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Pork-barrel election pledges are a step back for Malaysian democracy

Ruling and opposition blocs must focus on economic reform, not promises of cash handouts

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, shown here at an election rally in Kuala Lumpur on April 7, has been dogged by allegations of corruption.   © AP

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has dissolved the lower house of parliament and the public is set to go to the polls on May 9. Malaysia may have one of the best-performing economies in Southeast Asia, but with its ruling and opposition camps apparently interested only in wooing voters with pork-barrel policies, it is hard not to conclude that the country is veering ever farther off the path to becoming a mature democracy.

The ruling coalition led by Najib -- Barisan Nasional, or National Front -- which has been in power since the country's independence in 1957, aims to stay on top by touting Malaysia's high economic growth, running at a 5.9% clip in 2017.

The opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, is led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has returned to the front lines of politics at age 92. Determined to topple the governing coalition he himself once led, Mahathir has been dishing out heavy criticism of the Najib regime, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption. It is clear, however, that the campaign promises being made by both sides are little more than half-measures aimed at pleasing voters.

Immediately before dissolving the lower house, Najib's government announced it would award extra cash to civil servants and pensioners, key components of its support base. The opposition coalition, meanwhile, says it will abolish the goods and services tax and raise minimum wages. Sweet enticements, perhaps, but both camps completely lack a long-term vision for sustained economic growth.

Like his election rival, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is offering populist pledges to woo voters.   © AP

Vote buying, a typical means of electoral fraud, is half-openly practiced in Malaysia. In a last-minute move before the lower house was dissolved, the Najib administration pushed through parliament controversial legislation for redrawing the electoral boundaries -- a step seen as likely to tilt the election results in Najib's favor. The prime minister also pushed an "anti-fake news" bill that can effectively ban the publication of any news, reports or other forms of information critical of the government.

Malaysia's gross domestic product per capita stands at roughly $10,000, bringing the country closer to the ranks of advanced economies. But its political system, which retains elements of an old-time "developmental dictatorship," suggests it has yet to graduate from the status of developing country.

One of the many hurdles Malaysia needs to overcome is its affirmative action policies aimed at improving the lives of ethnic Malays, or Bumiputra. Many Chinese-Malaysians, who account for 25% of the country's population, regard the Bumiputra policy simply as an example of racial discrimination. As long as such an unfair system is allowed to continue, Malaysia will not be regarded by the international community as a country that respects human rights.

Strides toward democratization have been slow in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, for example, the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen retains a firm grip on power, and Thailand is still operating under a military regime. We hope that Malaysia can show that in addition to its economic progress, it is making advances on the political front by holding fair and transparent elections in which its political parties compete over important policies. By doing so, the countrycan help democracy take root in Asia.

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