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Malaysia’s Mahathir races the clock

Monday May 21, 2018
By Jason Koutsoukis

Mahathir Mohamad has been in a hurry since his shock election win in Malaysia.

Less than two weeks in power and the 92-year-old Mahathir, who previously governed from 1981 to 2003, has been busy forming a cabinet, cutting a goods and services tax rate to zero, starting a review of big-bang infrastructure projects and government spending, and reinvigorating a probe into billions allegedly missing from a state fund set up by his predecessor.

He’s announced plans to replace the attorney-general (who is now on leave), promised to vet all incoming ministers for propriety, and slapped travel bans on several key figures, including ousted premier Najib Razak, whose house has been raided by police and who is due to be questioned today by the anti-graft agency.

With his coalition partner Anwar Ibrahim freed from jail and lurking in the wings, Mahathir has a lot to get done before he potentially hands over the reins in a year or two. Still, rushing so many things risks Mahathir overstepping, or causing chaos within his four-party grouping if people don’t feel consulted or involved.

By seeking to cut both revenue and spending, he may also find himself making economic decisions on the fly in a way that companies and investors -- long accustomed to policy certainty -- find disconcerting.

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The pressure is intense. In a closed-door meeting just weeks before polling day, Mahathir “broke down and cried” when his party was temporarily banned from campaigning in a dispute over registration papers, said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, deputy chairman of the party’s policy bureau. “The iron man of Malaysian politics, he completely lost it.”

“I’d never seen him like that,” Wan Saiful said.

Mahathir’s victory was bittersweet. He ousted a coalition in power for 61 years, since Malaysia’s independence. But Mahathir himself had steered that coalition for decades before defecting to the opposition amid a falling-out with Najib, his one-time protege.

Now the world’s oldest-elected leader is acting as though he doesn’t have a minute to waste.

“It looks like Tun Dr Mahathir would like to take back all the 1MDB stolen money in 100 days,” said Awang Azman bin Awang Pawi, an associate professor at the University of Malaya, referring to the scandal surrounding the fund. “It seems too ambitious but that’s the Mahathir way.”

Part of Mahathir’s haste is aimed at reassuring the public that a coalition of disparate parties that has never been in power, and was largely held together by the common goal of unseating Najib, can now govern effectively.

There are potentially major policy differences among them, including over the Bumiputera system that offers educational and employment advantages to ethnic Malays, and has long been a bedrock for Malay votes. Over time those divergences might become more apparent.

“In our conversations in the days since the election, what we keep coming back to is the urgent need to reward the trust of the people and actually deliver on our promises -- it’s key to establishing his legitimacy,” said A. Kadir Jasin, head of communications for Mahathir’s council of transition advisers.

“He needed to demonstrate, ‘look, we’re doing the right the thing here, the key elements of the economy will be taken care of.’"

One reality for Mahathir is that time is not on his side. Not only is he elderly -- though he keeps fit with regular exercise -- he has promised at some point to hand power to Anwar, who was freed from jail and pardoned last week for a sodomy conviction.

“Let’s face it, he’s 92 years old and there simply isn’t a lot time left for him to do everything he wants to do,” said Joseph Chinyong Liow, dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Mahathir himself has said that he will serve, at most, for two years, so it’s no surprise he’s hitting the ground running.”

Anwar and Mahathir go way back: Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy premier in the late 1990s until Mahathir fired him. Anwar later went to jail for abuse of power and sodomy, charges he denied. The two mended fences a few years back but it remains an uneasy rapprochement.

1MDB ‘Iceberg’

“He went round the country and the moment he mentioned 1MDB there would be uproar, and the moment he mentioned the GST,” Anwar said in an interview on Friday with Bloomberg Television, when asked why Mahathir was moving so quickly on those issues.

Liow cautioned Mahathir against triggering a witch hunt against the previous government, even as he goes after Najib over 1MDB.

“Who now knows how deep this iceberg goes,” Liow said. “Purely for the sake of stability, I would advise the new government to tread very carefully.”

The new government will also need to explain and cost out its economic pledges, including the hit to revenue from cutting the GST rate to zero.

“People are a bit worried about the fiscal situation,” said Cassey Lee, co-coordinator of the Malaysia program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “How will they handle that? They might need to calm the markets a bit.”

Wan Saiful said the biggest risk in moving so quickly is Mahathir starts to walk away from policy commitments made during the campaign. Already, Mahathir had to abandon a plan to make himself education minister, to stay in line with the coalition’s manifesto that top leaders don’t hold more than one portfolio.

But for now at least, Malaysia’s leader has no intention of slowing down. Wan Saiful said Mahathir’s tears several weeks ago reminded him of that.

“This is a very different Mahathir we are seeing, who passionately wants to correct Malaysia’s trajectory."

— With assistance by Andrea Tan, and Haslinda Amin


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