PM Mahathir the unlikely reformer

PM Mahathir has a daunting task of getting Malaysia onto the rails of democracy. Donald Horowitz (Australian Financial Review), raises the question of democracy in Malaysia.

“An unlikely reformer, Mahathir has the capacity to get things done,” said Horowitz. 

As head of the smallest party in a four-party coalition (Horowitz failed to see there is the Warisan also in the coalition). He mentioned the PKR, Bersatu, Amanah and DAP.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir is obliged to heed the voices of his partners. But he has the capacity to do it and this will serve him well.

There are many challenges ahead for Mahathir after the serious degradation of its legal and political institutions under Najib Razak.

“The new coalition government knows that it must deal with daunting challenges of reform. The challenges are many.”

From the judiciary to electoral bodies, the fight against corruption the country needs a foolproof insulation from political meddling.

He called for the review of the federal system to ward off discontent and separatism in Sabah and Sarawak.

Safeguards for Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian minorities who must find their way into the country’s mainstream. “Religious minorities have to be freed from harassment, even persecution, by an overblown religious bureaucracy.”

Many problems are urgent, and short-term remedies are in place. Pakatan is removing personnel of doubtful probity from important commissions.

Nevertheless, a clean-up of the police is underway.

The new government has been quick to act when it comes to tarnished officials. It is moving with the repeal of oppressive laws. In the first place, the ‘Fake News’ law is no more.

But he said systemic reforms will be difficult. And this is where Malaysia may hurt a bit more before a complete cleanup.
Sabah-Sarawak

Perhaps least difficult will be revision of relations with the two Borneo states, because a blueprint already exists. Malaysia’s central government violated commitments to Sabah and Sarawak. Disrespecting their autonomy nor their claim on their own resources.

A negotiated outcome on both states should be facilitated by the original agreement, made in 1963.

Creating real independence for institutional bodies that need to be free of partisan meddling is more challenging. That will require borrowing of techniques developed elsewhere.

Malay voters

Markedly, a major obstacle is a split among Malay voters. Only about 30 per cent of Malays voted for Pakatan candidates.  And the now opposition Barisan Nasional received almost no votes from non-Malays.

Recent by-elections show some Malay voters are not listening to claims Pakatan is controlled by the DAP.

However, Malay parties in PH will do anything to stem such claims.

There have already been complaints about appointments of non-Malays to important positions.

But the defeat of the PAS-UMNO in three by-elections is indicative of a shift in support from the Malays to the opposition. There is indeed, a slight consolidation in the voting pattern of the new government. 

Donald L Horowitz is the James B Duke Professor of Law and Political Science Emeritus at Duke University. The original version of this article appeared in afr.com.

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