By: John Berthelsen

Malaysia’s reformers who brought down the corruption-riddled Barisan Nasional in May of 2016 are increasingly disillusioned with the Pakatan Harapan coalition that replaced it, alarmed that Mahathir Mohamad, the 94-year-old retread prime minister who heads the coalition, is determined to clone the United Malays National Organization into Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the opposition party he created prior to the election.

There is growing concern that unless the coalition can reverse itself, voters will dump it in the next general elections.  The coalition has already lost almost every by-election since last May to fill empty seats.

“Disappointment is widespread now and at almost every dinner, the conversation boils down to the incompetency and lack of achievements of this government since they came to power,” said an alarmed longtime friend. “The most common word, and kindest, used to describe them is ‘dysfunctional’ and even some, among those who hated the corruption of [former PM Najib Razak’s] regime, are saying that things worked better in the kleptocracy. Problem is, Mahathir has reverted to being what he was and the cabinet and government have reverted to being what the Barisan Nasional was – compliant, afraid to speak out and added to that, they are incompetent.”

Too much of the government’s philosophy under Mahathir is still based on Ketuanan Melayu-Islam, or Islam and ethnic Malays first, which seems certainly to be the guiding attitude of Mahathir’s own party. There is no effort to include other ethnic groups or races, which is troubling given the country’s longstanding racial tensions.

In addition, Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, for a decade or more the backbone of the coalition, is torn by infighting, the focus of which is Mohamed Azmin Ali, a PKR stalwart and former Selangor state chief minister named as minister of economic affairs by Mahathir. Azmin has outflanked the Parti Keadilan reformers including Rafizi Ramli, the party secretary-general, and Nurul Izzah, Anwar’s daughter, to take his place as a lieutenant to Mahathir, whose stated promise to relinquish power to Anwar appears to be receding into the distance, with Azmin the probable beneficiary. Despite pronouncements of fealty, Mahathir deeply dislikes Anwar, who returns the favor, imperiling the promised succession.

But now PKR is in turmoil and Azmin is in the fight of his life over a video that surfaced in May, catching him in a seeming homosexual liaison with a fellow Parti Keadilan MP named Haziq Abdul Aziz, who has confessed to being in the leaked footage. Azmin has denied the liaison and threatened suit.

The unseemly mess is very much reminiscent of the scandal that derailed Anwar himself in 1998 when he was accused of having homosexual affairs and ultimately imprisoned for several years. It includes a confessed sexual partner, much as Anwar’s previous trial and conviction included an alleged confessed sexual partner who was widely believed to have made up the story to derail Anwar’s charismatic leadership of the opposition. 

Nobody is saying who is behind the leaked video, but Kuala Lumpur is vibrating with allegations that it was Anwar himself, or his allies who leaked it to get rid of Azmin.

In the meantime, the lofty promises made prior to the election have been put aside by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which includes the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the moderate Islamist party Amanah Negara as well as Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi plus splinter parties. Parti Pribumi, which held only 13 of the 222 seats the coalition won in the May 2018 election, has become the party wagging the coalition.

A promise to repeal the onerous sedition law that Najib used against his political enemies has never been carried out. The law remains on the books and has been used against critics of the royalty. The Prevention of Crime Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial and the National Security Council Act, which grants wide emergency-like powers to the National Security Council, also has not been repealed as promised. An announcement by Attorney-general Tommy Thomas to repeal the death penalty remains stalled as well.

“After 13 months in office, all they have managed to do is charge a bunch of UMNO leaders with corruption, rightly so,” said a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “There are no economic reforms, no reforms of the labor laws, no reforms to ensure greater political freedom, zilch.”

Even the corruption clean-up is threatened, with Najib free while awaiting trial and leading an energetic and effective political movement to take back the government.  Najib was at the epicenter of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal, called the world’s biggest financial scandal, in which billions of dollars disappeared spectacularly from a government-backed investment fund into US real estate, Las Vegas gambling debts, millions of dollars of jewels for Najib’s wife, and a long list of other misuses.  US authorities called it the biggest kleptocracy case they had ever investigated.

DAP longtime leader Lim Kit Siang reportedly is so alarmed that last week he met with Mahathir for 45 minutes in an effort to get the government moving on the corruption cleanup. While the reform agenda seems to have evaporated and collapsed into a rerun of the Ketuanan agenda with the volatile mix of Islam, Mahathir remains the only one in government with the stature and authority to round up the powerful UMNO leaders who looted the country and bring them to court.

“Essentially, ask anyone in government, and they will be hard placed to tell you exactly what kind of sweeping reforms they have implemented or are implementing,” another source said. “And Mahathir is back to what he was in the days when he was previously prime minister [1981-2003]. He makes appointments without consulting his cabinet or referring them to the Parliamentary Select Committee, which was specifically set up to vet senior appointments and end a serious Barisan misuse of power.”

In particular, Mahathir raised the hackles of the Malaysian Bar Association and the Bersih 2.0 reform NGO by appointing Latheefa Koya chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission without consulting anybody. Bersih in a statement said Najib had used the same power to appoint his allies into key positions in his attempt to escape the scrutiny of the 1MDB scandal and cling to power.

In what many have called ”back to the future government,” the prime minister appears also to be seeking to recreate the industrial policy that prevailed during his previous 22 years in power and that led to massive spending on white elephant projects including a failed steel mill that cost the government US$800 million, a national car that cost untold billions both in losses and lost consumer opportunity, and a long list of other disasters.  The late Asian Wall Street Journal editor, in his book ‘Malaysian Maverick,” estimated the government had wasted RM100 billion (US$24.16 billion) on failed projects.

Not heeding history, however, in April, Mahathir announced that the International Trade and Industry Ministry (MITI) was in the midst of reformulating the National Automotive Policy to include the entire automotive ecosystem, according to local media, and would include Next Generation Vehicles (NXGV), Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and the Industrial Revolution 4.0 as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI), raising concerns of massive overspending for more white elephant projects.

In addition, a Malays businessman told Asia Sentinel, “the cronies are again making a beeline for him.” It was the crony capitalism implemented in the 1970s and 1980s by Mahathir that nearly wrecked Malaysia’s economic system.

One that is being closely watched is Abu Shahid of Maju Holdings Sdn Bhd., who has Mahathir’s backing in bidding for a major North-South Highway project despite the fact that Maju operates a stable of mostly lackluster or money-losing companies. Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose legendary corruption as former chief minister of Sarawak, remains unscathed by attempts to jail him.

“My observation is that the Harapan coalition has flopped as a reformist government; it has lost its way to the promised land,” wrote author Kim Quek on his blog. ”Instead of sweeping reforms, we are seeing the stagnation of institutional reforms in almost all sectors: economy, education, civil service, judiciary, etc. Rampant racial discrimination in all these sectors which has hampered progress, entrenched mediocrity and stifled talent in the past has remained intact.”

Amid high hopes of a New Malaysia in the wake of the May 2018 election, Kim wrote, “this disappointing turn of events came about due to the dominance of one man, who does not seem to have subscribed to the coalition’s reform ideals.”