May 16, 2018
Malaysia has been stable, predictable, even boring, for Australians looking at its Southeast Asian neighbourhood, which has experienced great upheaval in the decades since the Vietnam War and the Asian Financial Crisis of the 1990s. Malaysia’s ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional was in power for more than 60 years, rigging the elections system enough to allow them to maintain its rule. Now, in a surprising turn of events, that system has failed them. And no one is really sure what comes next.
Malaysia has now entered uncharted waters, matching the uncertainty of the South China Sea that divides the peninsula from East Malaysia’s states of Sabah and Sarawak. First, prime minister Najib Razak was implicated in one of the world’s largest corruption scandals, with millions of dollars found in his personal bank account in what the US Department of Justice declared was the biggest kleptocracy case it has ever investigated. But Najib’s government was routed at last week’s polls. Winning in its place is a coalition called Pakatan Harapan (or “hope”), five parties with a broad array of agendas and visions for Malaysia.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was last week sworn in again, this time as the 7th Prime Minister, in a deal he took to voters where he would seek to release jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim via a royal pardon from the King, stepping aside after an expected two years to enable Anwar to take over. Anwar is expected to be released this week, as early as today.
In Australia, two former Prime Ministers reflect the ambivalence and sometimes confused views many share about a “predictable” Malaysia. As Tony Abbott tweeted last week: “PM Najib Razak was a good friend of Australia and a voice of decency and common sense at international gatherings. On the big questions he got much right and his time in government saw strong and effective cooperation between our countries.” Kevin Rudd avoided mentioning Najib, but shared Abbott’s view that this “new” Malaysia has far-reaching consequences for Australia and the region. “This is a stunning development with profound implications for Malaysia, South East Asia and China,” he tweeted. Malaysia is a key partner for Australia in responding to a rising China.
But what will this new Malaysia look like? For this unfinished nation’s burgeoning civil society, the “reformasi” (or Malaysian reformation) movement that was sparked off by Anwar’s sacking and jailing by Mahathir 20 years ago still drives the democratisation hopes represented by Anwar.
For many urban Malaysians, over 70 per cent of the country, Anwar personalises the non-racialised political and economic reforms they yearn for, with many assaulted and jailed over the past decades by BN governments led by Mahathir and Najib. Anwar’s coalition politics contrasted its inclusive nature against the “Malay supremacy” policies that were a feature of BN’s rule.
But, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Anwar faces difficulties. Mahathir’s new party ran on a policy to maintain these Malay-first policies, and is buffeted by a still hardy Islamist PAS party as well. This new government would not have won without Mahathir’s leadership and this promise. The opposition coalition was able to placate and win over millions of semi-rural and rural Malay voters previously beyond Anwar’s reach, partly because Mahathir represents Malaysia – and ethnic Malay leadership – at its peak in the 1990s, when Malaysia hosted the world’s tallest buildings and the stock market was the biggest (briefly) in Asia. Mahathir also played off his elder statesman role in the campaign by cutting through to rural voters with simple attacks against Najib, shredding him with accusations of “thief!”. The enmity was starkly and deliberately drawn, and it worked.
Understanding and engaging with this new, possibly fractured Malaysia will be essential to the region’s security, economy, and political developments. This new Malaysia is a win for democracy – and a big win for Australia’s own values. But this will require Australia and its democratic neighbours to invest in this win like never before.
Ross Tapsell is Director of the ANU’s Malaysia Institute. Kean Wong is the Malaysia Editor of the ANU’s Southeast Asia website, New Mandala.