How much has Malaysia changed since Mahathir’s unexpected success?

Photo Credit: Kremlin

Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) election manifesto included ten major policy changes. Seven months into Mahathir’s term, what has changed?

By John Pennington

Mahathir Mohamad’s return to power in Malaysia in May was one of the biggest election stories of the year. He promised to continue as Prime Minister for two years then step aside for Anwar Ibrahim.

Before the general election (GE14), his party’s manifesto included 10 policy changes to implement within 100 days and 60 within the first five years. Some of those he has already done. Others he has abandoned.

Already more than a quarter of the way through his term, what has changed since GE14? What progress has Mahathir made? And has life changed for Malaysians?

Mahathir quickly delivered on some pre-election promises

Once reinstalled as PM, Mahathir promptly got to work. He appointed a new cabinet. He moved against his predecessor Najib Razak. Having focused so heavily on the 1MDB scandal during his campaign, he had to move decisively. Anwar has also been released from prison and re-entered the Malaysian political fray.

These were all short-term actions that reassured voters that he would stand by his pre-election promises. He may have hoped that these low-hanging fruits would buy him some time and goodwill.

Elsewhere, he kept his promise to uphold press freedoms. He repealed Razak’s laws against fake news, widely criticised for curbing free speech.

The media can now report and comment more freely than before. With free speech comes a willingness among the general public to learn about and engage with current affairs.

According to journalists, there are still 35 laws that restrict press operations. They want these to be repealed. Mahathir needs to do more, but this is one area where PH has made positive changes.

He has kept other promises, but their impact is harder to measure

Within days of becoming PM, he announced that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) would become zero-rated. By September, parliament had approved the Sales and Service Tax (SST). This is part of Mahathir’s pledge to lower living costs. However, the change has not had much effect. Expected boosts in spending and government revenues have not materialised.

It might have won him thousands of votes, but there has as yet been no significant drop in the cost of living. That could cost him and PH dearly.

Cost of living was a core issue for many Malaysians during GE14. People like Mohammad Nizam, who said before the election, “My wife earns some side income doing freelance work, but we just can’t save.” If PH fails to take concrete measures to bring the cost of living down, it could hurt them in the polls next time around.

Mahathir is also struggling to defend his 2019 budget. “Tax revenue has fallen to around 13% of GDP…and the government’s decision to dump the goods and services tax (GST) for a narrower sales and service tax will accelerate the decline,” argued Australian National University research scholar Stewart Nixon as he called for more ambitious plans.

It may be too early to determine the long-term effects of Mahathir’s economic reforms, but early indications suggest that little has changed.

Mahathir has made bold foreign policy moves

Mahathir has taken a much bolder foreign policy stance than Razak. He has put his considerable experience as a statesman to good use. He praised North Korea as Kim-Jong Un came to the negotiating table. He distanced Malaysia from Saudi Arabia and withdrew troops from the region.

As expected, he has taken a harder line with China than his predecessor. He planned to shelve the Malaysia-Singapore high-speed rail project. Although he has since been forced to climb down and postpone rather than cancel the project, the gesture has sent a strong message to Beijing.

Mahathir has stood up for Malaysian interests in the region. He has been vocal about China’s activity in the South China Sea. He has even taken on Singapore over airspace and water supply issues.

However, Mahathir may be posturing up to Malaysia’s neighbours to deflect attention away from the promises he is not keeping back home. Mahathir has a history of quarrels with Singapore. It is no surprise to see him bringing issues with Singapore into the foreground. Part of his motivation must be to play to his perceived strengths, so domestic onlookers focus less on his weaknesses.

Mahathir has already broken some of his promises

Mahathir admitted that some of the pledges in his manifesto were included as PH did not expect to win. He admitted that its victory surprised him. Therefore, he some campaign promises have fallen by the wayside.

For example, Malaysia has not adopted the United Nations ICERD treaty pledging the elimination of racial discrimination. Mahathir said this would happen but now realises doing so would alienate Malays.

Other promises he has been forced to abandon are not possible due to budgetary considerations such as toll-free roads. He is also yet to cancel the debts of Felda settlers.

How much Malaysia has changed depends on where you look

When it comes to assessing how different Malaysia is seven months on from GE14, it depends on where in the country you look. In towns and cities, the switch from GST to SST has had minimal impact.

On the other hand, rural Malays feel the new government is targeting them with price rises and clampdowns on smuggling. They think they are already worse off under Mahathir. He still has work to do to engage with the rural population. They are, after all, the people on whom he relied to get into power.

Mahathir overpromised, but he is delivering what he can

Mahathir is hardly the first politician to make promises on the election trail that he failed to keep once in power. Malaysia’s level of debt and budgetary constraints will make economic progress difficult.

Some things have changed. He is pushing back against China and Singapore. He has clamped down on political corruption and relaxed press restrictions. However, that has had little impact on the thousands of Malaysians struggling to make ends meet.

The reality for most Malaysians is that little has changed for the better. The ‘quick wins’ Mahathir achieved soon after taking power have not delivered tangible benefits for enough people. Sweeping changes need more time – perhaps more time than he has left in office.