Malaysia under Mahathir

One year on


Last month Malaysia celebrated the one-year anniversary of its historic 2018 election. After 61 years in power, the world’s longest-ruling government coalition – the Barisan Nasional (BN) – came to an end. The usurpers were the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. The nation was optimistic after being fed up with the BN’s record of corruption, epitomised by the 1MDB scandal that saw former prime minister Najib Razak, his wife and inner circle tried over the embezzlement of billions of dollars of public funds.

But a year in, the PH’s sparkle has dimmed. The coalition’s infighting, backpedalling on key election promises and a botched austerity drive helped make Malaysia 2018’s worst performing major market by stock market growth. In May, the government’s approval rating had fallen to 39% from its 79% high a year ago, according to the Merdeka Centre, the country’s leading pollster. What has gone wrong?

Unfulfilled promises

Although the PH made anti-corruption the cornerstone of their campaign, it has achieved little in this area. This is mostly because PH, by Mahathir’s own admission, was not expecting to win the election and so “made a thick manifesto with all kinds of promises” they didn’t expect to have to deliver. The government reneged on promises to end political appointments of allies in top government posts, evidenced by Mahathir handpicking PH members to lead agencies like the education financial aid fund (Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional), the Islamic tax collection body (Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia), and ironically, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. At the same time, the government’s rule of making politicians publicly declare their assets has been largely ignored by PH members. These include Mahathir’s son Mukhriz Mahathir, and Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of his handpicked successor Anwar Ibrahim. The PH has also been accused of vote buying during two by-elections since their 2018 victory.

 Back to politics as usual

The government has also been dogged by infighting among coalition leaders. A lack of coordination between cabinet ministers and their allies in Parliament sees the latter frequently vote down policies shortly after the cabinet announces them. The PH failed to strike down repressive laws used by the previous administration to curb free speech and democracy and have yet to fulfil promises to achieve 30% female representation in government. Voters have seemingly made their dissatisfaction known – delivering straight losses for the PH in the last three by-elections.

Malaysia’s future outlook

Market observers predict an economic slowdown until 2020 as Malaysia seeks to lower its debt by cutting public spending. And despite the growing public dissatisfaction, polls show that 57% of Malaysians still believe the country is on the right track to recovery, following six decades of authoritarian rule. Malaysia has made progress in some areas. Legislatively, it introduced corporate liability clauses in its Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (Amendment) Bill to further curb bribery and corruption, which would bring Malaysian anti-corruption legislation on par with the UK Bribery Act. The amendments are expected to come into force in June 2020. Post-2020, with renewed infrastructure investments from China, a hoped-for stabilisation of the oil market and new anti-graft laws, Malaysia's GDP growth is expected to pick up. Indeed, the World Bank projects Malaysia to reach high income status by 2024. In short, the PH’s stormy first year in power could yet turn out to be growing pains on the road to political and economic stability.