After the Mahathir government's fall, Malaysia's reformist politics enters a new era

Pakatan Harapan's short-lived administration has only itself to blame for failing to keep promises made to voters two years ago
A protester holds a sign while taking part in a demonstration to protest the ejection of the democractically elected government in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2020, after Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as prime minister following the reformist government's collapse. Muhyiddin, a staunch Muslim nationalist backed by a scandal-mired party, was sworn in as Malaysia's premier on March 1 after a reformist government's collapse, but ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, 94, slammed the move as illegal. / AFP / Mohd RASFAN

When Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) party lost a general election in 2018 – the first time since independence – many assumed it would be out of power for at least 10 years. Others wondered whether it could ever revive itself, given the scale of its defeat and the huge number of post-election defections it suffered.

Many of BN's Borneo-based members of Parliament left and sat as independents, while a number from the backbone party of the old BN coalition – the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – jumped ship and joined the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.

epa08261071 A former Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad speaks to the media during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 01 March 2020. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the ruling monarch of Malaysia, Abdullah of Pahang appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as the country's new premier on 29 February 2020, following the resignation of his predecessor, 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, a week earlier.  EPA/FAZRY ISMAIL

Less than two years later, BN is back in government as the largest bloc in the newly formed Perikatan Nasional coalition. The new Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, was the home affairs minister in the previous government, but brought a group of more than 30 MPs over from PH to ally with BN and the Islamist party PAS. With the good wishes and support of another group of MPs from state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, they believe they may have a majority in the 222-seat Parliament. After interviewing every single MP during a week of high drama, Malaysia’s king determined that Mr Muhyiddin was best placed to win the confidence of the lower house, and swore him in as prime minister on Sunday.

Mr Muhyiddin's predecessor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had precipitated the fall of the PH government by resigning after the Perikatan Nasional coalition announced itself – with the doctor as their preferred leader – the previous weekend. Dr Mahathir started by stating that he would not lead the new coalition, but then backtracked by declaring he wanted to form a government of national unity. This act of overreach led to the evaporation of his temporarily universal support across the political spectrum.

By the end of the week, Dr Mahathir reconciled with the PH partners he had abandoned. But by then it was too late. For now, Dr Mahathir is out – and so is Anwar Ibrahim, the doctor's designated successor and leader of the People's Justice Party (PKR) – the largest constituent party of the PH coalition.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia's newly appointed Prime Minister prays outside his house with his family and supporters before departing for the swearing in ceremony at the palace on March 1, 2020 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo by Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Those who supported Mr Anwar’s 22-year effort to oust the BN are now crying foul. The people elected a multiracial, progressive alliance in 2018, they argue, whereas the new government is made up almost entirely of more conservatively inclined, ethnic Malay-Muslim MPs.

But the move was entirely legal, and Malaysian reformers have in any case never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

For instance, early on during his leadership, Najib Razak – the last BN prime minister and now on trial for charges related to the 1MDB scandal – announced a plan to create a truly inclusive Malaysian identity that would break down silos of race and religion. This was very much in line with what the then-opposition had long called for. Nonetheless, that opposition could not bear to support a BN leader and scoffed that 1Malaysia, as the plan was called, was just a PR stunt.

At that time, in 2010, some ethnic Chinese and Indian politicians poured scorn on the most ambitious effort to advance the causes of their own communities. In doing so, they completely undermined the best chance the country had to move on from race-based politics.

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Malaysian reformers have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

They missed that opportunity out of a combination of misplaced purity and base advantage-seeking. After the PH government was elected in 2018, they failed again out of faint-heartedness. For sure, Dr Mahathir, a lifelong Malay chauvinist, was their leader; but his party Bersatu (the one Mr Muhyiddin led out of the old government) was far smaller than PKR, and the ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Combined, the large bloc of PH politicians who believed in their manifesto promises to bring sweeping reforms to the country could have insisted they were enacted – and done so quickly. Instead, they meekly allowed themselves to be trampled underfoot by Dr Mahathir, a nonagenarian prime minister who had no interest in making changes other than the clearing-out of Mr Najib’s associates and the revival of his old hobby horses, such as producing another – totally unnecessary and costly – "national car".

Demonstrators protest against Malaysia's newly sworn in prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, in Kuala Lumpur, Sunday, March 1, 2020. Mahathir Mohamad called Sunday for an urgent sitting of Malaysia's Parliament to contest the appointment of a former ally as prime minister under a Malay-majority coalition that could further split the nation following the collapse of Mahathir's multiracial reformist alliance. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

PH ended up pleasing no one. Reformists were bitterly disappointed. As finance minister, the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng first went overboard in talking down the economy, which has sputtered due to political uncertainty over the past two years, and then fuelled Malay fears of being dominated by the Chinese ethnic minority in Sarawak by telling the state's leadership that they would go bankrupt if they remained in power. (It is no surprise that these are the very politicians who have now pledged to support the new government).

PH's lack of direction and constant infighting caused a decline in support, shown by its losing a string of by-elections last year.

Bersatu, a Malay-only party in a supposedly multiracial coalition, may always have been a potential Trojan horse in PH. But its MPs have acted quite rationally in leaving the old government to form the new one. Many feared defeat in the next general election if they remained in PH. The new coalition almost certainly represents a majority of the Malaysian voters.

If they can demonstrate they have a majority when Parliament next sits, their job will be to steady the ship, and to provide the calm and continuity that will allow the economy to recover the excellent growth rates it was achieving under the last BN administration. Chinese and Indian voices will be few, but they will be heard in this new coalition, and Mr Muhyiddin is likely to continue in the tradition of all of his predecessors by speaking regularly about moderation, inclusiveness and nation-building.

It is worth noting that all the past, possible and would-be candidates for prime minister are, or were, members of Umno. Mr Muhyiddin and Mr Anwar, although lately in PH, were both deputy prime ministers in Umno-led BN governments – the former sacked by Mr Najib when he was in office and the latter ditched by Dr Mahathir in his last term as premier.

Given that and what has happened subsequently, the seemingly game-changing events of 2018 may be seen today in a different light. The revolution may have been televised, to misquote Gil Scott Heron. But the question now is whether there was, in fact, any revolution at all.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National