Mahathir and hopes of change

Asia News Network commentators share their views on upcoming issues for the new Malaysian premier. Here are excerpts.

Time to reach out to Malaysia

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan

In Malaysia, a change of government has been achieved for the first time since the country's independence in 1957. This development will likely be a test of whether genuine democracy can be sustained in South-east Asia.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had served as prime minister for 22 years, starting in 1981. He held up the Look East policy, seeking to model his country after Japan and South Korea. He has been known as pro-Japanese. He promoted a "developmental dictatorship" aimed at restricting the political freedom of the people to place priority on achieving economic growth.

As long as he emphasises political renewal, Dr Mahathir must not revive his previous approach to government. He should work to abolish the law introduced by the preceding administration that restrains freedom of speech and political activities. He also needs to reconsider his promises akin to lavish government handouts, such as scrapping the consumption tax and giving subsidies to low-income earners.

An important task for the new administration is what kind of relationship it should build with China.

Dr Mahathir has continued to criticise former prime minister Najib Razak, saying the latter relied too heavily on China. In Malaysia, a number of projects involving Chinese corporations are under way, including railway construction.

Malaysia and many other South-east Asian countries are faced with the "middle-income trap", a situation in which a country's growth slows down after graduating from the status of a developing nation. One feature of such a situation is that the lack of improvement in the living standards of low-and middle-income groups can lead to political instability. Can these nations form a growth model of their own without excessively depending on China?

Many Japanese companies have expanded their scope of business to include operations in Malaysia, and the country has strong economic ties with Japan. Efforts should be made to expand cooperation with Malaysia's new government.

Breath of fresh air in KL

The Nation, Thailand

Malaysians woke up on Thursday to a new government after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's coalition defeated the incumbent Najib Razak, making history and setting an example for a region where democracy has been taking a beating for some time now.

Some observers are saying the country has entered a new era, but caution is advised here. There are many questions still to be answered and, down the road, plenty of alternative outcomes too.

The poll opened a great bounty of possibilities for Malaysia, but what happens next depends on what Dr Mahathir does with his victory. The 92-year-old Dr Mahathir served as premier from 1981 to 2003, in the process adding his country to the roster of rising Asian economic tigers. But his administration was authoritarian and he was responsible for creating a political system that he subsequently accused Datuk Seri Najib of exploiting.

As wily as ever even at his advanced age, Dr Mahathir joined the opposition Pakatan Harapan just a year ago and wasted no time declaring publicly that his objective was to oust Mr Najib from power. For all its boldness, the single-minded determination to unseat Mr Najib and the Barisan Nasional should never have been an end in itself.

Now, with his surprise triumph, Dr Mahathir has the opportunity to redeem himself.

The election result was a rare item of good news for liberal democracy, especially in South-east Asia, where governments, including Thailand's, are becoming too comfortable with autocracy. From Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs", which has claimed thousands of lives, to the suppression of civil society in Thailand and Cambodia, to the mass atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya of Myanmar, the region is mired in authoritarian muck. So the poll outcome in Malaysia felt like a breath of fresh air, bringing hope that democracy might yet prevail.


Less emphasis on racial divide?

Kornelius Purba
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Twenty years after Indonesians said "enough is enough" to Suharto's dictatorship and decided to navigate a reformasi, Malaysians eventually followed suit.

Many Indonesians may tease Malaysians, saying the "wind of change" sweeps the neighbouring country at a much slower pace.

But Indonesia's situation 20 years ago was much more complicated than Malaysia's today. At that time, corruption was entrenched and the threat of national disintegration loomed large in Indonesia. Despite the different settings that marked the reform, the two countries can learn from each other.

Unlike Indonesia, where riots and crimes against humanity preceded the regime change in May 1998, Malaysians took a peaceful and democratic path to punish their leader. Malaysia shocked the world by granting a landslide win to the opposition. This shows the truly honorable and highly civilised Malaysians.

Malaysians voters were clearly so upset with prime minister Najib Razak that they elatedly welcomed back 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad on May 10. It remains to be seen whether the former iron-fist leader will simply act as a transitional leader before handing over the PM seat to his former protege and political foe, the 71-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, as agreed.

Hopefully Malaysia's political journey in the coming days will not be as harsh and rocky as that of its neighbour Indonesia, and its social segregation of Malays, Chinese and Indians will also diminish as a result of the historic election.

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2018, with the headline 'Mahathir and hopes of change'. Print Edition | Subscribe