COMMENT | As Malaysia nears the first anniversary of a historic regime change, there are questions about the viability of the new Pakatan Harapan government led by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Harapan has just lost the two most recent by-elections, and there is every likelihood that it will lose the next by-election in the middle of next month as well. Losing three by-elections is always a bad sign for any government.
Although there are probably many reasons why Harapan is not doing well, there is consensus that perhaps it is losing steam because it is not keeping to its reform agenda.
There is little doubt that the previous BN government under Najib Abdul Razak was kicked out for kleptocracy but, equally importantly, people were just sick and tired of the BN’s racial and religious politics — in the name of ketuanan Melayu – and in more recent times, ketuanan Islam.
The Malay supremacy game is played out by the affirmative action policy enacted back in 1971, widely called the Malay Agenda, where the community is given preference in all economic, social and education spheres. They range from a special university for Malay students, special licences to import cars, to discounts for buying properties.
Most Malaysians would support this policy if it were going to help poor Malays, but many studies have shown the ones benefiting most from the program are the rich and politically connected. The unique feature is the creation of crony capitalism with an ethnic identity.
The Harapan administration knows the right thing to do is to move away from a racial affirmative action policy to one that is needs-based. This will end resentment among the non-Malay population, while the poor Malays will still benefit.
Most Australians think that Malaysia is more moderate than Indonesia, but Malaysia has more Islamic State fighters per capita than Indonesia.
The past four decades have seen a bureaucratisation of Islam in Malaysia, much more extensive than anything in Indonesia. Islamic schools in Malaysia, state and private, are known to be using a curriculum that preaches intolerance and there is evidence that Salafi teaching is gaining a foothold in some schools.
Hence, a significant portion of young Muslims today hold intolerant views and prefer the establishment of an Islamic state, ignoring the fact that one-third of the population of Malaysia is non-Muslim.
The rise of political Islam is probably unstoppable given the constitutional setup. Malaysia is one of very few countries around the world that constitutionally links race and Islam.
A person who is legally defined as a Malay in Malaysia is also legally defined as a Muslim. Islam is also the de facto official religion. All political parties hoping to get the Malay vote must project themselves as champions of Islam.
Mahathir has always stood for the progressive form of Islam, but he is a minority among Muslim leaders.
Many Muslim leaders simply do not want to confront the rise of political Islam in Malaysia, for the simple reason that this is still the most potent political vehicle to climb.
The middle class and the intelligentsia were hoping that Harapan will deal with these two key issues – the Malay agenda and political Islam – if elected. After all, in its manifesto, Harapan clearly stated that it will reform the Malay agenda and deal with political Islam.
One year later, the new government appears to be still stagnant. The civil service is still resisting change, while Harapan supporters are disheartened by the slow pace of reform.
The issue is compounded by endless rumours about PKR president Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was jailed for corruption and sodomy, was anointed by Harapan to be Mahathir’s successor.
Mahathir has publicly named Anwar as his successor and promised to go by next year. Yet there are persistent rumours that Anwar is not the “right” person and that Mahathir privately prefers someone else.
Whatever the truth, the reality is these rumours are creating mistrust among Harapan parties and creating an even more negative perception of the government. It distracts the entire government from concentrating on reforms, as key political players prefer to wait and see.
If Harapan is to have any real chance of getting reelected in 2023, it must confront the destructive ideology of ketuanan Melayu and the rise of political Islam.
Some Harapan leaders may think they must pander to both to get reelected, but the truth is, you win by moving to the middle ground with real reforms.
If Harapan plays the same game as the previous regime, then the voters will think they might as well return BN to power. Why vote for the clone when you can have the original?
But first, Harapan had better settle the issue of Mahathir’s successor. By not giving a clear date for the handover, they are creating unnecessary political tensions in a government that should be reforming Malaysia. The 'New Malaysia' is still a nation in waiting.
JAMES CHIN is director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. This article was first published in The Australian.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.