One year ago, Malaysians stunned the world when they toppled the political coalition that had governed the country for more than 60 years, and voted the opposition into power. The historic election win surprised even the victors themselves.
That surprise election outcome rocked financial markets, with investors selling down Malaysian stocks, bonds and currency in the immediate aftermath. But within the country, many were optimistic about the future under the rule of the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan — the Malay language term for “alliance of hope.”
When hundreds of women gathered on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to call for equal rights in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s self-proclaimed “new Malaysia,” they were met with an unexpected response: a police investigation.
Officials were ordered to see if the women were in violation of the country’s draconian sedition act — a law the ruling Pakatan Harapan party pledged to eliminate ahead of Mahathir’s historic election win one year ago. It’s just one of several campaign promises that have not been fulfilled, leaving those once elated by the 93-year-old’s return to power underwhelmed by his performance.
“A lot of people feel cheated by Pakatan Harapan,” said Siti Kasim, a 56-year-old criminal lawyer and political commentator who was among the 5.78 million of Malaysians who voted for Mahathir last May and one of the protesters who took to the streets in March. “And if Pakatan Harapan don’t see who their supporters are they will lose the next election.”
Siti is not alone. The majority of the pledges made in Pakatan Harapan’s 200-page manifesto remain unfulfilled, leaving many to doubt whether the ‘Alliance of Hope’ will be able to lift Malaysia into an era of unity, equality and prosperity.
Mahathir said his government was working toward fulfilling the campaign promises. “Manifesto is for five years, it’s not for one year,” he said at a media conference on Thursday. “There are some promises which must be delayed because of legal problems — for instance certain changes we need to make require some changes in the Constitution. For that we need a two-thirds majority, not just the government, we need the support of the opposition.”
“Within one year, the government has tried its best to fulfill many responsibilities,” he said later at a Thursday national address. “Indeed there are shortcomings and mistakes, and so the government will continue to work on improving.”
According to a recent survey by Malaysia’s Merdeka Center, approval for Mahathir has plummeted from 71% in August to just 46% in March, while support for the coalition government fell from 79% to 39%.
“Citizens have a right to feel disappointed as progress has been minimal,” said Lee Morgenbesser, lecturer and Southeast Asia expert from Griffith University in Australia. “The last year of the Pakatan Harapan government seems to have been filled by disappointment and this is reflected in the polls.”
While the new government had originally pledged to end decades of corruption in the top rungs of power, it last year abandoned a pledge to adopt a United Nations treaty against racial discrimination. It was also criticized for withdrawing from a treaty to accede to the International Criminal Court, bowing to fears that it may lead to the persecution of the country’s Malay rulers and threaten the privileges of the majority Malays.
“The people are unhappy with the government because they are deviating from their original promises,” said opposition MP and president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, Wee Ka Siong.
Fear of Backlash
The government has also fallen short on a promise to fill 30 percent of government seats with women, while a pledge to end the practice of child marriage — which is currently legal under Shariah law — has fallen by the wayside for fear of religious backlash.
“Every issue that can be made into a racial one to prove that Malay rights have been infringed will be blown up that way, and perpetuated through social media to the rural outskirts,” said Serina Abdul Rahman, an academic fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
She said the political establishment has invoked deeply conservative views on religion to stoke divisions between the country’s predominantly Muslim Malays and ethnic minorities.
Following his victory last year, Mahathir’s former party — the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — appeared to be gaining support by uniting political opponents behind Ketuanan Melayu Islam, the ideology that gives Muslim Malays greater claim to the country than other Malaysians.
But perhaps more than race and religion, the government’s failure to quickly bring down Malaysia’s high the cost of living and move the country towards an economic recovery following decades of building debt is hurting it the most.
“Mahathir’s leadership is seen to be less successful at repairing the economic situation this year even though they were previously trusted to restore the economy,” said political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi from the University of Malaysia. “Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan government have to prove their performance through their economy policy which will have an immediate impact.”
In the first sign of waning support for the ruling coalition, Pakatan Harapan lost a by-election in the state-constituency of Semenyih in March, ceding the state parliament seat it previously held. The government will face a new test when it heads into another by-election on Saturday to contest the Sandakan parliamentary seat.
Observers are now questioning whether Mahathir is able to carry out the rest of his government’s agenda.
“The government still lacks political support or buy-in from the Malay community and if this remains unattended could have an adverse electoral impact for Pakatan Harapan,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, director of political consultancy firm Bower Group Asia’s Malaysia office.
Mahathir was propelled to his surprise mandate last year in a country still reeling from the ongoing 1MDB scandal in which then-sitting former prime minister Najib Razak stands accused of embezzling billions of dollars in public funding slated for investment.
Still, Mahathir has made steps to ease the cost of living, including abolishing a controversial goods and services tax, and capping the price of petrol. The government has also appointed the country’s first female chief justice — Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat — and moved towards a freer press by lifting bans on previously blacklisted journalists.
“Changing governments for the first time after 60 years is challenging. It becomes complicated due to Malaysia’s plural nature,” said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a central leadership council member and an MP for the ruling coalition’s People’s Justice Party. “The government has introduced many positive changes but lacks a narrative especially to convince the poorer segments in society and the Malay rural population.”
For others, the lackluster performance is just more of the same from a politician that has spent too many years on the same side as Malaysia’s political elite.
“I just feel that we need new fresh blood,” said Siti, the criminal lawyer. “We need new people and not people who are carrying baggage from the past.”