The surprising Malaysian election results show yet again that we shouldn’t put faith in polls and pundits. Despite serious gerrymandering and other bits of nastiness the Barisan Nasional lost the election. The return of Dr Mahathir raises questions about the future. He has promised to hand over to Anwar Ibrahim but hasn’t said when. Najib looks like he is in trouble and may be charged with corrupt practices.
Barisan is dominated by UMNO which is Malay plus the Chinese and Indian equivalents. The electorates were gerrymandered to give disproportionate weight to rural Malays who were expected to vote for Malay dominance via UMNO and who were suspicious of Chinese influence. Various obstacles were also put in the way of campaigning by other parties. So what went wrong? There appear to be a number of factors but the main ones were probably dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Najib’s corruption and the prestige of Dr Mahathir as well perhaps as support for Anwar Ibrahim and his wife Wan Aziza whose party polled well.
The results show that the rural Malay electorate that Najib relied on did not support him to the degree expected. The MCA was the other big loser within the coalition.
Pakatan Harapan was founded in 2015 with Dr Mahathir as leader and Wan Azizah as the deputy so they become Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Although a significant figure in her own right, Wan Azizah is the wife of Anwar Ibrahim and got seriously into politics when he was jailed. There was probably a sympathy vote for her husband. Clearly, Mahahtir and Wan Azizah could be presented as serious candidates for Malays who were disenchanted with UMNO. Mahathir’s promise to seek a pardon for the trumped-up charges he had brought against the popular Anwar and which were reinstated by Najib would have helped. While it was UMNO that took the biggest beating, the Chinese MCA didn’t do much better losing 6 seats out of 7 and the Indian Congress lost 2 out of 4.
So where to from now? While some things need to be clarified, the King has already pardoned Anwar and Mahathir has said Anwar will become Prime Minister when he retires. Anwar will now be freed and can re-enter politics. There is a certain sense of déjà vu in this since Anwar was the heir apparent until Mahathir saw him as too radical and a possible threat to Mahathir. Presumably, things have changed enough to give Anwar some confidence although Mahathir has not been clear on exactly when the change will take place.
Mahathir said he was not after revenge but has also made it clear that he is going after corruption and that if Najib is found to be corrupt he will face charges. Since everyone believes Najib is corrupt which is why so many didn’t vote for him he has cause to be nervous. It has been reported that he and his unpopular wife are not allowed to leave the country which should make him even more nervous. Najib was in trouble with the USA where corruption charges were being brought against him.
Dr Mahathir has been sensitive about charges he was a dictator. I was High Commissioner during his time and believed that he was a strong, authoritarian ruler who did not always act legally against opponents but not a dictator in the classic sense. He is very sensitive to criticism be it domestic or external and has a record of dealing harshly with anyone he saw as a threat to his power or image. He has a very short temper and can blow up without notice. It will be interesting to see how the reborn democrat behaves now. He was also the instigator of a more radical approach to Islam – or at least on the surface. Malay women should wear head coverings but most seem to have got theirs from Gucci rather than Saudi Arabia! Another example of the tokenism struck me when staying in a tourist hotel in Langkawi. Pork was not allowed in the dining room but upstairs was a bar very well stocked with every kind of alcohol you could ask for. At the same time, there are pious Muslims who want a more religious Malaysia. There is nothing to suggest this whole situation will change but it is too early to really know.
We may expect Wan Azizah who shares her husband’s views to be a force for liberal democracy and no doubt Anwar too when he becomes Prime Minister. Mahathir says he wants to restore freedom and democracy as well as combatting corruption but given his previous track record what he will actually do remains uncertain.
Race relations remains a difficult issue in Malaysia and the new Government will need to keep conservative Malays happy while not antagonising Chinese. Not always easy.
Mahathir has said he has nothing against China but he does not want Chinese warships sailing around Malaysian waters. China will probably find him a bit harder to deal with than Najib was. Mahathir has a long-standing chip on his shoulder about Australia so we can’t expect any favours from him. Anwar has nothing against us and should be easier to deal with. Mahathir will no doubt maintain his strong nationalist stance but may have mellowed a little. No doubt he has not forgotten that by ignoring the economic advice of the IMF and the US he was able to get the Malaysian economy back on its feet after the Asian economic downturn. He should maintain strong support for ASEAN.
In summary, much remains to be sorted out in practice but we may expect action to be taken against corruption and a greater liberalisation of politics particularly when Anwar takes over. We have already seen signs of greater freedom with the daughters of Anwar and of Najib’s wife speaking out publicly in a way that would have been hard for them to do before. Let us hope this is a good omen but with the good doctor you never quite know what is going to happen.
Cavan Hogue was Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia and has headed the Southeast Branch and the Asia Division in DFAT.