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Opinion

Three requests for new Malaysian leader Mahathir

Now is a historic chance to promote fair politics, sustainable growth and unbiased diplomacy

Newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at a news conference on May 12: Change starts with the 92-year-old politician.   © Reuters

History was made at the Malaysian polls on May 9. In a stunning popular rebuke of the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which had been enmeshed in a string of bribery scandals, the opposition coalition, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional, or National Front, bloc in a general election for the first time since the country's independence in 1957.

The outcome is hugely significant because it demonstrates -- especially to other Southeast Asian countries where democracy has yet to reach maturity -- that Malaysians can select their own government through a popular vote even under strong-arm rule. We welcome Mahathir's coalition government because it could be a turning point for the country's reform.

Now that Mahathir has been sworn in as prime minister, we have three requests for him.

First, he should do everything in his power to promote fair and transparent politics. During the election campaign, his camp won considerable popular support thanks to its vow to eradicate bribery. The new leader should make good on that promise by immediately taking concrete actions on political reform.

Mahathir once led the National Front himself and served as Malaysia's prime minister from 1981 to 2003. It was Mahathir himself who gave Najib a chance to play a major role in national politics. It is fair to say that the tactics of the Najib regime -- including oppressing political adversaries and redrawing electoral boundaries in an apparent bid to tilt the election results in its favor -- were a negative legacy of previous governments. If the corruption and special interests that have tainted Malaysian politics are to be wiped out, Mahathir himself must change.

Second, his government should create a blueprint for achieving sustainable growth. Although Malaysia's per capita gross domestic product has made big gains, rising to roughly $10,000, the country has fallen into the "middle-income trap" of stagnation that can prevent developing economies from making the jump to an advanced economy.

Malaysia's industrial structure, where state-backed enterprises dominate and private players struggle to innovate, needs an overhaul. That means Mahathir must look beyond the pork-barrel policies that he proposed to please voters, such as abolishing the goods and services tax, raising minimum wages and making expressways toll-free.

Third, we ask the Mahathir government to pursue impartial diplomacy with an eye toward overall Asian stability. Najib's government leaned toward China, on which it relied for the funds needed to cover the liabilities of state-owned companies. The new government must be mindful of the fact that attracting overseas investment needed to promote industrial development becomes harder when a country is seen to be under another government's sway.

Mahathir has never been afraid to express his likes and dislikes. While he is a known Japanophile, Mahathir has also long been harshly critical of the U.S. We hope he will show the balanced diplomatic sense worthy of a 92-year-old political veteran.

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