KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 10 — Malaysia’s window to cement its democratic progress since the general election is fast closing, a US academic wrote.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations South-east Asia, cautioned Putrajaya on the rise of ”anti-democratic forces” and advised the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to nip this in the bud while it was still popular.
Kurlantzick said that while important steps have been taken by the new government, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is running out of time to implement important reform programmes.
Once he steps down to make way for his successor, more internal conflicts within PH were bound to happen, he said.
“But Mahathir and the ruling coalition probably have only another year or so to push through urgently needed reforms to solidify Malaysia’s democracy. Mahathir is 93 and is expected to serve only a brief term as prime minister. Once he steps down, there is a probability of conflict within the coalition or between the coalition and its allies in civil society — fighting that could consume time and political will. And the further the government gets from its landmark win, the more its power will ebb.
“Already, some cracks are appearing between the Mahathir government and its supporters in civil society, who back aggressive measures to boost government accountability. As Asia Times has reported, public approval of Mahathir’s performance has fallen by about 20 per cent in the past half-year, partly on fears that his government will not live up to its promises. Mahathir’s government has ruled out allowing local elections, which would give people more say in local affairs. Leading civil society groups blasted the decision,” he wrote in a column in the Washington Post.
Kurlantzick pointed out that that the conservative Malay groups could also foil PH’s reform efforts, pointing out how such pressure already caused the government to backtrack on its promise to ratify the United Nations (UN) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
“Conservative Malay groups are among the biggest opponents of scrapping long-standing economic policies favoring Malays — even though these arrangements potentially enable graft in government and companies. The new government will have a hard time fighting these entrenched interests,” he added.
Kurlantzick also highlighted as to how the Dewan Negara is still filled with Barisan Nasional (BN) senators.
He said the Dewan Negara’s rejection of the repeal the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 in September last year and recent communal tensions showed PH still faced challenges ahead.
“Without a doubt, Mahathir’s government has made important strides, yet it still has to deliver more. Other South-east Asian states, such as Thailand, saw their democracies falter in part because elected autocrats were able to dominate weak institutions, which were never made strong enough to protect democracy in times of peril. Malaysia has the chance to make its democracy strong — but the window might not remain open for long,” Kurlantzick added.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index 2019 released this week, revealed that Malaysia remains a flawed democracy, but improved scores and the historic results of the last general elections have seen it climb ahead of its Southeast Asian peers.
In the latest EIU findings, Malaysia is now ranked 52nd out of 165 independent states and two territories, putting it 14 spots ahead of Singapore (66th) and one spot ahead of the Philippines (53rd).
The report stated that while the Democracy Index improved marginally in 2018 for the Asian region, Malaysia was marked as a “bright spot” due to the May 9 general elections last year.
It stated that the advance of the opposition in Malaysia and Pakistan last year provides food for thought for upcoming elections in the region’s two largest democracies, India and Indonesia, as the concerns expressed by voters in Malaysia and Pakistan are similar to those in India and Indonesia.
The EIU observed that the improvement in the score across the Asian region was driven by “rising political participation”, with Malaysia considered to be the most significant example of such change, as well as Afghanistan, which ranks at 143rd globally.