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The deep forces preventing reform in Malaysia

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 2 May 2019


The Pakatan Harapan coalition general election victory almost a year ago was supposed to herald a new reform era in a country spavined by corruption, cronyism and racism.

Very soon after Mahathir Mohamed was returned as prime minister after a 15 year absence and in a new role, he quickly made good on Pakatan’s promises to eliminate the GST, re-introd15-year absence fuel subsidies, seek the immediate release of Anwar Ibrahim from jail and charge former Prime Minister Najib Razak over the 1MDB scandal.

However, public disenchantment of the new Pakatan government very quickly developed as the pace of reform appeared to slow. The government flip-flopped over child marriage, then backflipped over its intention to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination due to protests organized by the ousted United Malays National Organization and ultra-nationalist Malay groups.

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Shortly afterwards, it backed down from ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court due to criticism from the Johor Royal Family. The report completed by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) on reform was put under the Official Secrets Act, and has not been made public. More recently, Mahathir’s quick dismissal of the Suhakam Report finding that “state agents” where most probably responsible for the abduction and disappearance of religious leaders Amri Che mat and Pastor Anthony Koh disappointed many.

There is now a perception that the Pakatan government won’t deliver what it promised. The by-election result in the Semenyih constituency was an indication of this, confirming Medeka Centre pollingthat both the prime minister and Pakatan were rapidly losing popularity.

However those expecting the government to create a new Malaysia forgot about the complex nature of the Pakatan coalition itself, the electoral landscape and the institutional and attitudinal impediments to reform. 

The Nature of the Coalition

The leading party, in terms of influence but not numbers is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, formed by Mahathir in the runup to the general election to give himself a political vehicle. Although the party manifesto talks in terms of maintaining fundamental rights and fighting corruption, Bersatu is really a nationalist-Malay organization, believing in Islam as the state religion, upholding the Malay monarchy, maintaining Malay privilege and that of natives of Sabah and Sarawak, and keeping Malay as the national language. 

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has twice Bersatu’s representation in the Federal Parliament and supports the abolishment of the New Economic Policy, the instrument that provides special privileges for Malays and other indigenous groups. In practice however, the party most often reflects its leader Anwar Ibrahim’s views. PKR’s structure is very similar to UMNO’s, and is currently strongly factionalized between the Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali groups. Recent party elections brought accusations of vote buying.

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Under the Pakatan agreement Anwar is due to take the reins of Power from Mahathir sometime in 2020.

The third member is a breakaway group from PAS called Parti Amanah Negara, primarily a Malay based party standing for progressive Islam. It has 11 members of Parliament, where its leader Mohamed Sabu is Minister of Defense.

Next, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) is primarily a Chinese based party, although it has sort to be multi-ethnic over the years. The DAP is based on social justice, democracy, and secularism. Its support comes from working class and professional urban voters, where the party played a major role in assisting Pakatan win the last general election.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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