The Coming of ‘Disruptive Politics’ in Asia


November 12, 2018

The Coming of ‘Disruptive Politics’ in Asia

Khmer Times

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A few years back, the world was shocked by the political developments in Europe which saw the rise of right-wing nationalism across several countries in the continent. Despite the hope of globalisation being kept alive by the election (and re-election) of pro-establishment forces in France and the Netherlands, the same cannot be said for its other European counterparts.

To the north, the British are certainly grappling on how to make a soft landing for its Brexit move, with many parties now calling for a second referendum to be held to resolve the on-going crisis. Months ago, the same unexpected situation also occurred in Sweden in which Prime Minister Stefan Lovren, as well as his Cabinet, was ousted from power following the post-election’s motion of confidence in the parliament, Riksdag. For sure, this is a blow to the EU as the country that accepted the most migrants, Sweden, is expected to depart from its existing migrant policy in the coming years or so. Germany, on the other hand, recently witnessed the emergence of the right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Whilst the European countries are struggling with right-wing nationalism in a wider scale, we, in Asia are also experiencing a new political wave that is relatively different than the former. The year 2018 is the most crucial year for the continent as there is an emerging trend of (political) regime changes in countries not expected to undergo regime changes in the first place. The main ramification, of course, is potential conflicts with the expansion of Chinese investments as well as China’s push for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in these countries.

There are two types of political regime changes that are occurring in this part of the world.

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The first stunner to the world and China will be the watershed victory of Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the May general election this year. One of the longest surviving political regimes in the world, the then ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), had been overthrown from power since 1957. With its ouster from power, it further showed to other long serving regimes in Asia that it is totally possible for such deep-rooted political regimes to collapse through democratic electoral process.

As for China, the PH’s victory proved to be a challenging risk to infrastructure projects which it participated with the Najib administration. Adding to this is the property development and plastic recycling projects that are now being evaluated by the PH government for its multiplier effects and adverse impacts. The Malaysia case, therefore, is the clearest example of how political regime change is affecting not just Chinese projects but also China’s BRI push in Asia.

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Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s candidate, emerged victorious over incumbent president Abdulla Yameen in the election held on September 23.(Reuters Photo)

The other clear example will be Maldives. After its own watershed election, the Maldivian electorate sent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to power and ousted incumbent president Abdulla Yameen. This is yet another shocking development that rattled the world. Not to mention China which provided millions of dollars in loan to the island nation during the Yammen administration? More importantly, Mr Solih’s victory injected a sense of sanguinity to India as the former is seen to be closer to New Delhi instead of Beijing. Again, the political development in Maldives is worthy to be observed if such claims by Indian and foreign media will be translated into Malé’s different approach to the Chinese projects and the BRI push.

As for Pakistan, the victory of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaf (PTI) in the July election is unexpected in that pundits and media certainly did not foresee the big majority being garnered by the party. Adding to that is the victory of a political establishment which is not from either the Sharif or the Bhutto political dynasties.

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Also, the Pakistan case remains to be relatively clear example of how political regime change will affect both the Chinese investments as well as China’s BRI push in Asia. Following his election, Mr Khan declared his intention to strike a ‘balance’ between its all-weather partner, Beijing and its once ally, the US. Compounding the complexity will be Islamabad’s search for a rescue package from the US-dominated IMF — which in turn, asked the new government to reveal its Chinese debts as a pre-condition for such financial assistance — as well as China’s new loan offers to Pakistan to help solve its national debt crisis.

In all, the three cases of Malaysia, Maldives and Pakistan scenarios indicate that political regime change is an emerging trend in the Asian continent. Considering the fact that it comes at the time Beijing is expanding its footprints in the region and beyond, such trend of regime change is bound to affect in one way or another, Chinese investments as well as China’s BRI push in Asia.

Anbound Research Center (Malaysia) is a subsidiary of ANBOUND, a leading independent think tank headquartered in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm specializing in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact: malaysia@anbound.com.

Directions for Malaysia’s Economic Policy


October 28, 2018

Directions for Malaysia’s economic policy

by Cassey Lee / Khmer Times
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History repeats itself but often in slightly different ways. So it is with the tabling of the Mid-Term Review of the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (MTR-11MP) on October 11 by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Some 34 years ago, in March 1984, Mr Mahathir unveiled the mid-term review for the Fourth Malaysia Plan (4MP) (his first since assuming power in 1981). The Eleventh Malaysia Plan (11MP) is the country’s latest five-year development plan covering the period 2016 to 2020. It serves as a tool for medium-term economic planning. The mid-term review of the Plan essentially takes stock of the progress achieved half-way through its implementation period.

Though both the 4MP and 11MP were crafted under heightened fiscal constraints and contained significant new policy directions, there are some notable differences. A key difference is that the new policy directions in the MTR-11MP are noticeable but contain less implementation details. This is to be expected, as the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, which came into power in May, probably only had about three to four months to shape the MTR-11MP report. Work on the report commenced in October 2017 and was supposed to be tabled in Parliament by July or August.

Taking this time-constraint into account and the fact the new administration has had to struggle with a host of concurrent issues (including fiscal consolidation), the report is nevertheless a compelling read as it provides the first broad overview of the future directions of the PH government’s economic policies.

The report itself is divided into two major components. The first component which covers chapters two to eight provides reviews of the six strategic thrusts of the 11MP which were crafted by the Barisan Nasional government.

Aside from providing statistical updates on the progress achieved, the reviews are generally critical in the sense that they often attribute problems to existing institutional deficiencies. This then leads to the second component of the report (chapters 10 to 15), each of which contains one of the six “pillars” or new policy directions.

These are: (i) reforming governance towards greater transparency and enhancing efficiency of public service, (ii) enhancing inclusive development and well being, (iii) pursuing balanced regional development, (iv) empowering human capital, (v) enhancing environmental sustainability through green growth, and (vi) strengthening economic growth.

Comparing the MTR-11MP with the 11MP, there are some similarities in the themes and emphases of the two reports e.g. human capital, environmental sustainability and inclusiveness.

The significant departures from the original foci of 11MP are in pillar (i) on institutional reforms and pillar (iii) on regional development.

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The institutional reforms detailed in chapter 10 are likely to have drawn from the report from the Institutional Reforms Committee which submitted its final report in July. The reforms include policies to strengthen check and balance mechanisms, revive the spirit of federalism, deepen the anti-corruption agenda and drive political reforms.

One political reform proposal that has received media attention is the implementation of a two-term limit for the Office for the Prime Minister, Chief Minister and Menteri Besar. Given the importance of institutions as key determinants of long-term economic development and growth, the emphasis on institutional reforms is both appropriate and encouraging.

The renewed emphasis on regional development is refreshing and surprising. Surprising, because regional development was largely neglected during Mr. Mahathir’s first term as Prime Minister (1981-2003). Though the 11MP did promote the development of regional economic corridors, the new emphasis is on reducing state-level developmental gaps that have persisted. The report contains proposals to improve development allocations to less-developed states, namely, Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis.

This strategy is both equitable and politically astute – the latter because the PH government needs to win the trust of rural Malay voters in northern Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysian voters before the next general election.

Dr Cassey Lee is Senior Fellow, and co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This article first appeared in ISEAS Commentary and it can be read at https://bit.ly/2PgakFW

Cambodia’s Assertive Foreign Policy


Cambodia’s Assertive Foreign Policy

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EDITORIAL

Cambodia is keen to lead the Non-Aligned Movement, and revive its glory days when it was a bulwark against hegemonic powers. Reuters

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy stance is now more assertive after the formation of the new government in the Sixth legislature. Prime Minister Hun Sen is determined not to bend to international pressures and intervention, especially with regard to democracy and human rights.

Cambodia is building the foundation of democracy based on its own experiences and strengths. Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen told Kyodo News in Tokyo that the Japanese model of democracy is more suitable in the a Cambodian context. Early this year, spokesperson of the Cambodian People Party (CPP), Mr Suos Yara, told media that the party’s interest was in pursuing a centrist democracy.

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In his remarks at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Mr Hun Sen stated, “human rights nowadays have become ‘a mission to impose civilisation’ for some powerful nations or, perhaps, as their operating standards as the pretext for the interference under the name of political rights protection”.

Moreover, during his talks with the Cambodian community, when he met them, in Tokyo early this month, the prime minister called upon Cambodians to stand up to defend their independence and sovereignty at any cost – even sacrificing foreign development assistance. He said, “If we Cambodians wish to be independent, we must be brave. I bow to no one”. So, what has made Cambodia more assertive?

At the global level the international system is becoming more uncertain, even anarchic, and the power shift from a unipolar to multi-polar world is in the making. There is no guarantee that a multi-polar world will be more stable. What we do know is that geopolitical risks and uncertainties are high.

In such an increasingly fluid international system – some analysts have argued that the world is entering a new Cold War – Cambodia is forced to be more cautious and determined to protect its independence and sovereignty especially under the framework of the non-aligned movement (NAM).

In his conversations with the Cambodian community in Brussels, Mr Hun Sen declared his intention to revive and lead NAM after getting re-elected in the seventh general election in 2023.

This signals that Cambodian ruling elites predict the world is moving towards a Cold War 2.0 and thus the need for Cambodia and other developing countries to stay independent and united to protect each other’s interests under the framework of NAM.

NAM, a group of independent states that do not want to align with any major power bloc, was formed in 1961 in the context of a heightening Cold War between the two opposing blocs led by United States and the Soviet Union. The then Prince Norodom Sihanouk was one of the founders of the movement. Now, NAM has more than 100 member countries.

At the regional level, ASEAN is thriving to stay neutral amidst a tug of war between China and the US. Some ASEAN member states are treaty allies and strategic allies of the US while other members have close strategic ties with China. ASEAN risks being divided if it cannot forge a united front and takea common stance on external relations.

Cambodian ruling elites are of the conviction that ASEAN is an important shield to ward off adverse impacts from geopolitical competition between major powers.

Aligning ASEAN with NAM will help ASEAN members become more resilient. ASEAN needs to expand and deepen its global networks particularly in strengthening its strategic partnership with global organisations such as the United Nations, NAM, and World Trade Organization to maintain and strengthen a rules-based international order.

At the national level, domestic politics is also evolving fast. In such a transitional period, the risks remain high for ruling elites to maintain the power status quo. The opposition or resistance movement remains active although some of them are quiet. The opposition movement is capable of organising a series of protests against the establishment if there is a leadership compounded with triggering factors. This in turn will lead to political and social instability.

Being aware of the risks, the Cambodian ruling elites have taken measures to counter and preempt future chaos that might be orchestrated by the opposition movement. Therefore, negotiations leading to political reconciliation and between the ruling party and the outlawed opposition party will be slow. Political trust is the main stumbling block of the national reconciliation process.

Within the context of rising uncertainties and risks at the global, regional and national levels, a strong, transformative political leadership is required. Whoever that can lead and navigate Cambodia through such uncertainties will earn public trust, confidence and support. Cambodia’s foreign policy will need to be more flexible and pragmatic in tactics and strategies but firm on core principles and values, which include independence, sovereignty, neutrality, and non-alignment.

Three foreign policy strategies that Cambodia should pursue are the promotion of a rules-based international system, smart implementation of a hedging strategy, and proactive strategic diversification. Building an international alliance against hegemonic power is one of the main objectives of Cambodia’s foreign policy in the new era.

Cambodia will chair the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2020 and ASEAN again, in 2022 in a rotating chairmanship. These are the two main occasions  when Cambodia can play its international role. In addition, in early 2019, Cambodia will launch the Asian Cultural Council, an affiliate body of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties, to promote its soft power through cultural diplomacy.

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Members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces ready for deployment on peacekeeping missions. KT/Mai Vireak

There is an urgent need to create a new world order, not dictated by either the US or the European Union or one global policeman. Cambodia can pave the way for a new world that is non-aligned and joined together in the deepest feelings of fraternity and brotherhood.

Small states must play smart


October 5, 2018

Small states must play smart

by Chheang Vannarith

Cambodia Flag
“Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.”– Chheang Vannarith

The foreign policy of small states is constrained by the size and location of the country and its natural resources and population. Small states are more vulnerable to external changes and shocks, the level of dependency on external sources for security and development, and the perception of their national roles.

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Size does matter for small states. They find it difficult to have favourable foreign policy outcomes than larger nations. To make up for this, small states tend to focus on their immediate geographic area and economic diplomacy, with an emphasis on international rules and norms, while promoting multilateralism and international cooperation.

The primary objective of small states is to ensure their survival and strengthen their position and relevance in a fluid or even anarchic international system. The fast-evolving international system together with global power shifts is posing more challenges for small states to adjust and realise their foreign policy objective. Hence they must play smart and be innovative in order to achieve their foreign policy goals.

Cambodia is thriving to stay relevant in the international system through the implementation of a dual-track diplomacy: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Recently, Cambodia has taken a relatively proactive approach in strengthening multilateralism and a rules-based international order as these two norms are under stress and threat caused by unilateralism and protectionism. The US retreat from multilateral institutions has caused severe disruptions and turbulence in the international liberal order.

Cambodia’s foreign policy is at a critical juncture as the country remains at the frontline of geopolitical rivalry in the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. Geopolitical risks are heightening as major powers are vying to create their own sphere of influence in the region. The Kingdom is very much vulnerable to becoming a pawn of major power politics if foreign policy is not managed carefully. The evolving geopolitical dynamics thus demands that Cambodian leaders be more adaptive, flexible, resilient, and pragmatic.

As geopolitical risks and vulnerabilities rise further, Cambodia’s foreign policy options could be more constrained. The strategic space for Cambodia to manoeuver is getting narrower. Once geopolitical power rivalry becomes clear-cut and all-out, Cambodia could lose its balance and would be structurally forced to hop on the bandwagon of a major power for its survival.

At the moment, Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.

Hedging is the best strategic option for Cambodia, especially in dealing with uncertainty. However, implementing this strategy is a huge challenge. It requires strategic articulation on certain issues and strategic ambiguity on others. Even sometimes it requires to have contradictory views on certain issues but it must be implemented smartly in order not to lose trust with any major power.

The key challenge now for Cambodia is how it could gain trust from all major powers. At the moment, Cambodia’s relations with the US faces a serious trust deficit. It is urgent that Cambodia and the US find common grounds and explore innovative pathways to restore trust and normalize their bilateral relationship.

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Economic pragmatism, strategic diversification, a denial to a regional hegemonic power, and regime legitimization are the key components of a hedging strategy. ASEAN as a regional grouping is an important shield for Cambodia and the group’s other members to neutralize and cushion the adverse effects created by rivalry between the major powers.

Yet ASEAN faces the risk of being marginalized by two competing institutional frameworks – China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-initiated Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Unless ASEAN member states are able to stay united and forge a common foreign policy position, they risk becoming the proxy states of major powers. Consequently, the region will be divided into two diametric poles: the pro-China camp versus the pro-US camp.

To avert these risks, ASEAN must be more innovative and adopt a bolder approach to protect common regional interests. Just playing it safe and keeping a low profile is not a solution. ASEAN must be bold enough to stand up against any major power that intends to build its hegemonic dominence in the region at the expense of the core interests of its member countries.

Cambodia is of the view that ASEAN driven multilateral institutions and mechanisms play a critical role in constructing an open and inclusive regional order that can accommodate all major powers. ASEAN is widely regarded as the main vehicle for its members to engage and integrate major powers, and hopefully shape the behaviour of major powers.

Engaging major powers is a viable strategic option for small states. Engagement is a means to integration. Small states like Cambodia can partially contribute to constructing an international order by engaging and integrating major powers into a rules-based international system and getting them to assume responsible leadership role in multilateral institutions.

Dr. Chheang Vannarith is a board member and Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy: to secure Cambodia’s place in a peaceful multilateral and interdependent world.


October 1, 2018

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy in a complex global geo-political landscape.

https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50537969/cambodias-worldview-2018/

Cambodia’s foreign policy has been robustly reformed after a leadership change in 2016. Over the past two years, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon and his team have taken concrete measures to enhance institutional capacity as well as to improve work-flow through the adoption and promotion of meritocracy, in which qualified officials have been spotted and promoted.

Although a foreign policy strategy is being articulated, Cambodia has at least been realistic and straight forward in its worldview and positions taken on some international issues. As a small state, Cambodia has taken a safe and smart approach towards sensitive geo-political issues to avoid being perceived as taking sides. But sometimes it also adopts a bold approach when core national interests are at stake.

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Win-Win  Policy for Peace at Home and Smart Partnerships Abroad for Prosperity in a multilateral and interdependent world.

Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen walked the extra mile to explain Cambodia’s bold position on domestic and international issues at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York. The statement highlighted core principles and objectives of Cambodia’s foreign policy amidst rising complexity and uncertainties in the global geopolitical landscape.

Firstly, Cambodia has been consistent in demanding that major powers respect the sovereignty and independence of weaker states by strictly adhering to the non-interference principle. Cambodian ruling elites are of the view that the “first-class” superpower – with obvious reference to the United States – has asserted its interventionist policy under the guise of universal values such as political freedom, democracy and human rights.

Prime Minister Hun Sen stated human rights is being used as “a mission to impose civilisation” upon other weaker states under the pretext of “the protection of political rights”. This is the strongest statement so far by a Cambodian leader at the UNGA concerning foreign intervention. It clearly shows that Cambodia will not be submissive to foreign pressure when it comes to the human rights agenda.

In well-crafted  remarks, he added, “big countries should not attempt to install their administrative system on other small countries, because those small countries also possess sovereignty and legitimate aspiration to maintain their own identities”.

It is historically proven that interventionism by superpowers cause conflicts and human suffering in different parts of the world. Small and weak states have been victims of the ambitions of major powers to build an unfair system to serve their selfish interests. The behaviour of some irresponsible major powers could be understood as in the Khmer proverb, “Burning other people’s houses just to boil their own eggs”. Learning the lessons from its own turbulent history, Cambodia now understands the consequences if it lets down its guard.

Other than being wary of foreign intervention, Cambodia is also against unilateralism and protectionism. US foreign policy has shifted from a dual track diplomacy of bilateralism and multilateralism towards unilateralism and bilateralism. Transactional international politics and protectionism being exercised by President Donald Trump and his team are triggering a full-fledged trade war, jeopardising international peace and development. If there is a Cold War 2.0 or World War III, the US would be held most accountable. Perhaps, it will lead to the end of the American century.

Unilateralism is the tool of superpowers to impose their views on other states in order to achieve their power projection agenda. “The imposition of unilateral sanctions has become a popular weapon of powerful nations in managing their international politics, which is completely driven by geopolitical agendas,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen, when addressing the UN.

 

Cambodia also called upon the international community to work together to oppose interventionism, unilateralism, and protectionism in order to save multilateralism and global governance. Small states must be bolder to stand up against the major powers and be counted. Cambodia for its part has taken a proactive approach in building a fair and just international system that serves the interests of both big and small countries.

Complex interdependence, from the Cambodian perspective, is the foundation of international peace and stability. Nation states must work together to deepen international cooperation and partnerships in order to effectively implement sustainable development goals as well as to resolve emerging global issues such as climate change, natural disasters, international terrorism, poverty, and armed conflicts.

Cambodia has grown rapidly because of good economic policies, combined with the return of peace after a tumultuous civil war, a conducive neighbourhood effect within ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Subregion and large inflows of foreign capital. As the country is integrated into the global economy, it has a strong interest in promoting a rules-based international order, which is something new for Cambodia’s foreign policy.

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Cambodian troops take an oath of allegiance in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 18, 2018. Cambodia sent the eighth batch of 184 peacekeepers to Lebanon to replace the seventh group, whose one-year United Nations peacekeeping mission in that country had come to an end. (Xinhua/Sovannara)

Cambodia has stressed the importance of international law and the “legitimacy of international legal order” although has not elaborated on what constitutes rules-based order and what Cambodia needs to do more to strengthen the order as such.

“Cambodia, as a small economy, believes in the interests of a rules-based international cooperation,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen.

There is an increasing concern that without the respect of international law and norms, global institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization will become less relevant in promoting peaceful settlement of disputes between countries. The US, which had led the international liberal order since the end of World War II, is now disrupting globalization and marginalizing global institutions.

Within the context of a zigzag trajectory of world politics, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy will focus on the promotion of multilateralism, interdependence, rules-based international order, and a fair and just global governance system.

3 scenarios for post-election Malaysia


September 23, 2018

3 scenarios for post-election Malaysia

Yang Razali Kassim / Khmer Times Share:
Image result for Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Hsien Loong
 

The shocking fall of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government in the recent general election was not only historic but also game-changing. As Malaysians usher in a new era, three evolving scenarios are worth watching, writes Yang Razali Kassim.

The ruling juggernaut, the UMNO-led coalition, had never been defeated since independence in 1957. The coalition finally lost power at the hands of the country’s most potent political duo: Mahathir-Anwar. In the aftermath, at least three evolving scenarios are worth watching:

Scenario 1: A New Order?

If the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition government can last at least two terms, we will see a different political order take hold. The people’s rejection of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and UMNO is a new phenomenon in Malaysian politics. Increasingly, the emerging narrative is that of a “New Malaysia”.

What this New Malaysia is, however, has yet to be clearly defined, as it seems to mean different things to different people. The popular view is that it is simply the antithesis of the old era; anything that was bad about the old must not be part of New Malaysia. Even Mr. Mahathir himself has called for a break from the past:

“The New Malaysia should even be an improvement on the period during which I was prime minister for 22 years.” The government should “have to go back to democracy and the rule of law and respect the wishes of the people.”–Mahathir Mohamad

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Two wishes in particular: First is cleaning up the mess of corruption left behind by the Najib administration. Reformism will be the order of the day, possibly leading eventually to some form of systemic change. Ironically, Mr Mahathir, who was known as an autocrat, has become the “New Reformer,” embracing Anwar Ibrahim’s battle-cry of ‘Reformasi’.

Second, Mr Mahathir and his team will be under pressure to prove that the new government can fulfill the people’s expectations. The previously disparate alliance will have to demonstrate that it will not be a photocopy of the old regime.

Scenario 2: Existential Crisis

All that said, the power vehicle the PH alliance overthrew is not to be trifled with. At the core of the dethroned BN coalition is UMNO, the linchpin party that won independence from the British. Once thought to be invincible, BN disintegrated as soon as it lost power. Several partners deserted it, leaving only three original component parties, the pillar of which is UMNO.

UMNO itself is facing an existential crisis. It is under threat of being deregistered for failing to hold internal party elections, in breach of political regulations. Should it be struck off, this will not be the first time after surviving one in 1987, ironically when Mr. Mahathir was its president; but the political impact of a replay will be far-reaching, as the party, though out of power, still symbolises the aspirations of the majority ethnic group.

In this battle for survival, UMNO is going through an internal debate over direction and its own identity. The future of UMNO now depends very much on how far the younger generation will succeed in taking over the leadership and charting a new course. Nevertheless, the introspective search for a new identity for UMNO is unprecedented, reflecting the country’s new terrain.

The course taken by UMNO will partly be influenced, if not defined, by the broader political landscape now dominated by the Mahathir-Anwar leadership 2.0. Collectively, the deadly duo has come to symbolise a political ethos around “post-identity”. If PH succeeds, Malaysian politics may increasingly move away from primordial attachments towards a common centre, where greater acceptance and tolerance of each other will be the new norm. How far this will go will also depend on how effective the pushback is from a tentative UMNO alliance with the Islamist opposition PAS.

Scenario 3: Beyond the Border

The political shifts do not stop at Malaysia’s border. As one of the most developed economies in Southeast Asia, the country’s political dynamics – especially those that affect its stability and security – will be of importance to its neighbours in the region and beyond.

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Nothing underscores this better than Mr Mahathir’s wooing of Indonesian President Jokowi for a partnership to stave off European pressures on their palm oil industry.

With neighbouring Singapore, Mr Mahathir also created some ripples when he threw a spanner in the works of a joint high-speed rail project signed by the Najib government, though this has been deferred for now. Mr Mahathir also suggested renegotiating the long-standing supply of water from Malaysia’s Johor state, a strategic resource for Singapore.

Mahathir’s biggest challenge is, however, further afield, in Beijing. China is at the heart of some financially troubling megaprojects initiated by Mr Najib. Mr Mahathir has taken issue with the Asian giant for financing these projects, which were placed under investigation in Kuala Lumpur following the defeat of the BN administration.

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Mr Mahathir himself traveled to Beijing in August to re-negotiate with Chinese leaders the China-funded projects in Malaysia, part of a larger goal to cut down on the massive national debt inherited from the previous government.

At the end of his trip, Mr Mahathir announced at a press conference in Beijing that Malaysia would now cancel the frozen projects – only to tone it down later to “defer” them instead – a decision he said Chinese leaders had “agreed” on. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism,” said Mr Mahathir after his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

What is equally troubling Mr Mahathir is the Chinese model of economic collaboration. At issue is Beijing’s preference for extending loans with high interest rates rather than investing directly in the projects, and for payments to Chinese contractors based on timelines rather than project deliveries.

Another is the Chinese propensity to use their own resources, workforce and expertise for the projects, instead of relying on local firms and creating jobs domestically. This model that some call Beijing’s “debt trap diplomacy” has also been questioned in several countries in Asia and Africa for the problems and social tension they generate.

Mr Mahathir, however, is striking a careful balance in resolving the mountain of debt left behind by his predecessor. Important to him also is preserving good relations with a rising economic superpower that is a significant market for Malaysian products. “We do not blame the Chinese government because their companies signed an agreement or several agreements with Malaysian companies under the auspices of the government of the day,” Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told The Straits Times.

Unlike in the past, the political earthquake in Malaysia this time is clearly reverberating beyond Malaysia’s border. Before he finally calls it a day again expect Mr Mahathir to make more waves as he brings his assertive persona to the international stage, perhaps even to the United Nations. It’s in his DNA.

Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of an RSIS series on Malaysia’s 14th general election and its aftermath.