Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference in Putrajaya on May 9, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan

One year ago today (May 9), Malaysians from all walks of life went to the ballot box seeking change. Victory for Pakatan Harapan, a reform-oriented multi-party alliance led by 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, stunned observers and brought six-decades of rule by the once-formidable Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to a jubilant end.

At a time when many lamented democratic backsliding in the region and beyond, the unlikely election of a pluralistic ruling coalition bent on broad political reform imbued Malaysia with a newfound significance. Economic headwinds and widening sociopolitical polarization, however, have since complicated matters for the upstart leadership.

Though some argue campaign vows have been realized, perceptions of the government’s performance after a year in power are decidedly mixed. According to research by the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency, recent approval ratings for both the ruling coalition and the prime minister have suffered a significant slide.

Mahathir, an iconic political personality who previously served as premier for over two decades before his re-election, polled at 83% shortly after taking office last May. His popularity, according to a survey published last month, has almost halved to just 46%. Harapan’s rating fared similarly with approval falling from 79% last May to 39% in March of this year.

Concerns over corruption, rising living costs and the preservation of Malay rights were among the top three concerns of survey respondents, anxieties that a resurgent right-wing opposition deftly leveraged as it clinched three back-to-back by-election victories since the beginning of the year.

Despite its falling popularity, a separate survey by polling firm Kajidata Research found that a 40% majority of Malaysian voters still preferred Harapan in comparison to other parties, though support for the government was lower among rural and low-income communities that are an essential vote bank for the coalition as it seeks to turn the tide and win support for its policies.

Rooting out entrenched corruption has been Harapan’s key deliverable, with scandal-ridden former prime minister Najib Razak first in the firing line. One of several graft trials that have Malaysians on tenterhooks, the ex-premier faces dozens of charges in connection with billions of dollars allegedly pilfered from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, attends the opening ceremony of the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, attends the opening ceremony of the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and former deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, among others, are also ensnared in the prosecutors’ dragnet over alleged graft. While efforts to get to the bottom of corruption remain popular with voters, some are uneasy over Harapan’s tendency to blame the former regime when questioned over the slow pace of change.

After taking power, Harapan said public debt levels exceeded 1 trillion ringgit (US$240.3 billion), a substantially higher figure than the Najib administration claimed. While the government has attempted an economic course correction, recent data points to declining investor confidence and bearish market sentiment.

To curb spending and curtail future debt, the Malaysian government chose to cancel or renegotiate several multibillion-dollar mega-projects inked by the previous government, including those backed by China and neighboring Singapore, moves that have generally been politically popular at home despite triggering initial market jitters.

Last month, Malaysia announced that it would move ahead with a multibillion-dollar Beijing-backed rail link on more equitable terms after reaching a deal with the project’s Chinese state-owned contractor to cut construction costs nearly one-third, an outcome that analysts and observers generally saw as a much-needed victory for Harapan.

Many in the region and beyond watched as Mahathir, the world’s oldest serving leader, went about recalibrating ties with China after calling out his predecessor’s unscrupulous borrowing and stance toward the Asian superpower, with some seeing his strategy and tactics as an example of how best to negotiate with Beijing.

On the domestic front, however, the government appears to be perpetually fighting fires while failing to speak with a single voice on issues dividing the electorate on racial and religious grounds. Perceptions that Harapan is not sufficiently committed to safeguarding the interests and privileges of the Malay Muslim majority are a key stumbling block.

Members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) listen to a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
UMNO members listen to a speech by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Photo: Facebook

Since being toppled last year, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the lynchpin party of the former ruling BN coalition, has sought to dispel impressions of it being a mainstay for corrupt elites and blood-blue patricians, fashioning itself instead as a disruptive populist vehicle championing the preservation of Islam and Malay rights.

It has formalized a loose alliance with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a hardline Islamist party that seeks to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state with greater criminal powers for sharia courts, in hopes of nurturing a Malay Muslim wave capable of toppling Harapan, which they allege is beholden to a plot by ethnic Chinese politicians to deny Malays political power.

“The defeat of BN, with UMNO at its helm, was an epoch-making event. UMNO was an institution that was so deeply and historically intertwined with what was seen as the Malay position that its defeat came as a huge, monumental shock to a lot of people,” Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist and public intellectual, told Asia Times.

“I don’t think the UMNO leadership, and a very big segment of the Malay society, could accept it psychologically and so there’s been a lot of exaggeration about how Malay interests are threatened as a way of restoring their own position,” he said, noting that Harapan’s inability to counter opposition rhetoric has compounded its problems.

When Harapan pledged to ratify a United Nations statue against racial discrimination, known as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose the move, fearing it covertly sought to unwind long-standing affirmative action policies and special privileges accorded to Malays.

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According to Article 153 of the country’s constitution, ethnic Malays are granted special status as “sons of the soil”, or bumiputera. The New Economic Policy (NEP), race-based measures granting Malays preference over affordable housing, university scholarships and government contracts, entered force following deadly Chinese-Malay race riots in 1969.

The memory of May 13 – the date when sectarian violence that claimed hundreds of lives unfolded 50 years ago – still looms large in the national consciousness as ethno-nationalist activism pushed by the right-wing opposition widens polarization across political and racial lines and keeps race relations in the multi-ethnic nation on edge.

“A lot of lies were churned out” that the anti-discrimination convention Harapan pledged to ratify would have been to the detriment of ethnic Malays, said Muzaffar. “The reaction [from Malays] was very strong but Mahathir, being the seasoned politician that he is, read the signs very quickly and decided not to go ahead.”

Malaysia’s Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Ismail in a 2018 image. Image: YouTube

Harapan similarly reneged on plans to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after critics alleged a government plot to undermine the country’s powerful constitutional monarchs, opening a fresh clash with Johor’s influential ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, and his acerbic-tongued crown prince.

“The government withdrew from the Rome Statute because it was easy to whip up sentiments along these lines, especially as one or two members of the royalty itself helped to manipulate these issues because they’re against the Harapan government and against Mahathir in particular,” Muzaffar told Asia Times.

Dennis Ignatius, a former ambassador and veteran Malaysian diplomat, believes Harapan’s leaders must first be “convinced of what they want to accomplish and then be prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend their policies. Crumbling in the face of opposition as they did on ICERD, the Rome statute sends the wrong signal and demoralizes their base,” he said.

Ignatius said that Harapan lacked “a clear vision and purpose of where they want to take the country. They need “a common plan of action on issues like national unity, education reform, the NEP and economic uplift. These are the critical issues that will define our nation going forward. I don’t see such a vision as yet.”

The veteran diplomat did, however, note that the government had made progress in some areas: “The fight against corruption, appointments that have increased the integrity of the judiciary, an election commission that we can finally have confidence in, are all very significant. They have also opened up the public space for discussion and dissent.”

“The most positive aspect of this multi-party coalition,” said Muzaffar, “is that they’ve stood together. If you look at the background of the parties involved and the constituencies that were important to each of them, the fact that they’ve remained together is an achievement, especially for Mahathir, who is the glue that holds the coalition together.”

Mahathir’s bumiputera-centric Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), the left-of-center multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), progressive Islamist outfit Amanah, and Warisan, a Sabah-based political party, are among Harapan’s diverse component parties.

Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech during a CEO conference organised by a local management association in Manila on September 4, 2018. - Anwar was jailed in 2015 on sodomy charges that critics say were politically motivated and then released in May 2018 after then-Prime Minister Najib Razak's election defeat. (Photo by TED ALJIBE / AFP)
Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and leader-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech during a CEO conference in Manila on September 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Given that many see the nonagenarian premier as integral to the coalition’s political cohesion, certain anxieties persist about what could happen after Mahathir steps aside. Veteran politician and reformasi icon Anwar Ibrahim, 71, is slated to take over as prime minister when Mahathir retires, though a date for that transition has not been set.

Putting a time limit on Mahathir’s rule would make him a “lame-duck leader” Anwar has claimed as he bides his time as a parliamentary backbencher. Though relations between the two men – who have been both political allies and bitter rivals at different intervals of Malaysia’s recent history – appear cordial, factional politicking continues to play out behind the scenes.

“Both Mahathir and Anwar should pay serious attention to the succession issue,” said Muzaffar, who was once the deputy president of the Anwar-led PKR, now the ruling coalition’s largest party. “While they make statements that are politically correct, if you look at their followers and manipulations that are taking place, it’s not healthy.

“One has to put a stop to it. The best way of doing that is for Anwar to join the cabinet and to become the deputy prime minister, the position which his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, holds at the moment, making clear what the line of succession is so there won’t be any sort of internal maneuvering or attempts by one side to undermine the other,” he said.

“There is widespread support for Mahathir to stay for as long as possible but the longer he stays the harder it will be for Anwar to unite the coalition under his leadership and successfully stave off the challenge from a resurgent UMNO,” said Ignatius. “Many also have doubts about whether Anwar is the right person to lead Harapan to victory at the polls.”

“It is not cast in stone or a foregone conclusion that Anwar will lead the country,” believes Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies, who noted that PKR has “been careful not to rock the political boat” and has moved “in concert with Mahathir’s Bersatu on domestic exigencies and initiatives.”

Harapan, said the academic, “has gone into auto-pilot mode [and is] simply enacting incremental domestic reforms because the priority for the government is to win the next general election by preserving, if not increasing, the support of the Malays in the light of some semblance of solidarity between UMNO and PAS.”

“Racialized politics coupled with religious fervor within the larger context of Malay nationalism will remain the prevailing orthodoxy under Harapan, although perhaps not as intense or excessive under the previous BN regime,” Mustafa said, an appraisal that would not sit well with many who cast their ballots for change on May 9 last year.

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