The surprise return to power of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia’s recent elections — and the promised return of his former enemy, Anwar Ibrahim — has opened a new possibility for the island nation: a movement towards democracy. But, warns, the CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick, that path is fraught with risks and dangers.
Malaysia has also seen something of an upsurge in more conservative Islamist groups. That was actually a big point of discussion before the election that's gotten completely obscured. There was another party that was linked to Najib, an Islamist party, that did quite well. And if Najib had won a few more seats, that party probably would've made a coalition with Najib and allowed him to become Prime Minister with the support of an Islamist party. I think that's something to watch out for.
OR: Who is Anwar Ibrahim a politician? As a person?
Kurlantzick: I don't know Anwar personally. I have met him in a group setting. I do know some of the other membership of the opposition coalition including including his daughter, who is a prominent politician now.
I can't tell you what he's like personally. But I think that if we take seriously what he has said and devoted quite a lot of time to and has now served two jail terms for, we’d have to think that he does indeed believe Malaysia is hobbled by an ongoing legacy of graft and cronyism in government and politics, and that he would try to reform that, as well as be serious about reforming bumiputraism. He spent two terms in jail pushing for that.
He has also been a very effective politician. After coming out of jail, he led the opposition very close to victory in 2013, which I think the government did not expect at the time. So I think he will be a powerful force.
I don't know what the cumulative effect of so much time in jail has been for him — he has endured beatings and other things. I'm sure that that's an issue, but at this point I don't see any reason to not take seriously the idea that he want to try to dramatically change Malaysia.
OR: Malaysia's anti-fake news law has garnered international attention. How do you see that law playing into short-term politics, particularly in this unsettled transitional period?
Kurlantzick: Mahathir has said that they're not going to get rid of the fake news law, but they're going to change it. That's definitely concerning. That's not a good sign. If I were a Malaysian journalist, I would want him to say he's going to revoke it, which he's not.
The fake news law was one very high-profile component of a broader assault by the Najib government on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of opposition. It included pursuing various forms of charges against writers, bloggers, and opposition activists, as well as forcing the closure of several media outlets that opposed him.
This is not a good sign. Mahathir and/or Anwar, in the future, would have to take on a whole array of things to shift Malaysia on the issue of freedom of expression. Most of the Malaysian media is dominated by state-controlled press outlets. In the past, at least before the election, they basically ignored the opposition. Then before the election they suddenly started reporting on it and its prominent figures, who they basically ignored.
It's a less extreme version of Russia. It's not so much that they say bad things — it was like the opposition didn't exist almost in some state media. So there's that. Then there's this use of various laws to circumscribe speech. There's that to be addressed. Then there's this actual fake news law. Then there's various forms of pressure on media via business alliances. There's all these things.
It's definitely worrisome that Mahathir is not just going to revoke the fake news law. It is not a good sign for all these other things. When Mahathir was Prime Minister before, he took an extremely dim view of press freedom, to say the least. So it's worrisome.
If Anwar were to become Prime Minister and then fail to address these things, then I think people who supported him in Malaysia and externally would be hugely disappointed. But Anwar has made a lot of his bones on advocating for change in Malaysia. This would include freedom of speech and a more open society for press and expression. If he continues Najib-style crackdowns on speech, that would be extremely disappointing.