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

Rampant party infighting has rocked Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government after it suffered its fourth and biggest by-election loss since coming to power in the historic May 2018 general election victory.

The opposition candidate from Barisan Nasional (BN) won the Tanjung Pagar by-election with a thumping majority. The election was called after a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Dr Farid Rafik, who was also the member of Parliament for Tanjung Piai, died of a heart attack.

From the outset, the by-election was set to be a tough fight for the government, as BN candidate Wee Jeck Seng used to be the MP for Tunjung Pagar before losing the seat in a three-way fight in the 2018 election.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself admitted that while he had been expecting a loss, the scale of the defeat took him by surprise.

Mahathir has since pledged to hold a “detailed, serious and honest post-mortem” and vowed to do better as he prepares to reshuffle his cabinet.

Malaysian prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim said the result was humbling and called on the ruling coalition to do better in governing the country.

Some members of the ruling coalition have blamed the election loss squarely on Mahathir and called for him to step down and hand over power to Anwar, his anointed successor.

The persistent uncertainty over the expected power transition has led to intense infighting within the ruling coalition.

Anwar is locked in a bitter public dispute with his estranged deputy Azmin Ali, who holds the powerful position of economic affairs minister, for influence within the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the largest party in the ruling coalition.

Such internal party squabbles distract the government from its duty to govern the country and sully its public image.

Eighteen months after the historic election win, the PH government has seen much of its initial public goodwill disappear as voters start to go sour on the government over its perceived failure to fulfill various campaign promises.

And it has undermined its strong support among Malaysian Chinese, whose defections led to BN losing of its crucial two-thirds majority support.

For many, Mahathir’s attendance at the Malay Dignity Congress was the final straw. Many Chinese voted for the new government in the hope that the country would become more inclusive and accepting of all racial and religious backgrounds. However, 18 months after the election, the new government still finds itself reverting to the old political formula for governing the country. Although the new government is more multiracial in composition than the previous government, which was very strident on Malay rights, the old system of special rights for Malays largely remains with a government unable or unwilling to take on vested interests.

The government came into office with only 30% of the Malay votes, and it needs to secure more support from the ethnic majority to remain in power. Hence it is logical for Mahathir to appeal to the Malays by attending the Malay Dignity Congress. But in the eye of the many Chinese Malaysians who voted for Mahathir and PH in the hope of an inclusive and accepting Malaysia, it was an act of betrayal.

Many are also incensed with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the coalition partners, for its perceived failure to stand up to Mahathir for the community’s interest.

On the other hand, Malay voters have their own fair share of grievances. The government’s bid to ratify the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is widely seen in the Malay community as a threat to its cherished special rights enshrined within the constitution. The backlash among the community forced the government to backtrack and abandon any attempt to ratify the treaty.

Many Malays are also turned off by the public spat between the prime minister and the Johor royal family earlier this year.

The Johor royal family is one of the Malay royal houses and is widely revered by Malays. The Malay royals are seen as a symbol and guardian of the Malay culture and special rights within the country.

Many Malays, especially of the younger generation, were not around during Mahathir’s first time in office and are not privy to the allegations of excesses and abuse of power by various royal family members during that period.

The ugly public exchange of words between Mahathir and the Johor royal family has dented the image of the prime minister, who had fashioned himself as a staunch defender of Malay rights in his first term as prime minister.

The appointment of non-Malays to the powerful positions of finance minister and attorney general added to the anxiety of the Malay community about its position in post-Najib Razak Malaysia.

Last, the government’s failure to improve the livelihoods of ordinary Malaysians is the one single common grievance that many Malaysians regardless of racial and religious backgrounds have against the government.

Despite the change of government, many Malaysians are still struggling to make ends meet and grapple with the rising cost of living.

Many voted for the new government with the expectations of an economic revival for the country. But 18 months later, many ordinary Malaysians are still not seeing the uptick in economic fortunes they expected.

Patience is wearing thin among many, and this contributed to the landslide defeat for the government in the by-election.

So as the government prepares to move on, it urgently has to do a few things to get back on the right track.

First, there is a need for the current uncertainty over the power transition to be cleared up. Prime Minister Mahathir must set out a clear roadmap for the handover of power to Anwar to put a stop all speculations. The roadmap should spell out a rough timeline and leave it up to the two men to decide when the handover of power will take place.

A clear and settled power transition will induce investor confidence and encourage foreign investments in the country, which will create more opportunities for the people.

Second, there is a need for the government to look at some of its past decisions and consider a rethink. One that comes to mind will be the government U-turn on Lynas waste disposal.

The government came to power with a clear promise not to allow Lynas, an Australian mining company operating in Malaysia, to deposit its radioactive waste within the country. The government’s decision to scrap its requirement for Lynas to repatriate its waste as a prerequisite for its license renewal is one of the many major U-turns that damaged its credibility and caused it to lose support among its voters. The government should fulfill its promises no matter how tough it is to do so.

Last, the government should dedicate all its energies to tackling the cost of living and the economy.

It is time for the government to kick-start long-stalled reforms to make the economy more efficient and encourage more foreign investment to create opportunities for its citizens.

While institutional reforms such as the recent move to lower the voting age to 18 are commendable, they mean nothing to the ordinary man on the street who is more concerned with making ends meet.

While the government may have thought of playing the race card to save itself, it would be wise to remember the lessons behind the fall of the previous government.

The previous government had been unabashedly staunch on Malay rights but its failures in managing the economy and the cost of living ultimately enabled the opposition to gain vital support at the ballot box to end BN’s grip on power.

If PH wants to retain power in the next election, which must be held by 2023, it has to prove itself in managing the economy.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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