cockett believes the new government is making all the right moves towards meaningful reform

‘The world turned upside down’ is how one historian described the English revolution of the 1640s.  Malaysians are feeling much the same way after their own democratic revolution, which in early May saw the defeat of a political coalition that had ruled Malaysia uninterruptedly since independence in 1957. The return to power of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was remarkable, his margin of victory even more so. It was one of the great electoral upsets of our time, anywhere in the world.

But as the initial shock wears off, it is time to consider whether this new government will be, or can be, as radical and transformative as its electoral triumph suggests.  It is, after all, an uneasy coalition of former rivals and enemies, namely Dr Mahathir and his party of ethnic Malay privilege, and the former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition of ethnic minority representatives and Malay reformers. Can such an unlikely alliance really deliver profound, long-lasting change, as was promised at the polls?  During the election the two parts of the coalition held together principally because of their shared loathing of the defeated prime minister Najib Razak, mired in corruption scandals. There are plenty of sceptics, myself included.

MERITOCRACY: Tommy Thomas (l), Malaysia's first non-Malay attorney-general, and Gobind Singh Deo, the first Sikh to hold a cabinet post
MERITOCRACY: Tommy Thomas (l), Malaysia’s first non-Malay attorney-general, and Gobind Singh Deo, the first Sikh to hold a cabinet post

But so far, at least, the signs are promising. At the venerable age of 92, Dr Mahathir appears to be as keen on shaking up the old establishment as any 18-year-old student activist.

Most obviously, he seems intent on driving a coach and horses though all the old assumptions that the top posts in the state should be reserved exclusively for indigenous ethnic Malays, who make up about 60 per centof the population of 32 million.Thus one of the new government’s first acts was to appoint the first non-Malay attorney-general, the country’s top law officer. Tommy Thomas is an ethnic Indian, and a Christian. There was concerted opposition to this move from Islamic groups, on the spurious grounds that the post had to be held by a Muslim in a majority-Muslim country, but the King, onthe urging of Dr Mahathir, disregarded them and went ahead with the appointment anyway. It was a striking, highly symbolic statement of intent – that from now on such offices should be filled on merit rather than as an ethnic quota.

Malaysia’s new government is an uneasy coalition of former rivals and enemies

Nor was this mere tokenism. Gobind Singh Deo, of ethnic-Indian origin, has become the first Sikh to hold a cabinet post. He was appointed to the vital portfolio of communications and media. He is also the son of the late Karpal Singh, a lawyer, politician and one-time leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).He was a constant thorn in the side of the old regime – especially during the time when Dr Mahathir was in power – and was suspended from parliament on several occasions. He was jailed for sedition under Malaysia’s archaic and draconian internal security laws.

If Dr Mahathir’s appointment of Gobind Singh Deo was thus also a way of laying aside old rivalries, so too with the appointment of Lim Guan Eng, the current leader of the DAP, as finance minister. The former chief minister of Penang becomes the first ethnic Chinese to hold the post for 44 years. But his father, too, was a prominent politician and longstanding opponent of Dr Mahathir, arrested for sedition in 1987.  Another Indian-origin lawmaker from the DAP has also been appointed to the Cabinet, M Kula Segaran. He becomes the minister for human resources.

If the Cabinet itself now looks a great deal more like the country than before, so these new faces willhave to prove that this government can deliver real change. In this respect, they have been given some of the most important jobs. The new attorney-general, for instance, has been charged with clearing up the 1MDB scandal involving Najib Razak, accused of channelling about $700m from a state-run development bank into his personal bank account. The allegations against Najib Razak did much to undermine his credibility with the electorate. Tommy Thomas has promised that ‘there will be no cover up’, that he will go where the evidence leads him regardless of who might be implicated. This is nothing more than most Malaysians, disgusted by years of corruption, expect.

Much is also expected of Gobind Singh Deo. The last government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the media, and with it political dissent, was bitterly resented, especially by the young. The new minister has promised that he will allow greater press freedom, as was promised during the election, and that the media should be allowed to criticise the government more freely. ‘The media is the voice of the people and the government should be prepared to accept criticism for us to be able to undertake reform.’ He says that he is open to suggestions on how to proceed, and is talking to all the news agencies. Certainly, allowing a more critical media would be a major step forward.

And the new finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, has the unenviable task of balancing the government’s books after getting rid of the hated Goods and Services Tax, a key campaign pledge. He hopes that investor confidence will be restored after a full investigation of the 1MDB scandal, but a period of ‘belt-tightening’ seems likely too.

Allowing a more critical media would be a major step

Altogether, this is a fast, bright start in a conservative political environment. But then the demand for reform has been pent up over the last decade or so; there is a sense now of the dam-wall breaking, of a flood of new ideas and policies pouring forth.

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go. Critics are waiting impatiently for the government to repeal key pieces of the old regime’s repressive legislative programme such as the Anti-Fake News Law, introduced earlier this year, let alone much older authoritarian laws such as the Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012 and even the colonial-era Section Act of 1948, regularly used and abused by those in power (including Dr Mahathir) to quash legitimate domestic dissent. The new government must also establish a genuinely independent electoral commission, to ensure that Malaysia’s elections are no longer amongst the least free and fair in the world. That alone could be this new government’s most important legacy to the Malaysian people.

All the while, Malaysians will be watching to see if their newlyre-elected leader gives up the premiership in favour of Anwar Ibrahim, as he has promised to do after about two years. Mr Anwar was jailed on trumped-up charges of sodomy by the last government, which is why Dr Mahathir led the opposition to victory rather than Mr Anwar. The latter has since been pardoned by the King, and is now a free man. Presumably he will return to high office shortly. But whether the power-hungry Dr Mahathir does actually step aside for him remains to be seen. That, in many ways, will be the real test of how different this government is from its predecessors, and whether the old rivalries and antagonisms that poisoned politics for so long really have been set aside for the sake of a new Malaysia.


Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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