Mahathir Mohamad shocked the world by ending the 61-year reign of the ruling Barisan Nasional. The shocking election results bear resemblance to the Modi Wave which took place during the 2014 general elections in India. Then, a struggling national political alternative, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over the helms of national affairs with a striking majority beyond the safety margin of two-thirds mark rule. Was it really a shock? If one listened hard enough, the signaling of an impending storm was felt in the dusty streets of Varanasi and along the countless tea stalls. Those were the places where people from lower rungs of society convened and influenced the minds of their likes. The masses dominated votes and drowned out the elites.
In Malaysia, this signal was of 92 year old Mahathir announcing his battle plans before the much awaited GE 14. This came as a surprise to many. Barisan Nasional (BN) has a long history that dates back to the nation’s post-independence, weaving people from three major races into a single thread. However, the party was unable to keep its momentum alive despite playing on its personality-based popularity. This is evident from the fact that, even after two decades of ruling experience by BN, Mahathir with his alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH) was able to overthrow BN’s leadership.
Signaling of an Impending Storm
The signal was clear to me when I spoke with people from different walks of life. This was exactly the case with Narendra Modi whose political charisma and persona, was able to secure BJP’s resounding victory in India’s last general elections. However, the two leaders have similarities when it comes to geopolitical realities and their influence on domestic economic health. Both are political realists and don’t like to mince their words.
In his interviews, Mahathir was clear enough to check rampant Chinese investments happening in different parts of Malaysia and to take a realistic assessment of their economic value and influence on nation’s fiscal discipline. He also spoke of the influx of labors from China and their employment in key construction activities without hiring local people. His views in this area also garnered support from his followers.
Keeping China in Check
In the sleepy town of Malacca, I came across some of Mahathir’s followers who were concerned about the level of dredging activities carried out by Chinese investment companies. This sort of concern is notable when similar complaints are being heard from different parts of Indo-Pacific. The strategy of diplomatic arm-twisting through financial investments into projects with questionable economic utility has become a new norm in China’s rule book. This is in line with China’s grand strategy. Under Modi’s leadership, India has been quite proactive on all fronts to counter the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean. With Mahathir’s return to power, there is hope that his pragmatic views would find reverberation with India’s Act East policy and help check China’s growing influence in the region.
Malaysia: The Way Forward
It is also expected that his immediate priorities would involve strengthening the underperforming economy and infusion fiscal discipline to check rising inflation. Besides that, he has to deal with his poll promise of winding off the controversial goods and services tax (GST) with that of a viable alternative sales and services tax regime. Another challenge for him would be to reconcile the differences between the three different races and lead them into a modern society beyond the rhetoric of “Satu Malaysia”.
(The article was originally published by the Global-is-Asian (Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore) and can be found here.)