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Saturday, 12 May 2018

Back to the future for Malaysia

Earth-shattering news: The aftershocks of the general election are not over by any means. Voter turnout declined by 8.84 percentage points from 84.8 in 2013 to 76 this time around.

MOST Malaysians, including myself, went to bed in the early hours of Thursday morning after hearing the news that the Pakatan Harapan coalition of four parties had won a simple majority of 113 seats out of the 222 parliamentary seats contested in the 14th General Election.

It was earth-shattering news that the Barisan Nasional that had ruled Malaysia for 61 years is now in opposition.

The 92-year-old Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has just been sworn in as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia, after having served 22 years as the fourth Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003.

In 2016, Dr Mahathir quit Umno and came out with the former Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to form Parti Pribumi.

The Pakatan coalition comprises Parti Primbumi, Parti Keadilan Rakyat led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s wife Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, DAP and Parti Amanah Negara. The last comprises a faction that split off from PAS.

Going forth, there will be a period of political crossovers in which each party tries to bolster its majority at the parliamentary and state levels.

The aftershocks of the general election are not over by any means. My preliminary analysis of the published and available data on the elections showed that voter turnout declined by 8.84 percentage points from 84.8% in 2013 to 76% this time around.

Despite this, the total votes cast in the Parliamentary election were 11.93 million, or roughly 671,000 more than 2013. Out of this, Pakatan got 5.24 million or an increase of 1.25 million votes (over the votes cast for PKR and DAP in 2013) to 43.9% of total votes cast.

In essence, Barisan had a swing against it of just under one million votes to 4.24 million or 35.53% of the total votes cast.

In addition to the rejection of the past government on issues that include the 1MDB scandal, three key trends can be discerned from this year’s general election, which was orderly and surprisingly quiet on polling day, since there were few of the usual rumbustious rallies that followed past elections.

The Malaysian electorate has become mature, learning to be cautious and yet bold in voting for change.

First, it was clear that the urban voters swung decisively to the Pakatan coalition. This trend was clear for quite some time, as the urban population increased with the rural-urban drift.

Umno has traditionally depended on the rural vote for its support, but relied on its urban partners, the MCA, MIC and Gerakan to bolster the urban vote.

This time around, the MCA, MIC and Gerakan were almost wiped out at the polls, with the MCA and MIC party leaders losing their seats and Gerakan winning no seats at all.

This meant that the decisive gains were achieved in the more densely populated states in the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia, particularly with stronger majorities in Penang and Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Johor.

The last was the birthplace and stronghold of Umno, but this time round, even the veteran MP for Johor Baru Tan Sri Shahrir Samad lost heavily.

What was pivotal was the voting in Sabah and Sarawak, which together carried 56 Parliamentary seats and were considered safe “deposits” on which Barisan could rely to carry a majority.

In the end, Pakatan and its ally, Warisan took 24 parliament seats.

Secondly, PAS, the Islamic party that focuses largely on religion, dropped a net of three Parliamentary seats, but took back Terengganu, so that it once again controls two states (Kelantan and Terengganu).

It was clear that the breakaway faction Amanah was not able to draw away sufficient hardcore votes to weaken PAS.

The PAS support amounted to 2.01 million or 16.88% of total votes cast, an increase compared with 1.63 million votes or 14.78% in 2013.

What the rise of Pakatan means is that the urban Malay voters had elected for a change of government and improvements in economic livelihood rather than voting along religious affiliations.

The non-Malay vote, on the other hand, were put off by PAS push for hudud laws and were uncomfortable with Umno’s flirting with PAS on areas touching on religion.

Third, what this general election has done is to bring more new faces and talent into the political arena.

One of the weaknesses of multi-party politics is that under conditions of uncertainty, the tendency was to rely on recycled politicians, rather than experiment with younger professionals.

The new government has the opportunity to engage in generational renewal by bringing in younger leaders from more diverse backgrounds into positions of authority on change at all levels.

Time is of the essence, as Dr Mahathir has promised to stay on as Prime Minister for two years, before passing the baton to Anwar who will be 73 by then.

Nothing would signal more the restoration of the rule of law than the immediate release of Anwar from jail.

To safeguard his legacy, Dr Mahathir has now an unique and historic opportunity to address many of the issues that festered when he was Prime Minister for the first time. If the rule of law has weakened, it was partly because of the controversial steps he took to intervene in the legal institutions in the 1980s.

He needs to strengthen the very institutions that protect the rule of law which he now upholds.

On the economic front, he has inherited an economy that has grown by 5.9% last year, but as the saying goes, the GDP numbers look good, but the people feel bad.

With oil prices back up to over US$70 per barrel, and Malaysia as a net energy exporter, the economic winds are favourable for making the necessary tough reforms.

Cutting GST may be popular, but one has to look closely at the fiscal situation more prudently for the long haul.

How to create good jobs in an age of robotics, even as more youth enter the labour force, is a pressing challenge not just for Malaysia, but throughout the developing world.

On the foreign affairs front, Malaysia will have to navigate between the growing tensions between the United States and China.

Given his feisty style, Dr Mahathir has not been known to mince his words about what he thinks about the South China Sea or for that matter, where Malaysia stands as a leading voice in the South.

In her unique way, Malaysia has voted for a generational change, but with the oldest leader managing that transition. Most new governments find very short political honeymoons, as expectations are now high on delivery. It is always easier to oppose than to propose and implement.

How smoothly that transition occurs will have huge impact not only on Malaysians, but the region as a whole.

By Andrew Sheng who writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.


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