Why Mahathir’s comeback means little beyond Malaysia

On 9th May 2018, Malaysians voted, in a historical moment, to remove the incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition from the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house of Malaysia’s Parliament.

Speculation began on the impact of such an unprecedented turn of events on regional politics. The recent disputes between Singapore and Malaysia are case in point, and in particular on the possibility of a repeat of such freak results in other elections.

However, this position is mistaken.

While it is tempting to begin drawing parallels between such freak election results in 2018 and other watershed moments in the history of South-east Asia, it is also important to look at the wider context of such changes.

Not all changes must have a regional impact, and given how reasons for such political change have been observed to be internal rather than external, it is unlikely that such a change will be mirrored in other South-east Asian governments.

Much political debate has been centered on the wave of democratisation that swept South-east Asia during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8.

While this brought about political turmoil in some South-east Asian countries – Suharto resigned from office after 30 years in power; and Joseph Estrada faced impeachment proceedings in the Philippines.

General Muhammad Soeharto ruled Indonesia for more than three decades, from 1967-1998. | © Dwi Oblo / Reuters

However, it should also be noted that very little political change actually occurred because of it.

Estrada’s impeachment proceedings were voted against by parliament, and Suharto’s resignation was the only effective change that occurred. Incumbent governments in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam remained mostly intact.

Only Suharto in Indonesia, and Chavalit, the prime minister of Thailand were forced to resign.

Perhaps most significantly in Malaysia, prime minister Mahathir disagreed with his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and forced Anwar out of politics as a result.

Furthermore, the key flaw in this line of argument is that the Asian financial crisis was a crisis of unprecedented scale for the region, and was a crisis that affected all countries due to the regional contagion.

Capital flight and currency devaluations was not a voluntary choice of governments, but was an effect of the crisis itself that governments were forced to accept.

The results of the Malaysian elections, on the other hand, was a voluntary choice of the Malaysian people.

As such, drawing political parallels between the Asian financial crisis and the potential regional impacts of the Malaysian elections is fallacious.

While the defeat of the Barisan Nasional Coalition can be seen as the beginning of a significant change in Malaysia, it is unlikely that a domestic election will result in profound or widespread change in the region.

A key issue to note is also the fact that the elections in Malaysia did not bring about a completely new change in leadership in Malaysia.

Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) reacts during a news conference after general election, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 9, 2018. | © Lai Seng Sin / Reuters

Mahathir had once led the Barisan Nasional, and it was in fact under his leadership that Malaysia had turned much more authoritarian.

Under his leadership, civil liberties were curtailed, the power of the royal house to indefinitely delay assent to legislation was removed, and the independence of the judiciary was impinged upon.

In truth, while Mahathir was championed as a figure that would democratise Malaysia upon election, he was also very much a cause for the crisis in the first place. His election marks a return to power and a return to moderation in opposition to the excesses of the Najib government.

But it should not even completely be viewed as a beginning of a huge transformation of the politics of Malaysia, much less as a precedent for the end of fortunes the rest of the political elite of the rest of South-east Asia.

Professor Gunitsky of the University of Toronto classified democratic waves by considering them vertical and horizontal waves.

Vertical waves originate from shocks to the international system, such as the Asian financial crisis and other economic depressions.

Even with such a great shock to the stability of political systems in South-east Asia, the reaction was considerably muted.

Economic changes happened, but only two governments were effectively challenged and changed. The election of Mahathir evidently has nothing of that magnitude, and therefore lacks the ability to create a vertical wave of democracy through South-east Asia.

Horizontal waves of democracy, on the other hand, originate because of shared linkages and traditions, such as through the Arab Spring.

While Malaysia may hold such links with regional neighbours, it is also true that the scale of dissatisfaction that the Malaysian population held against the Najib regime is absent in other regional countries.

The Singapore government still enjoys 60 per cent of the popular vote, and other governments still lack a scandal so large and so impossible to ignore that even foreign law enforcement agencies such as those from the United States, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Hong Kong have began to investigate it.

In the lack of such scandals implicating political leaders in other South-east Asian countries, it is unlikely that one election will unseat other governments in a horizontal wave of democracy.

Clement Ooi is a freshman at SIM-UOL majoring in International Relations.

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