Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) attends a press conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin
Pakatan Harapan’s Mahathir Mohamad (R) addresses a press conference after the general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, on May 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters

On the night of May 9, 2018, Malaysians of all political affiliations could not believe their eyes as they processed the election results coming in after polling had ended. After all, Prime Minister Najib Razak had done his best to stack the deck in his favor; he gerrymandered the electoral system to give heavier weight to rural Malaysia, which had backed his coalition in the 2013 general election.

In the end, all of this came to naught.

One by one, many senior Barisan Nasional (BN) ministers lost their seats to the opposition.

One example is the parliamentary seat of Muar in Johor, where BN’s deputy minister in the prime minister’s department, Razali Ibrahim, lost his seat by a margin of 7,000 votes to Pakatan’s Syed Saddiq.

Syed Saddiq later rose to become one of the youngest ministers in Malaysian history, assuming the portfolio of youth and sports.

After it became clear that BN had lost the election, there were fears within the country that then premier Najib Razak might resort to unscrupulous methods to subvert the election results.

It wasn’t until Dr Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as PM at Istana Negara the day after the election that things started to stabilize within the country.

Since Pakatan Harapan took power, it had enjoyed a honeymoon with the Malaysian public, who were largely disgusted by the excesses of the previous government. The new government’s initial move to repeal the GST and restart the stalled investigation into the 1MDB scandal helped the new government to entrench its popularity with the public.

Many Malaysians had viewed the 2018 general election as a chance for the country to start anew and move forward to a better future

Many Malaysians had viewed the 2018 general election as a chance for the country to start anew and move forward to a better future. The level of optimism was so high that there was a news report about Malaysians working in neighboring Singapore quitting their jobs to move back to their motherland.

However, as the Pakatan Harapan government nears its one-year anniversary in power, there are clear warning signs that things are not going well.

According to the latest survey done by Merdeka Center, only 39% of voters were satisfied with the government and 46% of voters felt the country was on the wrong path.

The discontent has translated to a string of defeats in the by-election for the PH government, so it should pay heed to the lessons offered by the former Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government(2009-2012).

Like the PH in Malaysia, the DPJ defeated the long-ruling Liberal Democratic of Party of Japan (LDP) in a landslide victory in 2009 by promising Japanese voters a series of changes. Unfortunately, the DPJ failed to achieve most of its reform agenda and legislative productivity fell to a historic low level despite its overwhelming majority in the lower house. There was infighting within the DPJ government, which further dented its popularity. In the end, the DPJ was tossed out in the next election and the political change of 2009 is now viewed as party change without policy change.

Similarly, here in Malaysia, the PH government has backpedaled on many of its campaign promises. It bowed to conservative Malay pressures and decided not to sign up to the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)  This has disappointed many Malaysian liberals who had voted for PH.

PH failure to recognize exam certificates from Independent Chinese Schools risks undermining its strong support among the Malaysian Chinese whose defection in 2008 and 2013 led to Barisan Nasional’s loss of its crucial two-thirds majority.

And there are also signs that the PH government is not as cohesive as it should be. One notable example is the underlying tension between Economic Minister Azmin Ali and premier-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim. Acceptance of the former government members into the party of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has not gone down well with the coalition partners in PH.

This has led to Nurul Izzah Anwar quitting her party posts and stating that she has lost faith in the Mahathir government in an interview with The Straits Times. Such infighting reflects badly on the government and risks widening fissures within the coalition.

Lastly, the political instability and external events have led to the weakening of investor confidence in the Malaysian economy, which has dented support for the government. The World Bank projects that the rate of Malaysia’s annual GDP growth will drop below what it was in 2015 should current trends continue.

Hence, as PH celebrates its first anniversary, it should not be resting on its laurels. But rather it should take a hard look at itself and contemplate a new direction forward.

The PH government should get its houses in order and focus on fulfilling its promises to the voters instead of bickering among themselves.

It should also be prepared to implement unpopular structural reforms to boost long-term international confidence in the Malaysian economy.

Prime Minister Mahathir should also announce and be committed to a clear public timeline for Anwar Ibrahim to succeed him. This will clear all lingering doubts over the succession plan and avoid giving opportunists a chance to sow discord in the coalition. Malaysia needs certainty from the government and the government must demonstrate that it can provide it.

Only by taking these steps can the PH government address the problem of uncertainty and demonstrate that it is a viable and functioning government that can steer Malaysia in a new direction. Then the PH government can show that it is different from its predecessor. If not, PH risks repeating the mistakes of its DPJ counterpart in Japan in the next election.