One year ago Friday, Mahathir Mohamad took the oath of office as Malaysia’s new prime minister and assumed the helm of a government from under the thumb of the Barisan Nasional coalition for the first time since its independence from Britain in 1957.
In a historic election the day before, his coalition — Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope — tapped growing disaffection with a ruling elite increasingly mired in corruption allegations to pull off a win that shocked even itself.
Hopes for speedy reform were high, bolstered by bold campaign promises Pakatan had made on the back of a sweeping manifesto. Despite some gains, the past year has been more a litany of defeats and backsliding in the face of a cooling economy, resilient political foes and entrenched ethnic fault lines.
In November, the government backtracked on a pledge to ratify a U.N. convention against racial discrimination amid backlash from ethnic Malays who feared it could get in the way of their state-mandated privileges. Facing similar pressure, Mahathir announced in April that Malaysia would not be joining the International Criminal Court, to which the previous government had tentatively signed on.
It has lifted a moratorium on several draconian laws the previous government had used against its critics, toyed with introducing a lese-majeste law aimed at sparing the sultans from salty talk about them, flip-flopped on a post-election pledge to abolish the death penalty, and had a bill to repeal a fake news law shot down by the opposition-led Senate.
“There’s been some progress, but the many U-turns that the government has done over the past year … have actually impacted negatively some of the initial excitement about some of the reforms that were going to come Malaysia’s way,” said Shamini Karshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.
Fall from favor
Since the election upset it pulled off a year ago, Pakatan has also been punished at the polls, losing three successive local by-elections.
The coalition’s fall from favor has been borne out in repeated opinion surveys.
The latest report from the Merdeka Center, a research firm, shows approval for the new government plunging from 79% just after the general election to 39% by March. “Satisfaction” surveys about Mahathir himself have followed suit, tumbling from 83% to 46% over the same stretch.
James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, said Pakatan’s struggles were part of the natural “learning curve” of any new administration, especially one taking over a bureaucracy that has until now known no other government but Barisan since independence.
No newcomer to politics, Mahathir served 22 years as prime minister until resigning in 2003 and later falling out with UMNO, the United Malays National Organization, the party that came to dominate the Barisan coalition. But Chin said more than two-thirds of his ministers now have little or no experience in administration.
“You have to remember,” he added, “Malaysia was a one-party state for the last 60 years, so in many ways the upper echelons of the civil service were highly politicized. People were appointed because they were personally loyal to UMNO, the former ruling party. So I think the new government had quite a lot of problems with the civil service, especially getting them on side to help them reform the system.”
Polls and pundits also blame much of Pakatan’s troubles on an economy that was already on the wane when it took over and has yet to revive. Slumping global commodity prices and the U.S.-China trade dispute have not helped.
The World Bank says Malaysia’s economic growth fell from 5.9% in 2017 to 4.7% in 2018, and was likely to stay level through 2020.
“Many people who voted for the new government expected the government to do something about the economy, especially the cost of living. So essentially after one year the cost of living has not gone down, the economy has not really expanded, so people are not very happy [with] the government in the economic arena,” said Chin.
Frustrating Pakatan at least as much as the economy is a pair of tenacious political foes.
After its election defeat, UMNO allied with the Islamist PAS to mobilize Malaysia’s majority Muslim Malay against Pakatan’s base among liberals, moderates and ethnic minorities.
“The whole game basically, on the opposition side, is to portray the government as betraying the interests of Malay Muslims and Islam and at the same time, by frustrating all reform, demoralizing the minorities and the liberal voters,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political analyst at the Penang Institute, a research group.
If Pakatan is to have a more prosperous second year, he added, it will need to make some progress bridging that social divide and raising the average Malaysian’s living conditions, with some help from the global economy.
Given how deep and delicate the divide, Chin said any major reform push in the coming year — or for the rest of Pakatan’s five-year term — will be on the economic front.
In that time, it will also have to stage manage a promised transfer of power from Mahathir, who is now 93 years old, to key coalition partner Anwar Ibrahim. Though the handover is due in a year, persistent mistrust between the erstwhile rivals’ camps continues to fuel doubts.
The new administration, however, has scored some lauded wins.
It has launched a raft of criminal corruption cases against former officials — 42 against former prime minister Najib Razak alone — mostly tied to 1MDB, a multibillion-dollar state fund Barisan is accused of using as a private slush fund. The government says it has already clawed back hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of 1MDB-linked assets seized by other countries around the world.
The government has also revived two Chinese-funded megaprojects after renegotiating the deals on terms more favorable to Malaysia.
Wong also gave the new government plaudits for pulling off a peaceful transition and holding its ground when opponents staged a mass protest rally in December.
“For a country that [has] gone through 60 years of one-party rule, then for nearly half-a-century the people have been told that any political change may result in riots, I think one year of peace is an incredible achievement,” he said.
But Chin, Wong and Karshni Kaliemuthu at Amnesty International agreed that perhaps what Pakatan now has to do most is prioritize and settle on a few core reforms the coalition partners could all agree on.
“There has definitely been a fundamental shift in the last election,” Karshni Kaliemuthu said. “But at the same time, the current government needs to be able to get its act in order if it wants to remain more than a one-term government.”