Malaysia's New Leaders Need to Be as Bold as Its Voters

(Bloomberg) -- Quite unexpectedly, Malaysians just voted out their ruling party for the first time since independence in 1957. They voted for change, and that’s what their new leaders need to deliver.

You might think so stunning an electoral upset would make a bold new departure inevitable. Not so. Malaysia’s fractious opposition won only after joining forces with 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad — a stalwart of the long-ruling United Malays National Organization and hardly a change agent.

In his first stint in power, Mahathir laid the foundations of Malaysia’s most illiberal policies. He defanged independent institutions such as the courts and the press, and jailed rivals — including Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy. (Mahathir, sworn in on May 10, now says he plans to pardon Anwar and make way for him to become prime minister.) Mahathir expanded the Malay-first affirmative-action programs that fueled cronyism and drove bright young Chinese and Indians to flee the country. Even now he vows new populist measures — such as scrapping a recently introduced goods-and-services tax — within his first 100 days.

Yet if voters had wanted pure populism, they could have re-elected UMNO and its leader, Najib Razak. If urban Malays had cared more about their pocketbooks than a free press or civil liberties or the scandal surrounding the 1MDB development fund (Najib denies a U.S. Justice Department claim that $681 million in his personal bank accounts was stolen from the fund), they wouldn’t have voted in such numbers for the opposition.

The ruling coalition was ejected despite massive gerrymandering, nativist appeals, a muzzled press and concerted efforts to depress the vote — a sign that the system is no longer working for most Malaysians. Voters know they need better access to education when automation threatens more than half the country’s jobs. They ask why government-linked companies invest in high-end healthcare and housing, rather than working to lower the cost of basic services.

Malaysians can also see how far their country has drifted from its proud self-image as a modern, tolerant, multiethnic nation. Though voters in some parts of the country did succumb to the appeal of more extreme Islamic parties, others rejected the government’s efforts to drive a wedge between Malays and the country’s minorities. Increasingly, Malays acknowledge that affirmative-action policies need to be reformed to focus less on race.

Whatever their differences, the various parties making up the new government can agree on the need to rebuild the country’s battered institutions. Mahathir has talked about restoring the independence of the judiciary and other institutions, while reducing the powers of the prime minister. The new government should make those tasks a priority. It should also withdraw draconian security regulations and challenge the Muslim chauvinists with whom the previous government flirted. And if anyone can sell rural Malays on the need to reform affirmative-action policies, it’s Mahathir — their longstanding champion.

Malaysians just did something bold. It’s an unforeseen opportunity, and their new leaders mustn’t waste it.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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