"I don't consider myself a Chinese, I am a Malaysian," Malaysia's new finance minister Lim Guan Eng replied when asked how he felt about being the first Chinese Malaysian appointed to the position in 44 years. There's a new found sense of pride permeating the country following the May 9 general election; a declaration of unity that has breathed new life into the seemingly trite '1 Malaysia' slogans that were also printed on caps and badges worn by government officers. But is Malaysia now on the road to becoming a vibrant, tropical paradise where all will be treated fairly by a new reformist government? Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
, at 92, is having a second crack at remaking Malaysia and he's off to a positive start. He's a lucky man having been handed power in last week's elections as the head of the opposition. Malaysians have given him a second chance at making his and their dream of a developed and happy nation come true by ejecting the entrenched Barisan Nasional
after over half a century of rule.
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The reality is that while changing a government can be swift, any real and lasting change to people's attitudes is likely to take considerably longer. The new Pakatan Harapan government that Mahathir heads will have to stay sharp to pick its way through a toxic social legacy and all the sleaze left behind by the previous government. Malaysia has of late been riven by racial and religious suspicions. During his time, Mahathir, ruling as a strongman during his 21-year term in office, kept all that in check. The biggest issues going into the election were corruption, highlighted by previous prime minister Najib Razak's alleged role in the 1MDB scandal, where $2.6 billion of a state fund was embezzled with some $681 million allegedly turning up in bank accounts under Najib's name. It was a key part of the opposition's winning message to voters along with Najib's introduction of the loathed GST (goods and services tax) that was making daily life more expensive. The rising cost of living was added fodder. New Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail is shown waving to supporters after visiting her husband, jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, at the Cheras Rehabilitation Centre hospital in Kuala Lumpur on May 11. Malaysia's king has agreed to pardon Anwar Ibrahim immediately paving the way for the jailed leader to return to politics and potentially become premier. (Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP)
But the new administration has promised to address all of this within its first 100 days. In this respect, the Saudi government has already set an example by arresting almost 400 people in an anti-graft campaign last year. Among those arrested were members of the Saudi royal family, including a billionaire tycoon. The arrests sent a potent message that corruption among the elite, which had become endemic in the kingdom, would no longer be tolerated. During this process, the authorities claim to have recovered over $100 billion in ill-gotten gains. Whatever the overall plan, it will take time for ordinary people to see the results of new government policy in their daily lives — be it in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia. For now, Malaysians are content with voicing their support, patience and understanding. Over the years, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lynchpin of the previous government, resorted to devious methods to keep its grip on power. Stirring communal tensions among Malaysia's ethnic groups, locking up critics, rigging the electoral system in its favor, bribing voters with populist handouts and threatening chaos if it lost were all in their play book. That they ended these outrages last week has been enough so far to keep Malaysians positive about change. But will that outlook last? Multicultural Malaysia is often put forward as an example of tolerance and democracy among Muslim countries. However, that is inaccurate. Malaysia has a repulsive system of racial preferences. UMNO also made no bones about relying on the Malay Muslim majority to remain in power. How much changes will depend on the good faith and efficiency of the new government. Pakatan's majority rests on an awkward mix of defectors from UMNO and veteran opposition politicians with little experience of government at a federal level. And cracks have already begun to show. Former Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng has been appointed finance minister, making him the first ethnic Chinese to claim the position since Tan Siew Sin from 1959-1974. This has widely been viewed as a positive move by Mahathir. But Wan Azizah, who is also president of the People's Justice Party (PKR), was absent from the briefing that saw her named Malaysia's first-ever deputy prime minister; just as Mohamad Sabu (the new defense minister) and Muhyiddin Yassin (the newly installed home minister) were equally absent. All are leaders of the coalition parties. But the absence of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail
— the wife of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim — and a statement by a senior PKR member voicing discontent with these appointments has embarrassed the government barely 48 hours after Mahathir was named prime minister. Mohamad Sabu is from a group that broke away from the Malaysian Islamic Party commonly known as PAS, while Muhyiddin Yassin was Najib's deputy prime minister until 2015, when he was fired after calling for greater transparency regarding the probe into the 1MDB development scandal. The release of Anwar, for whom a full pardon from the king has been secured, on May 16 is expected to muffle further damaging shows of disunity. Mahathir has promised to cede power to Anwar in the next year or two. Most know the handover of power from a government known for dirty tricks is due to Mahathir's stature as a leader, so he will be given time and space to complete his tasks. Malaysians have fought hard and long to get the result they wanted. That was no mean feat. Now they need a vision — something new to strive for and look forward to. Mahathir may have some interesting ideas about that.