23 May 2018

By: Wimar Witoelar


What political miracle did former and now current Malaysian Prime Minister create on May 6? Not only did he come back after 15 years of political retirement following 22 years of service as Prime Minister at the age of 92. More importantly, Mahathir put the brakes on 60 years of the Barisan Nasional hegemony in a sensational electoral upset.

The defeated coalition was run by Najib Razak who comes from a long line of politicians and was backed by Mahathir after he sent Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim off on dubious charges. Mahathir’s overwhelming electoral victory was based on ethnic Malays who traditionally support him

But his sweep to victory was achieved by forging an unlikely alliance with Anwar Ibrahim, the very same man Mahathir eliminated controversially. Anwar Ibrahim has led the opposition in recent years and has been in jail again since being prosecuted again by Prime Minister Najib’s government. Despite being led by two former senior leaders, Mahathir’s winning coalition Pakatan Harapan is extremely broad, made up of Anwar’s centrist, multiracial People’s Justice Party (PKR), Mahathir’s Malay-based Bersatu party, the liberal, ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the progressive Islamic National Trust Party (AMANAH).

Mahathir’s victory sends important messages. Instead of provoking extreme sentiments, he rejected Najib’s brand of racial and religious politics and called for clean government. He demonstrated that the ballot box can deliver change, even against a prime minister whose ambition was desperate.

The result will have significant implications for Malaysian foreign policy and Malaysia’s role in the world, but it will take time for these changes to become clear. In coming days and weeks, much attention will be paid to Dr. Mahathir’s record as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, including his tough line in opposition to the United States.

However, the foreign policy issue during the recent election was Malaysia’s ties with China. Mahathir called for greater scrutiny of China’s investments in Malaysia, arguing that the Malaysian people do not greatly benefit from Chinese investment. There had also been rampant speculation that Najib derived personal financial benefit from Chinese investments and that his need for Chinese cash to cover losses from the sovereign wealth fund has distorted national policy.

Malaysia’s rejection of identity politics and corruption helps to arrest the decline of democracy in Southeast Asia. We have yet to study the implications of Mahathir’s return to regional politics and bilateral relations. But it proves that Malaysian democracy is mature and that the electorate is capable of rising above intolerance and identity politics. The Malaysian political landscape is refreshed which is good for the region as a whole.

Print article only


« Home