HOBART: It’s not even the end of January and the year is looking to be a messy one for politics in Malaysia.
In early January, right-wing politician - Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra) vice-president Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz- wrote a letter to a public school in Puchong demanding they take down Chinese New Year (CNY) decorations because these were “unconstitutional” as they were an attempt to propagate a non-Islam religion to students.
UNITED ON RACE AND RELIGION?
The police advised the school to take down the decorations. Malaysia’s cabinet though stepped in to say that these lanterns should remain as it is normal to do so with festivities.
While the case itself initially caused concern about the future of multiculturalism in Malaysia, what the Chinese and Indians in the country can take heart in is that when it comes to preserving the cultural traditions of the minorities, the government appears unanimously in support of it.
As this case in Puchong showed, after the cabinet announced its decision, several ministers even turned up at the school to help it put up the lanterns.
The group was made up of representatives of the different parties of the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and included: Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and Communications Minister Gobind Singh Deo from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman from the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (BERSATU) and the Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa from the National Trust Party (AMANAH).
At least on some matters, the PH shows semblance of unity and cohesion.
Such agreement is not a given in Malaysia’s ruling coalition these days.
The biggest issue of disagreement appears to be the date when Mahathir will step down, which has come to engulf much of the discourse on politics in Malaysia.
It’s such a huge issue among the political class that I think it’s appropriate to call this crisis “Mahaexit”.
There are two issues at stake. First is the actual date. Second is who will take over.
In practical terms, both are entwined. The official press release from PH is that Anwar Ibrahim is the agreed candidate, but he faces opposition from within the coalition as well as many in the conservative Malay political spectrum.
The first political shot was fired when Anwar’s supporters convened a public forum this week and said the power transition must be held in May this year so that PH’s promise to the voters that Mahathir will stay as PM for only two years is kept.
Moreover, Mahathir needs to go as Anwar needs time to cement his policies and plan for the next general elections, due in 2023. They also argued that the foreign investors want certainty and Malaysia’s economy cannot recover if a date is not set in stone.
Anwar himself has so far kept quiet other than telling reporters that Mahathir should not be ‘pressured’ while sounding optimistic that the transition will take place.
KEEPING THE INFLUENCE
Mahathir has insisted that while there is a political agreement that Anwar will succeed him, there is no timetable attached to the agreement. In an interview given to foreign media, he mentioned that he will step down after the November APEC meeting hosted by Malaysia.
Mahathir’s detractors argue that the “old man” is simply buying time as his real intention is to restructure the entire PH coalition to ensure the dominance of his party, BERSATU.
Among the four PH parties, the two biggest (in terms of number of MPs) are Anwar’s PKR and the largely Chinese-based DAP. Mahathir’ BERSATU and the Islamic-based Amanah comes in at 3rd and 4th largest.
There is constant talk in Kuala Lumpur that Mahathir wants to limit the influence of DAP and weaken PKR considerably. These objectives can only be met if he retains his position as PM.
Mahathir cannot influence anything if he is out of power, something he learned bitterly when he tried to oppose Najib Razak in UMNO. Even as a past president of UMNO and a retired stateman, he could not influence Najib or UMNO because he had no official power or political office.
It is unlikely that he will repeat the mistake.
WHO IS MINDING THE SHOP
All this is worrying the urban middle class - the biggest supporter of regime-change and the PH administration. They want to see reforms and fear that reforms are impossible if PH cannot work out a clean power transition.
There is already a sense that that government is constantly “fighting fires” - dealing with race and religious-baiting, rather than instituting real reforms in the political system and in the economy.
The general consensus is that if PH cannot get its act together, UMNO and PAS will make a comeback in the next general elections and it will be a return to an even more fundamentalist conservative government with PAS holding key positions in government.
What Malaysians forget is that all the political messiness we see today is a direct result of regime change.
When a long-stay regime loses power, there is a period of political uncertainity as the political system adjusts to the new reality. This is exactly what is happening in Malaysia. Transition from a one-party state was always going to be a messy affair and Malaysians should not expect otherwise.
The fact that racial politics has once again reared its ugly head is mainly due to the slow process of dissolution of the old structure. In the old BN regime, UMNO was strong enough to control the race and religious rhetoric among different interest groups, especially the right-wing groups.
While UMNO did not shy away from using racial politics for its own purposes, it also knew which levers to pull when things threatened to go out of hand.
The present PH regime, due to its structure, is simply not able to control the many political groups formed after the last elections. Using the old BN method of repressing these groups is the wrong way to go.
What is needed is actually deep reforms to the political system, including passing legislation criminalising hate speech. Creating a robust transparent political system that can deal with these groups via the legal system can create a strong civil-society and deepen democracy.
The only unique feature between Malaysia and other regime changes is the fact that the regime change in Malaysia is led by the same leader who was the cornerstone of the old regime - Mahathir.
Indeed Mahathir’s political experience and his strong governance style is what Malaysia and the PH may still need amidst this messiness and uncertainty in Malaysia’s politics. He still appears to be a dependable figure able to unite Malaysia’s coalition government and to have the clout to stand up to right-wing groups.
The real question then is this: Is it necessary that expediting Mahathir’s departure will be the right step for Malaysia when its politics is in a messy state?
Having a steady and experienced hand a while longer will not hurt, provided he can clear the muddle. It remains to be seen if Mahathir will actually quicken the pace of reforms now; time is running out for Mahaexit.
Professor James Chin is director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.