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Joshua Kurlantzick on the Malaysia election

Octavian Report: What are the dynamics in Malaysia that delivered the surprise May election result? Should it have been such a surprise?

Joshua Kurlantzick: I was definitely not expecting it. There were some indications, but I think the fact that a lot of the people who were analyzing it didn’t expect it suggests that people just missed it. Polling in Malaysia did. Close to the election there was polling suggesting that former Prime Minister Najib’s support was softening, that he was going to possibly lose the popular vote and still win a majority in parliament because of gerrymandering.

But I think people failed to take into account the high level of Najib’s unpopularity and the opposition’s ability to capitalize on that, and perhaps underestimated as well the appeal of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who’s now the Prime Minister. He appeals to certain rural, ethnic Malay voters who provided the going-over-the-top vote for the opposition coalition.

And the opposition actually won the popular vote last time. They lost in Parliament because of gerrymandering and possible fraud. So it wasn’t like they had no bedrock of support, but they were able to expand their support to those rural, conservative voters who hadn’t been part of their base or their support before — and that was enough to put them over the top.

Malaysia’s a multiethnic country, and the opposition already had pretty strong support among the ethnic Chinese and Indians who are in the minority but still form a substantial number. And they also had pretty strong support among a certain number of urban Malays. But Mahathir’s presence boosted their support among rural Malays and put them in a much stronger position.

OR: Can you talk about the political DNA of the opposition coalition?

Kurlantzick: Well before Mahathir, the opposition existed. Mahathir was Prime Minister for two decades in the 1980’s and 90’s and early 2000’s. And he was a pretty autocratic Prime Minister, although Malaysia had a façade of elections. He was essentially an autocrat.

The real political opposition emerged in the late 1990’s. It built up, actually, after Mahathir sacked his then-deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir oversaw a legal case — I would say a dubious legal case — against Anwar, and the opposition kind of developed from that. There hadn’t really been an effective opposition previously.

Until the last year or two, the opposition was essentially led by Anwar and, to some extent, his wife and his daughter (who’s a very competent politician in her own right). And the opposition was a combination of urban, more progressive Malays who were fed up with the Barisan National coalition, as well as ethnic Chinese and to some extent ethnic Indians, some of whom also might be urban. The bedrock wanted an end to certain types of politics in Malaysia. These include corruption and a policy that has been in place for decades, a policy called bumiputraism that is like affirmative action for the majority of Malays. They also wanted better governance.

Anwar was in jail until late May, because former P.M. Najib oversaw a case where Anwar went to jail. Again, I would say on dubious charges. So the opposition was a little bit lost in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Then Mahathir, whom no one really expected to return to politics, jumped in and they took him on as the leader of a very unwieldy coalition.

I don’t know if Mahathir really represents what the opposition stood for in the past at all, but he was a vehicle to unseating the long-ruling governing coalition and the Najib government. So now we’re going to see whether he can do more than that or whether there’s going to be tension. Because Anwar is still probably the most popular person among opposition voters. He is free now, and this has the potential to be quite a complicated situation because the Prime Minister is someone who essentially oversaw his jailing before, but now he’s made an alliance with him. I don’t know how long the alliance will last.

OR: Do you see there being an orderly transfer of power to Anwar, as Mahathir has suggested?

Kurlantzick: I don’t know how easy it will be. You have a guy who has long been used to power, and has operated very autocratically in the past, but he’s saying that he’s going to be a caretaker. It’s a little bit unclear for how long. He’s saying that Anwar’s going to join parliament and then maybe get a cabinet post. He’s unclear as to what exactly is going to happen after that.

It could be tumultuous because Mahathir doesn’t really have a good history of handing power over to successors. His successor was Anwar. He sacked him and oversaw his jail case. And then after that he named another successor, and when that guy succeeded him, he spent his time railing against him. He does not have a great history with this.

Could he have changed? Could he have recognized he can only be Prime Minister for so long? He is old. The job might take a physical toll. His history does not show him to be someone that easily cedes power.

OR: What would it mean on the domestic and foreign policy sides to have Anwar at the helm? What happens if Mahathir decides to hold onto power for as long as his age and his health permit?

Kurlantzick: The latter going to be a major problem. Mahathir was the king-maker and the pivot point in the election, partly because Anwar went to jail. But his actual party, which provided the votes to the opposition to go over the top and take enough seats in parliament to win, actually won considerably less seats.

It’s a coalition government and the person they chose to be Prime Minister was accepted by all but he doesn’t actually have as many seats as anyone else. He doesn’t command wide popular support, as far as I can tell, in the opposition. He just brought key votes to the table to win.

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.

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.