Malaysia reform momentum wanes a year after historic election

Corruption probes make headway, but opposition exploits economic woes to fan racial, religious tension and block reform.

Mahathir Mohamad
A former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad returned to power last year [File: Reuters]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – On the night of May 9 last year, Malaysians celebrated the Southeast Asian nation’s first democratic change in government in six decades and the departure of Najib Razak amid allegations billions of dollars had gone missing from state fund 1MDB.

People talked optimistically of a “new Malaysia” under the multiethnic Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope.

But a year later, for some of its most ardent supporters hope has turned to disappointment. 

“They are not implementing the things we expected,” said Siti Kasim, a lawyer and activist. “That makes us frustrated. It feels like all the important decisions they should be making have been relegated,” added Siti, who voted for Pakatan mostly out of concern about what she sees as the increasing intrusion of religion in Muslim-majority Malaysia’s public life.

A survey released at the end of last month by the Merdeka Center, the country’s most-respected pollster, found only 39 percent of Malaysians were happy with the government and 46 percent thought the country was “headed in the wrong direction”.

Just after the election, with Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister, Pakatan’s approval rating was 79 percent.

It is not just in its commitments to human rights reforms such as repealing draconian laws and signing up to international conventions where the government has failed to meet expectations. The Merdeka poll also found Malaysians were disappointed with its handling of the economy; their top concern.

“It reflects the frustrations right now,” political analyst Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani told Al Jazeera. “Times are bad. The cost of living is still high.”

Ethnic tensions

The economy was already slowing when Pakatan won power, but the trade spat between the United States and China and weak commodity prices have further hurt growth. Malaysia’s economy expanded 4.7 percent in 2018, compared with 5.9 percent the year before.

The government delivered on its promise to remove the unpopular Goods and Services Tax, but it replaced the levy with another consumption tax a few months later. At the same time, cash handouts were reduced, while promises to abolish road tolls and write off student loans were dropped.

The opposition, made up of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), has sought to capitalise on economic frustrations, appealing to the Malay population by focusing on race and religion, which have long been sensitive issues in the multiracial nation and exploded into violence in May 1969. Scores of ethnic Chinese died in those riots, and while there has not been violence on that scale since, tensions occasionally bubble to the surface.

Malays make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population, while the Chinese account for about 21 percent and the Indians just over six percent. The remainder is indigenous people.

UMNO and PAS contested separately in last year’s election but won as many as three-quarters of the votes of Malays, who are Muslim. They have now agreed to work together in parliament, although not in a formal alliance, presenting themselves as the defenders of Islam and Malay rights, which are guaranteed under the constitution but also include a host of other benefits including special savings schemes, educational quotas and land rights that are not available to the country’s minority groups. 

“The last election merely installed a multiethnic reformist government because the Malay-Muslim votes were split,” said Wong Chin Huat, who studies democratisation and identity politics in Malaysia. “It did not close the decades-old ethnic divides, but has instead exacerbated them.”

Responding to the allegations of not delivering on reforms, Mahathir said on Thursday that his government “listen[s] to the people”.

“This is a democratic country. When people have different ideas we have to respect their ideas. It’s also their human rights to be opposed to things that they do not like to have in this country,” he told a press conference with international media in Kuala Lumpur.

“We listen to the people. If we go against the people eventually they will throw us out. In a democratic country, majority support is very important.”

Conservative Malays protested in Kuala Lumpur last year against the government's plan to sign up to a major UN anti-discrimination treaty [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]
Conservative Malays protested in Kuala Lumpur last year against the government’s plan to sign up to a major UN anti-discrimination treaty [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

Veteran activist Hishamuddin Rais spent 20 years in self-imposed exile and backed the now 93-year-old Mahathir as the best way to remove Najib and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that had governed the country since independence.

He says that after losing power conservative forces latched onto a narrative that they knew was easy to sell. “The narrative is very simple; that the Chinese are taking over Malaysia,” he said. “This is the narrative that is confronting Pakatan Harapan.”

Opposition politicians homed in on the appointment of non-Malays to senior government positions – the finance minister is an ethnic Chinese, while the attorney general is an ethnic Indian – and claimed that signing the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and joining the International Criminal Court would undermine the position of the king and sultans, and threaten the Malays’ special privileges.

Gay and transgender people, liberals and women have also come under attack from conservatives over the past year and found little overt support in the new government.  

Numan Afifi, an LGBT activist who became an aide to the youth and sports minister, quit his job in July after he was attacked over social media. Last month, he was questioned by police over a joint statement on gay rights he read at the United Nations in Geneva.

Maryam Lee, a feminist and activist, found herself investigated over the launch of her first book, Unveiling Choice, an exploration of her decision to stop wearing the headscarf.

In a discussion accompanying last month’s launch, Lee and two other Malaysian-Muslim women talked about their experiences of removing the headscarf. About 15 people attended the event, but a social media backlash triggered an investigation by the Islamic authorities. There is no legislation in Malaysia that requires women to cover their heads.

“They were never different,” Lee said, referring to the Pakatan Harapan and BN governments.

She herself was so disappointed with the two main coalitions that she led a campaign for people to spoil their votes during the election. “A lot of (Pakatan’s) leaders were UMNO or BN defectors so they came from the same political culture. They are only different in clothing. The essence remains the same.”

Pakatan supporters celebrate the coalition's historic election victory last year in Petaling Jaya [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]
Pakatan supporters celebrate the coalition’s historic election victory last year in Petaling Jaya [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

‘Please us’

The questions over Lee’s book followed probes into a march in Kuala Lumpur to mark International Women’s Day, where some of the crowd carried banners in support of LGBT people. The religious affairs minister said the presence of LGBT activists was a “misuse of democratic space” and the organisers said they were being investigated under the colonial-era Sedition Act and the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Pakatan was supposed to be reviewing those acts with a view to repealing more draconian legislation.

“Authorities have used the same old laws to silence critics, stifle unpopular opinions and control public discourse,” Nalini Elumalai, Malaysia programme officer for ARTICLE 19, said in a statement marking Pakatan’s first year in office. “These retrogressive tactics blemish the supposed reformist credentials of Malaysia’s new leaders, and impeded the democratic transition they promised to bring about.”

Nevertheless, there has been progress.

Malaysia’s position on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom ranking has improved by 22 places – despite the opposition blocking the repeal of the Fake News Law in the upper house – and Transparency International said in January the country had made “significant strides” in tackling corruption.

Corruption investigations have focused not only on 1MDB but other large government-linked agencies including the giant land co-operative and plantations company FELDA, and Tabung Haji, the fund set up to help Muslims save for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Struggling with debt, both institutions have been bailed out by the government and the two former chairmen, both of whom are UMNO politicians, have been charged with corruption.

Najib himself can currently be found each morning in a Kuala Lumpur court where the prosecution is laying out its case against the former prime minister and finance minister over the disappearance of millions of dollars from 1MDB subsidiary SRC International. A second trial, involving 2.28 billion ringgit ($549m) at 1MDB itself starts in August. His wife also faces trial for corruption.

All have pleaded not guilty, but the trials are crucial for a government that came to power vowing to beat corruption.

“Of all the promises that Pakatan has to fulfil, the one and only one is to put Najib behind bars,” said Asrul Hadi, the political analyst. “Then they can say, ‘We did our job. We cleaned the country of corruption.’ Finding Najib guilty is a priority.”

Despite the disappointments of the past year, people like Siti are not giving up on Pakatan or the dream of a “new” Malaysia.

“I’m not going to condemn them,” said the lawyer and activist. “It’s a criticism. It’s a reminder to Pakatan that they were voted into office by the minorities and the liberal Malays. We are the ones who voted for them overwhelmingly. What Pakatan must at least do now is please us.”

Source: Al Jazeera