Can Malaysia’s New Government Deliver on Reform?

Recent Features


Can Malaysia’s New Government Deliver on Reform?

Less than a year since it took power, the Pakatan Harapan government is confronting questions about the pace of promised reforms.

It hasn’t quite been a year since Pakatan Harapan won over Malaysia in the first change of government since independence in 1957. But change hasn’t come quickly enough to New Malaysia. By-elections in the Cameron Highlands and Semenyih were both won by the opposition, while the governing coalition begins to turn on itself.

Speaking in Jakarta on March 11 at the Habibie Center, an Indonesian think tank, political expert Bridget Welsh was quick to remind the audience that real fundamental reform needs time. Welsh, an academic and longtime Malaysia watcher, notes that the characterization of the election win as a “regime change” is not the whole truth.

“The change of government is not necessarily an embrace of democratic reform,” she said. “Many voters for Mahathir Mohamad voted for him as the old Mahathir, strongman Mahathir Mohamad as opposed to in the democratic context.”

The inherent difference in motivation from young, progressive Malaysians who voted for PH as a means to remove the corrupt Barisan Nasional government and older generations nostalgic for Mahathir’s previous decades in power creates an electorate near impossible to satisfy. A form of what Welsh calls “savior politics” has emerged, placing unrealistic hopes on Mahathir and successor-to-be Anwar Ibrahim to enact revolutionary change reflective of fundamentally different demands of their base.

“There is no consensus on what reform should be,” Welsh says. Pakatan Harapan is a very broad tent and is cognizant of catering to the non-majority racial and religious groups represented, even if it is not always successful. This has created a stalemate exasperated by PH’s “challenges in managing expectations” leading to the emerging “sense among many quarters, especially in key parts of the base, that is has not met those expectations.”

Malaysia has, of course, seen some noteworthy reforms under the new government. Media restrictions have loosened under PH and “mainstream media is no longer seen as an extension of the government.” Still, this has not led to broad reforms within the industry, and while diversification is occurring overall standards in reporting are still improving.

Likewise, reform to the Election Commission was one of the first points of order for the new government. Removing many of the BN-appointed commissioners has cleaned up the body, but wider changes to problematic delineation are desperately needed to ensure robust democracy prospers.

Malaysia remains a “flawed democracy,” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index, but there are bright spots. Participation in the election was lauded in the EIU white paper, but for Malaysia to climb farther, Welsh sees a handful of key points that must be addressed. A secure transition of power is vital. The rumor mill suggesting tensions between Mahathir and Anwar could sink the promised succession has undermined both markets and faith in the coalition.

Welsh agrees Anwar is likely to be the next prime minister, but suggests the promised two-year plan could take longer. She also posits a longer-term worry to Pakatan Harapan’s longevity as a political force — who after Anwar?

Second, economic reforms must move quicker. “Deliverables on bread-and-butter issues is essential,” Welsh says. “Failures in democracy come when an economy is not functioning. This government needs to put more priority on economic institutional reform that has legs, it has to build a foundation.”

Relatedly, she says education reform is another key portfolio in which the government has faltered. Speaking to a largely Indonesian audience, Welsh compared the two country’s education sectors, noting that young Indonesians have wider opportunities to seek out a decent education. Stronger education will give young Malaysians both better job opportunities in the future and the education needed to make informed decisions in shaping a Malaysian democracy of the future.

Finally, in a refrain also familiar to Indonesian audiences, Malaysian leaders must make a concerted effort to tackle the “racial and religious intolerance” that mars the country. The marriage of the UMNO-PAS opposition threatens to pit the Muslim-Malay majority against minorities in a proven vote winner at the expense of harmony. Hot button issues like child marriage would seem like no-brainers to progressive PH supporters but efforts to stamp out the practice have slowed, citing opposition from conservative Muslim groups. Likewise, the Selangor temple riot and subsequent anti-International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination demonstration showed speedy mobilization of hardline groups.

Still, there are some reasons to keep the faith in an emergent, robust Malaysian democracy. That last weekend’s International Women’s Day march in Kuala Lumpur was seized upon by conservative critics is hardly as remarkable as the fact that it was held at all. Ultimately, Welsh says, it’s Malaysians, not their government, who will drive change.