Pakatan slows reforms to court Malay support

Coalition partners, critics blast move away from progressive policies

Malaysia's tentative pace of reform has slowed further this year, as the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government backs down on progressive policies in a bid to woo Malay Muslim support away from rival parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

Since Umno and PAS - the country's two largest Malay parties - announced their formal cooperation on March 5, PH has lurched further to the right, undoing reform initiatives and even playing up its conservative Islamic credentials.

The coalition was voted in last May aided by a racially-diverse support base and its promise of a "Malaysia Baru (New Malaysia)" that would uphold principles of justice, equality, integrity and the rule of law.

But its recent decisions have provoked an internal backlash and brickbats from civil society - including from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's own daughter.

Social activist Marina Mahathir took to Twitter to criticise Islamic Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, supreme councillor in Tun Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), after the duo denounced the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues at a March 8 Women's Day event.

She said: "You are trying to distract from addressing very real women's issues by focusing on only one of MANY demands at the #WomensMarch. Shame on you! #misogyny #youreadisgrace."

This was not the only policy reversal by Datuk Seri Mujahid, who had in August extended an olive branch to LGBT activists by holding talks with transgender activist Nisha Ayub. He also described controversial Muslim preacher Zakir Naik as "inspirational" last week after meeting the Indian fugitive who is wanted for money laundering and hate speech. Mr Mujahid had in September accused the televangelist of insulting other religions.

 
 
 

The meeting led to wide criticism from proponents of moderate Islam, including the G25 group of influential Malays, who chided Putrajaya for being "more Umno than Umno" in its efforts to win the support of Muslims.

"Barisan Nasional (BN) eventually relied on Bumiputera support," Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Sunday Times, using the term that refers to the Malay majority and aboriginal natives collectively.

BN comprises parties representing various ethnic groups, including Chinese and Indians, but is dominated by Malay party Umno.

"But PH's main backers also include non-Bumis. It needs to pander to conservative Malays now that Umno and PAS have come together, but it cannot risk alienating its core, multi-racial voters either," said Dr Oh.

Last year's election saw PH and ally Warisan win 121 parliamentary seats, with 48 per cent of the popular vote, while the Umno-led BN took just over a third of ballots cast.

But adding Umno and PAS' total would bring the tally to over 50 per cent, and crucially, this would be mostly Bumiputera votes. Malay-majority seats alone make up more than half the 222 parliamentary wards.

Consolidating the Malay vote has begun to pay dividends, as BN won two by-elections this year after PAS agreed to sit out both races. This includes reclaiming Semenyih from PPBM on March 2, the first time the incumbent party has lost a by-election this term.

PH is already on the back foot, after failing to fulfil most of its 100-day campaign pledges last August. Now, other efforts are being watered down, such as the continued use of the draconian Sedition Act - which many Malays say is necessary to guard against the questioning of their special privileges - despite a promised repeal.

And instead of the total abolition of capital punishment, the mandatory death penalty has been scrapped for only 11 offences, prompting former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) MP Surendran Nagarajan to accuse the government of "moral cowardice".

Business policies have not been spared either. Despite PH leaders spending years criticising the policy of handing out luxury car import licences to a select group of Bumiputera companies, it was revealed last week that the government has issued these "approved permits" to 36 new firms since Jan 1.

And while the judiciary is ostensibly independent, a 22-year-old man was jailed for nearly 11 years for insulting Islam, a mere fortnight after PAS accused the government of not doing enough to defend the faith.

"The risk is that PH will feel under pressure to extend pro-ethnic Malay policies and adopt a more protectionist economic stance, exacerbating concern over Malaysia's economic trajectory," Eurasia Group Asia director Peter Mumford told The Sunday Times.

 

Whether these moves will bear fruit for the Mahathir administration will be tested again in the Malay-majority seat of Rantau, which will hold a by-election for the state assembly seat on April 13.

Although former Negeri Sembilan chief minister Mohamad Hasan has consistently won two-thirds of the vote here, the contest offers PH a chance to defeat Umno's acting president and deliver a huge setback to the once dominant party that has been resurgent this year after losing its six-decade grip on power last May.

However, in the long run, grumbles within the disparate coalition are set to grow louder over crumbling reforms, especially from the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and more secular factions within PKR.

DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang, a member of the PH presidential council - its highest decision-making body - last December declared: "DAP leaders, whether in government or outside, will have no hesitation in leaving the coalition government if the objective of a New Malaysia is abandoned."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 24, 2019, with the headline 'Pakatan slows reforms to court Malay support'. Print Edition | Subscribe