Shock Poll

An Interview with Joshua Kurlantzick

There's a life-long animosity between him and many opposition leaders. So if he turns around and says a year from now, "I'm going to want to serve a full five-year term,” that's going to cause a problem.

I don't think the other Malaysian leaders in the coalition are going to accept that. I don't know exactly what they would do, but that would be a huge problem. Mahathir could reach out to other parties that are not in the coalition, like the governing party. After that? I don’t know.

On foreign policy, Mahathir is pretty mercurial. But at the same time, he has a history for making mercurial statements — very, very reckless or wild statements — but acting relatively pragmatically. Before the election, he made a lot of tough statements about Chinese investment in Asia and Malaysia and suggested that Malaysia is going to revisit, potentially, some of its ties with China.

I don't know if he's going to follow through on that, but that's one potential change. In the past, in the 80's and 90's when Mahathir was Prime Minister, he would make a lot of tough, reckless, sometimes racist statements about the United States and Britain, Malaysia’s former colonial power, and specific groups like Jews. That hasn't necessarily changed. He has a long history of anti-Semitism and other crazy theories.

His actual foreign policies in the 80's and 90's (up until the Asian financial crisis), however, were pragmatically moderate and warm towards the United States and Britain. You have to write off some of what he says about things, although the anti-Semitism, I think, is deep-rooted and extremely concerning. It's unclear, but if he does what he says he's going to do, then Malaysia is going to reevaluate its foreign policy somewhat, especially with China.

The foreign policy contours of an Anwar government are even more unclear because Anwar has never been the Prime Minister. He's been in jail for a significant portion of recent years. His foreign policies I would expect to be pragmatic, maybe a bit more favorable to other democracies in the region. He might be more of a voice for regional democracy. But beyond that, we don't really know.

On domestic policy, Anwar has a clearer and substantial agenda, and has had one for a long time. Just as  the opposition has. They want to get rid of bumiputraism, the preferences given to the Malayan majority. They want to improve the education system. They want to stop Malaysia's massive brain drain and capital flight. They want to improve governance. They want to end the authoritarian vestiges of the old system.

Mahathir, it should be noted, also says he wants to do a lot of those things, including investigate the massive scandal surrounding the former Prime Minister. I don't doubt that he would do the latter because that was a major issue in the election. In terms of the other things — preparing the way for real democracy, and getting rid of affirmative action for Malays — I don't know if Mahathir really wants to do that.

OR: How has this result changed, if it has changed, the imperatives in regional geopolitics?

Kurlantzick: I'm sure that the Chinese government has thought about what Mahathir has said on the campaign trail. Malaysia is a really important partner for China. I'm sure that the Chinese government has been reaching out to assess whether Mahathir is being genuine when he says that they're going to revisit Chinese investment. Beyond that, it's hard to say.

But for others, I don't really think we know. It's possible that some other Southeast Asian leaders might welcome Mahathir's return because he's a leader who had some international recognition, and could perhaps put Southeast Asia back on the map. It's an ignored region in international policy. Others may not be so thrilled because Mahathir is historically not just mercurial, but extremely strong-willed.

I think if Anwar becomes the Prime Minister, then you might have another actor in Southeast Asia who might be more aggressively be pushing on issues like ethnic cleansing in Myanmar against Rohingya and Islamophobia in Myanmar, and other issues related to human rights that have completely fallen off the radar in Southeast Asia. That might come up.

With Mahathir, it's a little hard to say. For the U.S., there's a long history with Mahathir of hot and cold relations underlain by decent strategic ties. I expect the reaction will be moderate. For U.S. investors, Malaysia is already a pretty attractive place, but if Malaysia was going to clean up graft, and produce a better work force, I'm sure they would be even happier about that.

OR: Malaysian politics and inter-ethnic relations can seem Byzantine in their complexity to even sophisticated observers. Does that make the the difficult work of moving towards democracy even more difficult?

Kurlantzick: The May election is the first peaceful transfer of power Malaysia has seen. Before that, it was a semi-authoritarian state descending into being an outright authoritarian state. So we'll have to see on that one. But a peaceful transfer of power is certainly a good sign for change.

I also don't think Malaysia's electoral politics are necessarily that Byzantine. They may seem Byzantine to people used to a two-party system and/or a presidential system. But their electoral politics aren't that different than other Westminster-style parliamentary democracies where there isn't a high bar for entry into politics.

Even the governing coalition, which the former Prime Minister ran, often formed coalitions within smaller parties. I think it's not so different from Israel, or even a country like Germany. It's very rare for one party to form a majority itself, so there's a lot of horsetrading.

Ethnically, it's challenging because you have three major ethnic groups — ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians — as well as some others. And the Malays have, at least in recent times, enjoyed the sort of preferences that are supposed to be designed in theory to make up for discrimination against them in the colonial period before.