The biggest fear of reformists in Malaysia is that the administration of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which won a surprise election victory on May 9, 2018, will turn out to be a one-term government.
What particularly worries them is the resurgence of the United Malays National Organization, the party that lost power last year, after leaving the country divided by race and religion with its six-decade rule, mainly exercised through leading various National Front coalitions.
Against expectations, UMNO won by-elections for parliamentary seats in January and early March, and is widely expected to win a third, scheduled for mid-April. The party's renewed popularity is due primarily to its new alliance with Parti Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Party), known as PAS.
Before the general election, PAS and UMNO were bitter enemies. Faced with Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition government, they have united around a decades-old Malaysian political concept known as ketuanan Melayu Islam -- Malay Islamic supremacy. This asserts that ethnic Malays occupy Malaysia by right, while smaller groups of ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians reside there with the permission of Malays. The number of Malays is disputed, but they are thought to account for about 55% of the population of nearly 32 million. About 65% of the population is Muslim, including all Malays, who must be Muslim by law.
If Mahathir fails to respond soon to this challenge to diversity and democracy, he will run an increasing risk that the PAS/UMNO alliance will gather momentum and perhaps win the next general election, due in 2023. The prime minister must get a grip on developments by delivering on the promises of reform that underpinned his surprise victory a year ago.
There are four key priorities that his administration must address urgently.
First, it must deal with an affirmative action policy widely called the Malay agenda. Introduced in 1971 as a response to race riots in 1969, affirmative action was intended to help Malays catch up with the Chinese and Indian communities, which were generally more prosperous and better educated. The approach established quotas for Malay participation in the economy and higher education, with the intention of reserving an increasing share of economic wealth for Malays and encouraging the Malay professional class.
The policy has had the desired effect, but it has also engendered an entrenched form of crony capitalism, in which many Malay business people prosper largely through a close relationship with the government. Major public contracts have often been awarded to UMNO-linked, Malay-run businesses, while university places have been allocated disproportionately to Malays.
The result is resentment among the non-Malay community about what is correctly perceived as racial discrimination. This system should be replaced by one where government assistance is based on need, rather than ethnicity.
Second, the government must deal with the rise of political Islam. Malaysian politics has taken a nasty turn in the past decade, with young Malays increasingly mobilized to use Islam, the de facto official religion, to create a divide between Malays and non-Malays. Even worse, increasing numbers of Malaysian Muslims think Malaysia should be an Islamic state in which non-Muslims would be second class citizens with limited political rights.
The radicalism of young Malays is in part a result of past attempts by UMNO to display a strong commitment to Islam as a way of combating an electoral threat from PAS, its improbable new coalition partner. The unintended consequence has been the emergence of a generation of intolerant Muslims who reject non-Muslims.
The government should respond by creating a ministry to engage with religions other than Islam. Indonesia has done this and there is no reason why Malaysia cannot repeat the success. At present, the entire Malaysian bureaucracy is geared toward Islam.
Third, the government must deal with grievances relating to Malaysia's creation in 1963, when peninsular Malaya, which had won independence from the U.K. in 1957, federated with three smaller former British colonies -- Singapore, North Borneo (now known as Sabah), and Sarawak. Largely ethnic-Chinese Singapore was later ejected from the federation.
The federation agreement accepted that Sabah and Sarawak, both located on the island of Borneo, were different from peninsular Malaysia in history, culture and demography. Both contain large tribal groups as well as significant ethnic Chinese populations, while ethnic Malays are minorities in both states. The two states were granted autonomy in education, language and religion. Islam was not to be the official religion, and the states had special powers over immigration, finance and trade.
However, all these powers of self-government, except for immigration, have subsequently been monopolized by the federal government. As a result, the peoples of the two states feel that they have lost their special status in a process widely perceived as a form of Malay colonization.
To its credit, the Mahathir administration has established a committee to consider reinstating decentralized powers for Sabah and Sarawak. However, if this is not handled carefully, there is every chance that nascent secessionist movements will gain traction, creating a crisis for the whole country.
Finally, Mahathir must set a date for stepping down. The prime minister has promised to leave office in 2020, making way for Anwar Ibrahim, a former UMNO deputy prime minister who was jailed on sodomy and corruption charges, which he has always denied, after going into opposition. Anwar, who leads the biggest party in the governing coalition, was given a full pardon by Malaysia's king in 2018.
In Malaysian system power is concentrated in the prime minister, and uncertainty over the date of the transfer, or whether it will happen at all, is leading to political instability. Rumors abound of plots to prevent Anwar from succeeding Mahathir, needlessly distracting from the reform agenda and threatening the coalition's reelection prospects. Mahathir should immediately name Anwar deputy prime minister to help restore coalition stability.
Implementing political reform is challenging after a momentous regime change, but progress would re-establish the government's credibility as a reform movement and lay the foundation for a long-term shift away from racial and religious politics. Implementing reforms is the best response to the divisive racial and religious politics of UMNO and PAS. The prime minister should move quickly.
James Chin is director of the Asia Institute, University of Tasmania and author of a Lowy Institute paper 'New' Malaysia: Four key challenges in the near term.