Don’t get your hopes up about PH reforms, says US professor

After the elections, Malaysia is unlikely to revert to the ‘Mahathir model’, says a US political scientist. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: Pakatan Harapan (PH) is up and running after the general election victory, but it is not entirely clear yet how far or how fast, says an American political scientist, striking a cautious note about hopes for Malaysia’s future.

Meredith Weiss.

New York State University professor Meredith Weiss, in a magazine article, said PH’s victory had already opened the door to reforms “even if new leaders do little more than peek around the corner in these early stages, and even if its citizens opt ultimately to update the décor rather than shift the socioeconomic foundations of the state”.

However, she cautioned against expecting quick, dramatic change towards a much more politically competitive or economically progressive order.

The pull of the status quo made quick changes as “equally unlikely” as a reversion to strongman rule, she writes.

PH may achieve far less than years of opposition manifestos have pledged in terms of ushering in a more equitable, consultative order,” she writes.

“Nearby Indonesia, having just marked twenty years since the Reformasi that ousted Suharto and his New Order regime, is a sobering Exhibit A,” she wrote.

Political observers should “keep their expectations of systemic change in check”, she said.

“At the end of the day, there is always another election ahead. Pakatan developed under BN rule; it may hesitate to change the rules of a game it has only so newly mastered. Nor can it risk losing its lead.”

Weiss is professor of political science at the New York State University and has written two books on political change in Malaysia, focussing on civil society and student activism. She has also been the editor or co-editor of eight other books on Malaysian politics.

She wrote a post-election analysis, “Making Sense of the Malaysian Elections”, in the left-leaning magazine Jabobin.

Illiberal regime

Weiss said Malaysia was unlikely to return to the “old Mahathirian model” of authoritarian government practised by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his first stint as prime minister from 1981-2003.

The system had become “ossified, decreasingly legitimate, increasingly illiberal” under Najib Razak and she was positive that PH would surely make progressive changes.

The Cabinet appointments so far reflected expertise rather than political concessions, as carried out under BN. There was more balance among component parties than ever before, and the differences between component parties would ensure a wider range of alternatives reaching the policy table, she writes.

However, PH would not be able to change all things.

Limits to reforms

What would develop might be “something in between” — greater political space for other voices and ideas; less stifling of civil society; and real political competition around principles as well as personalities — “even just by dint of a multipolar electorate and fissiparous coalitions”.

The limits of reform lay in a mix between economic policy including communalism (as in bumiputera preferences) and the tension between a highly personalised (however party-centred) and more issues-based or ideological politics.

The key issue for Malaysians, election after election, had been the economy, and particularly rising costs of living.

Malay voters trusted Umno to safeguard their economic position by maintaining preferential policies. Umno had never wavered on these policies, “but opposition parties have equivocated”.

Pakatan had never seriously challenged Malay primacy, but had promised a less communally structured economy.

However, by embracing Mahathir and his PPBM party, Pakatan now had limited room for manoeuvre, especially with their main opposition still Malay-based (in UMNO as well as PAS) and only a slim parliamentary majority.

Megaprojects, neoliberalism

Weiss noted that Mahathir was “Malaysia’s original megaproject mastermind… of glamorous, expensive grand gestures” and he had appointed as finance minister the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, who had likewise caught flak in Penang for his coziness with developers and embrace of ambitiously grand infrastructure and real-estate projects.

Both BN and PH were neoliberal at their core, she notes.

This would lead to “a heavy emphasis on foreign investment–led, large-scale developments (with requirements intact to ensure Malay contractors’ protected share in the bounty), faith in the blessings of neoliberalism, and politically fruitful (commonly dubbed “populist”) wealth-sharing to amplify otherwise-tepid trickle-down effects.

Neither PH nor BN had suggested a way of breaking from that economic path, to prepare Malaysians better to embrace the modern economy.

PH remained highly leader-centred, as was BN, and Malaysian politics remained deeply clientelistic across parties.

Weiss sees hope in the vibrant civil society that had developed, and believed they would keep Pakatan on the path of better governance, social justice, and civil liberties – but Pakatan’s record at state level “revealed greater ambivalence than many activists had expected”.

Many PH legislators “came to consider their one-time colleagues too single-issue-oriented or impatient for improbably sweeping change and found the constant pressure irksome”, Weiss writes.

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