Malaysia's incoming Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves outside his home in Kuala Lumpur before his swearing-in as the country's new leader. Photo: AFP/Nazri Rapaai/Malaysia's Dept of Information

When unbridled corruption drove Malaysians to vote for political reform in May 2018, it ruptured the 61-year reign of the Barisan Nasional (BN) party in government.

Under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, many high profile corruption cases were investigated, leading to charges being filed in court.

There was no arbitrary intervention on the part of the new government and even open protests were allowed without any new draconian laws being enacted. These significantly marked a positive shift in Malaysia’s political reform.

But beneath the reform, big-money lobbying, the shadow-trading of political favors and the deliberate impediments created by some Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) members within the PH coalition were disrupting the best efforts of the PH led government.

Their previous Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad knew that when the PH was voted into power, Malaysians had expected them to clean up their public administration and government-linked corporations and set new inclusive socio-economic directions going forward.

This meant that the well-being of the country and its people must come before any political partisanship or agenda. When forced into a political dilemma, he knew well that he had to step down and return the mandate back to the people.

Securing a new majority

When politicians from both sides of the divide start taking things into their own hands, things become chaotic.

When the BN-led coalition offered Mahathir”s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) the prime minister’s position, it was like a double-edged sword – damned if they accept, damned if they don’t.

Likewise, the PKR did the same, besides offering their unwavering support, which had previously been lacking.

When Mahathir did not respond to either of their proposals and continued exploring other options, they decided to forge forward with their own political agenda by going after Bersatu’s key members.

While the Perikatan Nasional (PN) ended up triumphing over the PKR-led faction, it was questionable whether they had the majority to form the new government, given the constant politicking at play.

If they did, then Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin would have allowed the no-confidence motion filed by Mahathir to proceed and use that same motion to officially legitimize PN as the new government and cement his legitimacy as the new prime minister of Malaysia.

Real progress beneath the chaos

At this juncture, Malaysia is looking like a divided nation as more chaos, protests and politicking are to be expected.

In Johor, the Sultan has also stepped forward and warned that he would dissolve the Johor state legislative assembly if politicking continued unabated.

But in reality, Malaysia is actually progressing quite well with its political reform. The chaos that is surfacing is reflective of just how desperate and fearful the corrupt politicians and their cronies have become of the reform that is sweeping across the country.

This is why it is attracting so much attention outside the country. Many democracies and even Islamic states are searching for new directions to forge their own inclusive political reform.

To many of them, the reform in Malaysia does have the potential to be an inclusive and progressive reform, as envisioned by the One Malaysia mantra, where the people, regardless of race and religion, collectively unite against corruption.

Saving grace

Even if the current PN government can ignore all the challenges and continues to stay in power, the current term of the present government is already at its halfway mark.

As such, not all politicians will want to implicate themselves with dirty politics or be seen as traitors of the people at the next election. This is proving to be the saving grace for Malaysia.

The most probable outcome of the current political stalemate is that more politicians will stay neutral to both PN and PKR in some explicit form. This will force the current government to lose its majority at some point and call for an early election.

This eventuality favors all politicians who have not compromised or trivialized the mandate of the people. If this scenario plays out, that will be the start of the critical second phase of the reform for Malaysia.

Enemies of the people

Beneath all the current political upheaval, it is suspected some foreign entities are at work as well. Once the many high profile corruption cases go to court, there is a real probability that more foreign entities will be exposed.

This is where Malaysia must unleash its investigative journalists and empower them to help uncover these hidden dangers by following the money trail in all major corruption cases and start looking beyond the Chinese, Saudi or the Emiratis.

If Malaysia should end up a divided nation again, then every Malaysian, regardless of their race or religion, will lose.

As such, Malaysians must find a way to agree to disagree and be united by a collective endeavor.

Will the “saving grace” and the “enemies of the people” be the galvanizing factors that finally unite Malaysia beyond politics, race and religion, and drive its political reform forward?

Joseph Nathan has been the principal consultant with several consultancy agencies in Singapore for the past 28 years. For Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, he undertakes consultancy via JN Advisory (M) Sdn Bhd. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia.

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