Malaysia Gets Change, But Can it Handle It?

Changes of government –especially after six decades of misrule -- are usually followed by joy-filled, tearful scenes in the streets and mass gatherings eager to embrace a fresh start. A celebration of the throwing out the old, corrupt regime, and welcoming in the new administration.

As the dust settles, there appears fat chance of that happening in Malaysia, where a substantial coterie of Malay nationalists and religious zealots remains in place, with members of the defeated United Malays National Organization still machinating on how to thwart the new government.

One day after the polls, a subdued but delighted crowd gathered outside the palace until 11 pm, waiting several hours for the swearing-in of the seventh prime minister -- Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year combatant who had led a months-long, take-no-prisoners charge to rid the country of his onetime protège, Najib Razak, saying he had been personally betrayed.

Having secured victory, Mahathir has acted like a man possessed, trying to rebuild Malaysia and restore its reputation seemingly overnight. He has wasted no time in getting his cabinet in order. This was the old Mahathir, methodical, meticulous and masterful at political machination. If members of his winning team thought they could have a well-deserved rest following the two public holidays that Mahathir had earlier declared after winning the 14th General Election, they were sorely disappointed.

Having said in previous interviews that he had little time left to rebuild Malaysia, Mahathir held several meetings to form a credible government, appointed three Cabinet ministers, pushed for a royal pardon for his former adversary, Anwar, and still found time to meet the Sultan of Brunei and the governor of Sarawak, Taib Mahmud.

He blazed his way through matters of state, ordered travel bans on Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, and several prominent politicians and cronies including the former Inspector of Police. He ordered the police to raid several apartments belonging to Najib's family members and ordered the Attorney General, an UMNO hack who had “cleared” Najib of complicity in the 1MDB scandal, to go on a long leave, while sealing his office to prevent important documents from being taken away, or shredded.

Police who raided Najib’s residences seized an amazing amount of loot in more than 350 boxes and bags containing cash, jewelry and designer handbags early Friday including 284 boxes of handbags and 72 pieces of luggage containing cash, jewelry, watches and other valuables, said Amar Singh, chief of the police commercial crimes unit. How much of that might be related to assets being seized by the US in its kleptocracy case against Najib, family members and others is unclear.

If Mahathir moved with blistering speed, ironing out what had to be done for the nation, one couldn’t say the same about individual states like Johor and Perak.

Johoreans were furious to find that their new Chief Minister candidate from the winning Harapan coalition was acting like a thoroughbred UMNO politician. He nominated an UMNO officer as his adviser and told UMJNO members, now a minority in opposition, that they weren’t eligible for any state funding. Those actions, reminiscent of the former Barisan Nasional leadership, incurred the ire of the Johoreans.

The practice of party-hopping, which is picking up speed in East Malaysia, was condemned by the campaign reform organization Bersih and various politicians. People took to social media to vent their frustration, and one human rights NGO named ENGAGE penned an open letter to Pakatan Harapan leaders, saying the nation doesn’t want to see the winning coalition become another "BN 2.0" after several parties affiliated with the Barisan broke ranks and said they planned to join Harapan.

The party-hopping, which was taking place in Sabah, Sarawak and Perak, has eroded voter confidence.

Up north, despite the promise by the new government to ensure press freedom, RSN Thayer, the Democratic Action Party MP for the Jelutong constituency, announced that the license for TV3, the publicly listed media company controlled by UMNO, should be revoked. He incurred the wrath of Malaysians who told him that they don’t want the new government to be a poor copy of the one just booted out. Thayer’s own party leaders distanced themselves from him.

When Rafizi Ramli, a Pakatan politician, whose whistle-blowing on UMNO’s activities had earned him a fine and jail term for violation of the bank secrecy laws, currently under appeal, criticized Mahathir for not discussing the appointment of the finance, home affairs and defense ministry, he too was slammed.

Rafizi said that PKR's consultation was critical, and he opposed Mahathir's bulldozing methods. Upset that the Chinese Daily, Sin Chew had written that Rafizi was only vocal because he had been vying to be made the finance minister, Rafizi has said he would sue the paper. Some party members accused Rafizi of trying to derail Mahathir's efforts to form a government, but others came to his defense and said change must include exposing any and all wrongdoings.

Speaking out as he did didn’t please the lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan. She tweeted "PKR please stop your nonsense. I fully support the appointments by the prime minister. Please put country above all else. The rakyat (people) did!"

Rafizi merely rather sensibly criticized Mahathir’s lack of consultation among the four new government parties. In his 22 years as prime minister he often acted high-handedly and there were concerns that might be continuing. Elsewhere people who made what were deemed offensive remarks about Mahathir on social media found that police reports had been lodged against them.

Eric Paulsen, acting for the NGO Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), said that demanding police action against individuals who openly expressed criticism of the government, merely trivialized police reports and disregarded the rights of people with differing views. Paulson himself had been charged with sedition by the previous government.

Paulsen said that in the new Malaysia, people should be allowed to criticism unless they threatened public disorder and called for violence. He too urged the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to focus on their work and to stop wasting resources investigating these sorts of report.

The following day after the election, groups of UMNO Youth members gathered outside the party’s massive headquarters and starting fighting one another. It was the day the party would have celebrated its 72nd anniversary. Instead, they traded blows and insults while demanding the resignation of Najib, the UMNO president. For his part, Najib denies any wrongdoing, is making out that he is a victim while his party is in denial mode, with its leaders still scrambling after power, expressing regret and doing mock post mortems.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation was a Reuters interview of Anwar Ibrahim following his release from prison. The man Najib put behind bars said that a "shattered" Najib had called him twice, in prison, asking him what to do on the night he lost the elections. Anwar advised him to accept defeat and move on, advice Najib didn’t take. Sources say he sought initially to round up army and police officials to declare martial law but both forces were split. He eventually had to concede.

As expected, few former Cabinet members came to Najib's defense. The former Youth and Sports Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin claimed that he tried to help Najib in the campaign to no avail and apologized to party members for UMNO’s failure to cling on to power.

He neglected to apologize to the public for failing to acknowledge that Najib allegedly had stolen vast funds and corrupted the political system. Branded an opportunist by many, Khairy was regarded as vying for pole position to lead the leaderless and rudderless defeated party that had ruled Malaysia for six decades.

Initially, Khairy said that the party needs to reform and return to its original ideals, safeguard the honor of the Malays, take care of the other races, and fight for all communities. He then hinted that he was a possible leadership contender, saying the party needs someone who with the confidence of the grassroots supporters, to revive it.

The same Khairy had, in another report, claimed to have overlooked the clear signals that UMNO had a problem. He blamed the leaders for being detached from reality, for members having a feudal mindset that protected the leader and prevented them from asking tough questions. So says the man who barred reporters for Malaysiakini, almost the only independent media voice in the country, because he despised the questions they asked.

Khairy may have a battle on his hands. The former Home Minister, Zahid Hamidi, is a Malay nationalist and would not take kindly to Khairy's suggestion for UMNO to accept members from other races. Two years ago, Zahid urged UMNO members to unite because "foreign enemies" were plotting to topple the government.

Zahid can take heart with the sentiments of the Malay nationalist NGO, Perkasa which has criticized the appointment of a non-Malay as Finance Minister.

Najib's cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, the usually clueless former Defence Minister, has also said that UMNO needs new leadership.

The irony is that Mahathir is trying to rebalance many of his previous pro-Malay and pro-Islamic policies. One reform that he promised to implement within 100 days of being in office, is the abolition of the deeply unpopular goods and services tax that played a major role in Najib’s defeat. That will now take place earlier than expected, on June 1.

Malay nationalists and religious zealots remain,fanned by years of official recognition of their cause by UMNO in the effort to keep minority races at bay. Although Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan may have won round one, they will have to navigate carefully, or the path to Malaysian reform will be long and rocky.

Mariam Mokhtar is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel