Malaysia’s tough reforms ahead


August 31, 2018

Malaysia’s tough reforms  ahead

Donald L Horowitz / Khmer Times
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Malaysia’s new government faces challenges. The most urgent parts of a democracy agenda, non-discrimination and freedom of thought, may be hard to secure rapidly or fully due to the constellation of forces now sitting in Malaysia’s Parliament, writes Donald L Horowitz.

For the first time in the history of Malaysia, the opposition has defeated a sitting government at the polls. During the long rule of the Barisan Nasional (BN), Malaysia suffered serious degradation of its legal and political institutions, and the new coalition government of the Pakatan Harapan knows that it must deal with daunting challenges of reform.

The challenges are many. The judiciary needs new and firm guarantees of its independence and competence. Official bodies that regulate elections, fight corruption and cope with crime require fool proof insulation from political meddling. The federal system must be revitalised to ward off discontent and separatism in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, whose powers have been eroded and resources exploited by the former BN central government and its local allies.

Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian minorities are strong supporters of the new government and need to find their way into the country’s mainstream after a long period of marginalisation. Religious minorities have to be freed from harassment, even persecution, by an overblown religious bureaucracy that also victimises moderate Muslims and members of dissenting Islamic sects. A country that lost large portions of political freedom confronts a heavy agenda of revitalisation.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad might be thought an unlikely reformer, given his prior record in the office from 1981 to 2003. But his capacity to get things done – including a major progressive reform of Islamic law that he commissioned in the 1980s – should serve him well.

As head of the smallest party in a four-party coalition, he will be obliged to heed the voices of his partners in Anwar Ibrahim’s multi-ethnic but Malay-majority People’s Justice Party (PKR), the mainly Chinese and Indian Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the moderate Muslim National Trust Party (Amanah). All four are represented in a cabinet that consists of a mix of fresh faces and leaders who are experienced in running what were previously opposition states. It is far more heterogeneous than the BN’s last cabinet.

Many problems are urgent, and short-term remedies have already been initiated. Personnel of doubtful probity have been removed from important commissions, which have also been taken out of the prime minister’s office. A clean-up of the police is underway, and two senior judges whose appointments were seen by the bar as unlawful have resigned. The new government has been quick to act when it comes to tarnished officials, and it has promised to repeal oppressive laws.

Systemic reforms will be harder. Perhaps least difficult will be revision of relations with the two Borneo states, because a blueprint already exists. Malaysia’s central government violated commitments to Sabah and Sarawak by respecting neither their autonomy nor their claim on their own resources. A negotiated outcome on both states should be facilitated by the original agreement, made in 1963, and by the disproportionate number of seats the states occupy on government benches in Parliament.

Creating real independence for institutional bodies that need to be free of partisan meddling is more challenging. That will require borrowing of techniques developed elsewhere. At the very least, durable institutions depend on deliberate decisions that are made ceremoniously, are well recorded, and are widely agreed, so that any violation will be immediately obvious.

Knottier still are problems of inter-ethnic relations. Chinese and Indian voters overwhelmingly cast ballots for the new government, regardless of the ethnic identity of the specific candidate. Disaffected by discrimination, they are expecting a new deal. This expectation may well be fulfilled by a new generation of Malay politicians who consider these voters fellow citizens.

A major obstacle is the split among Malay voters. Only about 30 per cent of Malays voted for Pakatan candidates, and the now opposition Barisan Nasional received almost no votes from non-Malays. Malay voters have become used to claims that the Pakatan is really controlled by its Chinese component, the DAP. Malay parties in the governing coalition will be wary of providing anything that can be interpreted as confirmation of this claim. There have already been complaints about appointments of non-Malays to important positions.

There has also been resistance to reforming the religious bureaucracies that led the religious oppression of the last half-decade. The Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia and its subsidiaries in every state have been responsible for suppressing minority religions and independent religious thought and for instigating police raids and prosecutions of Christians and Islamic dissenters. Its director-general has been replaced, but its ranks need a shakeup that can only proceed gradually.

Formerly moderate and tolerant, Malaysian Islamic opinion and practice have become notably narrower in recent years. Opposition parties will be looking for signs of such forbidden dogmas as ‘liberalism’ and ‘secularism’. The revitalisation of judicial independence should aid in preventing the worst abuses, countenanced as they were by judges who were tolerant of the machinations of the previous regime.

Image result for dr. mahathir mohamad and freedom of expression

The Malaysian Constitution is decidedly democratic and contains clear guarantees of religious freedom that were badly misinterpreted in recent years. Still, the most urgent parts of a democracy agenda – non-discrimination and freedom of thought – may be hard to secure rapidly or fully given the constellation of forces now sitting in Malaysia’s Parliament.

Donald L Horowitz is the James B Duke Professor of Law and Political Science Emeritus at Duke University. This comment first appeared in East Asia Forum.

2 thoughts on “Malaysia’s tough reforms ahead

  1. PH biggest mistake so far is poor narrative to UMNO-PAS claim its non-Muslim led. Truth is UMNO-PAS is led BY anachronistic mono-racial mono-religion in muti-racial country and ever more globalised and diverse world. PH letting the narrative be defined by still old UMNO-PAS is definitive of real intellectual talent in PH.

  2. I do like Professor Horowitz’s analysis. But..
    Point 1. Professor with a Jewish Last Name commenting on the Melayu dynamics is not going to help. Perhaps, the same applies to my comment. But, probably it doesn’t matter, since we know biggest foreign shareholder of Felda, when it is first IPO’ed, is a Jewish family Malaysians are familiar with (Elaine from Seinfeld). Political Melayu elites have no issues with Jewish. Tun Dr does.
    Point 2 Second caste is not asking for a new deal. We are asking for the original deal, just like the state of Sabah and Sarawak. Tun Dr has kept Cobbald Commission hidden for all of the years he ruled.
    Point 3 Prof Horowitz suggested this:
    //30 per cent of Malays voted for Pakatan candidates
    But, we need to know which 30 percent. The Malay who live in the same voting district as the second caste would not have affected this change. Melayu political elite from UMNO would just vote for the incumbent, ie UMNo in the last election. This suggests average Melayu with a conscience not living in the second caste district who has resulted change. Real haters for a Harapan party is likely to be much smaller. My guesstimate is that they are at most 30% of the Melayu. Our malapportionment, created by Tun Dr, would perpetuate the tyranny of a fearful first caste, who likely would not be meaningfully helped. They need to be remain in constant fear. Making sure they remain ignorant and fearful is a key to that perpetuation.
    Point 4 As such, there are as much second caste as there are hardcore Melayu who wants to keep the second caste as a caste below. This is not stable, no matter which Party governs. So, 60% of the Melayu will get to layu together with the rest of the second caste. Welayu. The nation could never progress when 50% of the nation is not happy with each other.
    Tun Dr can decide if a nation ought to have a clean conscience and move forward with the promise of Reid and Cobbald Commission, or forever be the curse that caused Melayu’s demise with his decades of hatred ideology. Welayu and 1MDB is a logical extension of Tun Dr’s own policy.
    Point 5 Second caste is already not hoping DAP would do anything, just as they have stopped hoping MCA and MIC would help them. The ambitious second caste would just help themselves like Jho Low. That is a logical extension of what was expected from a second caste, isn’t it? Tun Dr, after you, there would be none who could revert this path of destruction.

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