Anwar’s victory boosts Malaysian democracy

Anwar Ibrahim’s return to politics is set to boost democratic participation in Malaysia further.

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Mr Anwar Ibrahim, returns to Parliament today (28 August 2008) as Opposition Leader, 10 years after he was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Malaysia and heir apparent to the ‘throne’ of Dr Mahathir.

In many ways, the sacking of Anwar was probably the single most important event in the process of Malaysia becoming a mature democracy. For once, Malaysians had ‘a shared history’ – a story or a myth that brought Malaysians together.

Prior to Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking this common myth was May 13th – the race riot that was used over and over by the ruling Barisan Nasional (United Front) to blackmail Malaysians into submission. This myth was perpetuated by the successful developmentist state. Credit, no doubt must be given to Barisan Nasional, of which Anwar Ibrahim was part and parcel of for a good 14 years, for delivering on economic growth, peace and stability (read here).

Malaysia’s fortunes turned after the 1997/98 East Asian Financial Crisis which led to Anwar’s sacking. While having recovered, economic growth has not matched any of the government’s own projections and has paled in comparison to the likes of India, China and Vietnam, FDI has been on a downward trend while corruption has been on the upward trend.

Malaysians were relieved when Mahathir handed over to Prime Minister Badawi, in the hope of revising Malaysia’s fortunes. After having the strongest mandate ever for an incumbent Prime Minister, Badawi, managed to blow all this gain within the span of four years.

Enter Anwar Ibrahim. He successfully managed to bring together a social democratic party (The Democratic Action Party), a theocratic Islamic party (Parti Islam SeMalaysia with a strong theme of social & economic justice), with his Justice Party (whose economic leanings are at best unclear, and at worst populist) to form an alternative grand coalition called the Peoples Front. The 12th Malaysian General election has been described as a political tsunami for the significant shift away from the ruling party (read here). Anwar’s return to Parliament follows the evident disgust that Malaysians have for the ruling party.

What do Anwar Ibrahim and the Peoples Front bring to Malaysia?

The single biggest contribution evidently is the return to a more vibrant democracy. The election had seen a cleansing of the old guard (with dubious records) and those having survived it, being replaced. The pressure that Mr Ibrahim has put on the government has already delivered results. Several far reaching measures in restoring the independence of the Judiciary, the Anti Corruption Agency are now being put in place. Furthermore, the Peoples Front is running four state governments along the West Coast – the economic heartbeat of the nation. The reform measures they have put in place are now setting benchmarks in better governance.

At the same time, Mr Ibrahim has been criticised for focusing on forming a new government through defection and sidelining his coalition members. Mr Ibrahim has been been taken to task for not strengthening and/or institutionalising the Peoples Front. A shadow cabinet has yet to be formed and it is still unclear how policies from the Peoples Front are and will be formulated. Mr Ibrahim would do well to remember the mistakes made by previous opposition leaders who relied on their personality and failed miserably rather than strengthening the institutional framework for the opposition parties to work together.

A bigger threat and one that the more sober commentators hope will diminish with Mr Ibrahim’s return to Parliament are select, albeit limited, populist measures that have been introduced by the Peoples Front run state government. The PAS manifesto for the general elections was ‘The Welfare State’ while Mr Ibrahim has promised to continue expensive fuel subsidies if the Peoples Front forms the government. While it is understandable that these policies are being formulated to gain support from the people, it is hoped that these policies do not become a permanent solution.

For the international community – not much will change. Mr Ibrahim believes in orthodox economics and will not bring much change in policy. What will be of interest is the emphasis on good governance and a move away from ethnic based affirmative action through socio-economic policies to a more needs based affirmative action.

It is heartening to see that democracy is alive and well in Malaysia. The people of Malaysia are taking a risk with this new coalition, and are to be commended for that. The ruling party should also take a bow – for having delivered on economic growth, they now see its citizens make their own decisions in determining their future. Barisan Nasional, probably the most successful party to run a country (or maybe PAP of Singapore deserves that laurel) can be proud for not allowing Malaysia to descend into chaos (ala Zimbabwe) after its fortunes reversed.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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