Malaysian party politics have descended into bitter infighting

In little more than seven months, the nation has gone from contender for "country of the year" to a morass of jibes, barbs and allegations

Bloomberg Best of the Year 2018: Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, attends a news conference at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. Photographer: Rahman Roslan/Bloomberg

It appears to be widely agreed that Malaysia's general election in May – in which a democratic transition from the long-ruling government to the former opposition took place for the first time since independence in 1957 – was one of the more remarkable events of the year. Flying in the face of a supposed democratic recession around the world, it led The Economist to place Malaysia on its three-nation-long shortlist for the title "country of the year".

Yet just over seven months on, the honeymoon period is clearly coming to an end, with prominent members of the new administration formed by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition offering stark warnings in recent days about where it is headed. “What’s going on is dire. What’s going on is a new PH government failing,” said Ramkarpal Singh, an MP from a family who were staunch opponents of the old Barisan Nasional government, and whose brother is a cabinet minister.

Another leading politician, Rafizi Ramli, from prime minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), wrote that “the approval rating of the federal government since Pakatan Harapan took over has been plunging”. Mr Rafizi said that according to his polling, satisfaction had dropped by 20 per cent across the entire spectrum of the country’s racial groups. He warned that PH's “lackadaisical economic delivery” could cost the coalition key swing votes at the next general election.

Mr Ramkarpal, on the other hand, is upset that the Malay-only party in the Pakatan Harapan mix, prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), is accepting “frogs” – aisle-crossing MPs – from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which still dominates what is left of Barisan Nasional, now in opposition. “We are no different from UMNO if we can consider accepting the very people we voted out,” Mr Ramkarpal has said. “It is like saying to the people: ‘Thank you for your vote but to hell with you.’”

The Economist complains that the prime minister "seems reluctant either to relax the country's divisive racial preferences or to hand over power to his more liberal partner, Anwar Ibrahim". Neither point is entirely fair. Everyone acknowledges that even partially dismantling the system of privileges for ethnic Malays – who are a majority of the population but are still relatively disadvantaged economically – cannot be rushed, and, in theory at least, Mr Anwar is still expected to take over at some point in 2020. But the publication is not alone in airing these grouses.

The new government claims public finances were in a mess when it took over and is doing the best it can under the circumstances, while also fulfilling as many of its promises as it can, such as repealing the unpopular goods and services tax – which unfortunately led to a significant drop in revenue just when it would have come in handy.

Supporters point to many other positive changes, including a new public consensus against corruption and abuse of power; greater political freedom and a sense that the ballot can bring change at every level of governance, including the top; more accountability and independence for institutions and watchdogs; and the opening of key positions, including those of finance minister, attorney general and chief justice, to non-Malays.

There are undoubtedly pluses and minuses on both sides of the balance sheet for the Pakatan Harapan government at this stage; the goodwill towards it has not entirely dissipated; and it has certainly been successful at piling up the charges against the former prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, whose removal from office and prosecution was one of the main goals of the party's campaign before the election.

What is disturbing to many, however, is the sheer amount of arguing going on, which is clearly detrimental to both a sense of unity and direction. Given the disparate and contradictory nature of the parties in the Pakatan Harapan alliance, I warned that this could be the result were they to win. After their victory, however, I did not expect to see the levels of vitriol, viciousness and aggression the country has witnessed.

Mr Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) was divided by a bitter battle for the deputy presidency (which Mr Rafizi lost). The youth minister from Dr Mahathir’s PPBM party, Syed Saddiq, has called for an ethnic Indian minister to resign over a riot outside a Hindu temple that left a Malay firefighter dead. The poor education minister, a mild-mannered and charming academic called Maszlee Malik, has appeared to be able to do nothing right since taking up office.

Commentators have raged about Mr Anwar purportedly trying to undermine Dr Mahathir, while others say that the 93-year-old prime minister intends to stop his former deputy reaching the top once again. Constructive criticism is barely to be found, while jibes, barbs and allegations of one plot or another are daily to be heard. Worse, these are rarely about issues of substance and more about personal ambitions, rivalries and power plays. No wonder Mr Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, is so fed up that she has resigned from all party and governmental positions.

This is thoroughly dismaying to all who wished the new government well – which was, actually, just about everyone after the election, since no one wants the country to fail. Instead, such is the orgy of infighting that both the "hope” that the new alliance offered (which is the literal meaning of “harapan”) and the “new Malaysia” they said they were building are in danger of being lost.

Above all this disunity, Dr Mahathir appears calm and unflappable. But beneath him is turmoil. The coalition he led has not succeeded in forging itself into a united force with a clear vision for the country. Its members have not even succeeded in learning how to disagree with each other in a civilised manner. They will have to do so if, having won the war, they wish also to win the peace.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National