Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Meredith Weiss on Politics in a New Malaysia

A conversation on the state of Malaysia’s politics under the Pakatan Harapan government.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Meredith Weiss on Politics in a New Malaysia
Credit: Pixabay

Since elections last May in Malaysia brought to power the country’s opposition for the first time in history, there have been various questions about the evolution of the country’s politics under the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government led by returning Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. These include the government’s record thus far on delivering on reforms, the role of other rival political parties, and the changing environment for other non-governmental actors including civil society since the historic election.

The Diplomat’s senior editor, Prashanth Parameswaran, recently spoke to Meredith Weiss, professor at SUNY Albany, about the state of Malaysian politics under the PH government today as well as the future outlook for the country.

Given the historic nature of the May 2018 elections, how would you assess the balance between the various factors that gave rise to the defeat of the BN and the rise of the new PH government? 

Unfortunately, Malaysia has yet to introduce exit polls at elections, so answers to questions of how any given voters voted, or what issues really tipped the scales are necessarily more speculative than they might be elsewhere.

That said, surveys leading up to polling day, various expert analyses, and my own impressions from observing the campaign suggest frustration with corruption, former prime minister Najib Razak, and the BN’s governance — an intermeshed syndrome of issues — drove the result. Those grievances or preferences led some voters to support Pakatan Harapan and others to support Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS), depending on the specific candidates standing, proactive (rather than just reactive) priorities, the local strength and record of the parties, and voters’ own ethnoreligious and regional identities.

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Importantly, much of the vote for Pakatan (and surely PAS), though, was reactive: a vote against Najib and his BN coalition rather than for an alternative vision. And particularly those Malay voters whose support Mahathir and his communal Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia successfully wooed may well have been voting for a return to the UMNO of Mahathir’s day — an order centered around Malay privileges and state-spurred developmentalism — in a climate of rising costs of living and too-excessive rent-seeking, not for a new model of noncommunal or otherwise really differently pitched governance.

Since coming to office, the PH government has come under scrutiny for the extent to which it has met the various goals enumerated in its manifesto, in spite of the fact that it may not have expected to be elected and to have to deliver on those. How would you assess the performance of the PH government so far in terms of domestic issues, and what are fair metrics to use to do so in the years ahead?

PH has made real progress in certain priority areas and is pushing ahead in others, but surely will not fulfill all the promises in its election manifesto. Indeed, that document seems to have slipped into semi-obscurity of late.

The PH government made immediate headway in restructuring its anticorruption efforts in particular. Given Mahathir’s impetus to jump back into politics, and the extent to which 1MDB and other fiascos (FELDA Global Ventures, for instance) loomed over the election, that priority is hardly surprising. PH immediately fulfilled an election promise to repeal the goods and services tax (GST), too, albeit replacing it with a sales and services tax (SST), introduced some moderately more consultative mechanisms, and demonstrated greater forbearance toward social protest and criticism.

Broader institutional restructuring is proceeding, but driven primarily by reformist individuals. Parliamentary reform, for instance, to introduce select committees, revivify debate, and otherwise improve the legislative process has made some headway, pressed more importantly by the Speaker of the lower house, the Dewan Rakyat, Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff Md. Yusof, than by elected political leadership. Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraidah Kamaruddin has championed reintroduction of local-council elections, notwithstanding her government’s continuing reticence. And the chief of the Election Commission (EC), Datuk Azhar Azizan (a.k.a. Art Harun), has revised nomination-day and polling processes within his immediate purview while the Electoral Reform Committee continues with its investigations.

Complete overhaul of the electoral system may be unlikely, and the immediate redistricting to redress malapportionment and gerrymandering would require constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, beyond the EC’s procedural tweaks, parliament has reached — surprisingly — bipartisan agreement to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, and a new law on political finance seems imminent. A bill to establish an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission is likewise working its way through the parliamentary process now, after years of false starts; it is now charting new policymaking ground in being referred to the Special Select Committee for Consideration of Bills for further deliberation (though again, on the Speaker’s initiative).

In terms of fair metrics to assess progress: The one that matters most will surely be the somewhat epiphenomenal one, of whether economic growth proceeds, particularly at the level of household income and opportunities. And for Malay 2018 protest voters in particular, especially if the developing PAS–UMNO alliance holds: These institutional reforms may matter less than whether Malay voters feel their rights and privileges adequately protected — a metric that may be significantly interchangeable with an assessment of household economic status. At least some proportion of voters will tally up PH’s progress against its 2018 manifesto promises, but even if those voters wish for greater headway toward enhanced civil liberties, less communal structures and priorities, or other goals, they are unlikely to see a more progressive alternative.

You have written extensively on the role of non-governmental actors, including civil society, on the evolution of politics in Malaysia. What is your sense of the role of these actors in the country’s politics since the election of the PH government last year? 

In many countries, civil society is largely co-opted into the state or otherwise enervated after a political transition. While many Malaysian activists have indeed entered the state apparatus, civil society has regrouped impressively. Several dozen CSOs (civil society organizations) launched a CSO Platform for Reform almost immediately after the polls, in June 2018, to engage legislators, reorganizing after about six months for greater efficacy. Now oriented around functional areas, clusters within the Platform have developed indicators and timelines to assess PH government performance and track progress toward their objectives. This structure facilitates monitoring, but also state outreach for input into policymaking, at least among this core group of CSOs.

The extent and concrete influence of such outreach, though, remains less than it could be; consultation remains more an add-on than integral to the policy process. Institutional mechanisms and practices to encourage and incorporate significant consultation and coordination with civil society in the policy process remain underdeveloped. A few of the “usual suspects” may be invited in for discussions, but that process would benefit from broadening and deepening, for greater utility and impact.

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Meanwhile, international money and other opportunities are flowing in, with both positive and negative implications. Resources are, of course, great to have, but they are surely short-term, as well as poorly coordinated. Few organizations have the facility to absorb and make effective use of these resources; their long-term impacts for capacity-building or programs are unclear.

Turning to foreign policy, what is your sense of the extent of continuity and change in Malaysian foreign policy under the PH government relative to the Najib years? 

I would not expect any major change in Malaysia’s foreign policy post-Najib. Rhetorically, Mahathir is sharper, even acerbic, and less graciously diplomatic. But in point of fact, the PH government seems inclined to burn no bridges. The immediate post-election discourse of canceling deals with China, for instance, settled out into a more pragmatic renegotiation; despite Mahathir’s swipe at the inconstancy of this U.S. administration’s commitments, too, that bilateral relationship seems unrattled. Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry’s response to a recent Filipino reassertion of the hoary Sabah claim was likewise par for the course: an uncompromising “no.”

Even as the PH government has been taking shape, we have seen BN and individual political parties reshape themselves as well. What is your sense of how these parties have been evolving under this new political environment? 

For the parties still or previously in the BN, the challenge will be to develop a message and mission — and to figure out who’s part of the shared initiative or out of the frame. UMNO has made more headway that its seemingly still-floundering non-Malay-based partners, whether still in or already out of the BN. UMNO seems to have made the choice to keep on keeping on: not to redirect its course under new leadership, but to double down on a pro-Malay, Islamizing agenda sure to alienate non-Malay voters, whose support the party has apparently resigned not to recapture. That stance facilitates a new “marriage” with PAS which we have seen of late.

PAS, in turn, as the third key player on the peninsula, needs to decide to what extent to cast its lot with UMNO beyond the recent alliance: whether a “Malay unity” government, in which PAS leaders share the stage with UMNO counterparts (and cannot be assured dominance) is preferable to sustaining a PAS-only fiefdom on the east coast, and the extent to which Islamism versus a more specifically ethnic Malay agenda motivates its grassroots members. At the moment, the former seems the chosen pathway.

And then there are the parties of Sabah and Sarawak. Leading parties in both seem to have found their niche with a semi-autonomous stance, positioning themselves to throw support to the peninsular parties that advance their agenda. Unless and until Malaysia renegotiates is federation agreement to the benefit of these two states in particular, sustaining a potential kingmaker role seems East Malaysian parties’ best strategy, either separately or in a “Borneo bloc.”

What is your sense of the key challenges that the PH government will have to address if it is to hold on to power past the country’s next general elections? Are there any key developments or factors that you would flag for observers to watch in the months and years ahead? 

Not just the routed BN, but also the parties in PH face challenges in preparing for the next election and thereafter. For PH, the key hurdle is to run and win without the galvanizing spur of a common nemesis. The coalition in power risks taking the blame for a global downturn—one which appears increasingly imminent. That the PH government has not cut, but only recalibrated, ties with China makes Malaysia still vulnerable in particular to downturns in the Chinese economy thanks to the ongoing US–China trade war.

For now, that wider environment is probably most important to follow, if least in PH’s control; keeping taxes low, boosting or even maintaining social spending, creating and enhancing jobs, expanding and improving infrastructure—all these key, measurable dimensions rely on a healthy economy.