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'New Malaysia' dream fades

Does PM Mahathir Mohamad have the courage to lead the nation's reform agenda?

Victor Merrick, Kuala Lumpur

Victor Merrick, Kuala Lumpur

Updated: December 28, 2019 05:50 AM GMT
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'New Malaysia' dream fades

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech during the 25th International Conference on the Future Of Asia in Tokyo on May 30. (Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP)

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This article was first published on Aug. 28, 2019

When Mahathir Mohamad — then fourth, now returned as Malaysia's seventh prime minister — gave his speech during the tabling of the Sixth Malaysia Plan in 1991, he spoke airily of a vision — Wawasan 2020 — a call for the country to become an advanced, developed nation in every aspect of life by the year 2020.

The transformation envisioned conveyed high drama across time and place that was profoundly liberating — a visionary's ideal of multicultural cooperation. Chinese, Malays, Indians, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus would work for a "New Malaysia" after decades of racial and religious spats had all but fractured the nation into fiefdoms.

The vision began to fade when Mahathir handed over power in 2003 to his successors — first Abdullah Badawi and then Najib Razak. The latter was so unfit for office that he postponed the realization of the vision for the nation to 2050.

Petty communal politics and corruption instead took hold on a grand scale, leading to catastrophic effects on the Malaysian economy and social cohesion.

Malaysians had had enough in the intervening years. Despite his best efforts to hang on to power, they ousted Najib and his Barisan Nasional coalition government from power in May 2018.

Re-enter Mahathir, now 94, and a second chance to put things right.

On the eve of 2020, as the nation gears up to celebrate its National Day on Aug. 31 and its 56th anniversary of its founding on Sept. 16, all is not well in Malaysia.

First came the U-turn on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) when the new reform-minded government ended plans to ratify it after hard-line Malay Muslim groups threatened to run amok in the Southeast Asian country.

Then came the government's decision not to accede to the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Again conservative Malay-Muslim groups were the objectors that caused the change.

The setback was cheered by Malay groups and Muslim opposition parties UMNO and PAS. They contended that the Malay constitutional monarchs would lose their immunity and Islam's role would be diluted should the country becomes a party to the statute.

An ethnic Malay minister from Mahathir's own party upped the ante amid rising tension among minority ethnic communities over a number of sensitive issues, claiming that Malays have compromised too much with "racists" and urged them to rise up.

"Malays have compromised too much with racial demands that are too racist. It is time for Malays to rise up and defend Malay culture before it is destroyed," Entrepreneur Development Minister Mohd Redzuan Md Yusof was quoted as saying by the local media.

He was referring to objections to the introduction of Jawi writing lessons for primary school students in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, that has caused unease among non-Malays.

A Malaysian Chinese educationist group branded the move as a form of Islamization, prompting Mahathir Mohamad to label the group "racist."

In recent days Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan government has received criticism for not walking the talk about the promised new Malaysia when dealing with issues from pollution-causing industries to a foreign Islamic preacher insulting non-Muslim Malaysians.

Many doubted whether Mahathir would have the guts to push through reforms his alliance government had announced before the elections. He is a leader of a party so beholden to its Malay-Muslim base and was bound — his critics sneered — to buckle in the face of the massive resistance promised if he stepped out of line.

Perhaps the Mahathir administration is waffling on important issues to cover for a deeper malaise.

Last week a U.N. study noted that the government was severely under-representing the true level of poverty in the country. Official figures state that the poverty rate fell from 49 percent in 1970 to just 0.4 percent in 2016.

But the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, insisted Malaysia’s poverty rate was closer to 15 percent (937,500 households).

Former Bar Council chairwoman Ambiga Sreenevasan, who headed the electoral watchdog Bersih from 2011 to 2013, summed up what many progressive Malaysians who voted in the new government feel when she tweeted: “Every time you expect the leaders to behave in a reasonable fashion, some let you down so badly. It is as if we do not really matter. Just staying in power does. We thought they were different."

Malaysians face extraordinary challenges. All are vulnerable to events that are evolving in complex and unpredictable ways. Effective responses, based on a shared commitment to reform and betterment, are called for if the nation is to avoid destructive schisms and realize the dream espoused by Mahathir Mohamad back in 1991.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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