Catharin Dalpino on Politics in Malaysia

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emerita at Georgetown University, where she taught Southeast Asian Studies and launched the university’s Thai Studies Program.  She is also Adjunct Professor in the Washington Program of Seton Hall University.   Professor Dalpino has also taught Southeast Asian politics, security and international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University and Simmons College. From 1993 to 1997 she was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 

Professor Dalpino has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; an Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  From 1983 to 1993 she was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years.  She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009).  She was the founding president of the board of the War Legacies Project; a member of the US-Thailand Fulbright Board; and a Board member of the Commonwealth Club of California. Image courtesy of Catharin Dalpino.

What was Mahathir Mohamad’s chief motivation for running for office and returning to the premiership of Malaysia, especially at his late age of 92?

He has multiple motivations, but one of them was to go after Najib, who has been his protégé, as Anwar has been his protégé as well. Malaysia was also going through an important political transition but an awkward one. With each election UMNO and Najib had less strength. So there is a reasonable belief that the 2018 election might be putting an opposition party over the top. So Mahathir wanted to manage that process, and Anwar was still in prison at that time.

During his first four months back in office, what has Prime Minister Mahathir achieved? Is he likely to fulfill his campaign promises?

He made certain promises about the economic situation because he thought the country was  in a hole. He also promised to attack corruption, which was directed at UMNO and the Najib regime. First, in terms of attacking corruption, he did go after Najib who is right now undergoing criminal investigation. So in that sense he has chosen an obvious target. He has very easily fulfilled that campaign promise symbolically. It is yet to be seen whether or not in the next two years, he can actually make a difference in dealing with political corruption. Second, he was able to put some short-term political reforms in place, such as introducing a tax reform. When he got back into office, it turned out that the national deficit was larger than anybody really had known. What he had to do was to redirect attention to addressing that deficit.  It was a big surprise for him after that election, and he understandably put that as priority.

Prime Minister Mahathir reunited with Mr. Anwar, his former political nemesis, to challenge the previous party’s hold on power and to force Premier Najib from office. Is their willingness to work together surprising and is their collaboration expected to endure given their history?

Anwar was his Deputy Prime Minister as well as his protege. Mahathir brought him into the  cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister, because he was younger  and he also has better Muslim credentials than Mahathir. They fell out in the late 1990s during the Asian economic crisis. That was when Mahathir began to drive him out of government and sent him to jail. Mahathir landed on the ticket in 2018 with the assumption that he would be an interim Prime minister, and he would essentially hold the marker for Anwar. One of the few things he was able to do after he was elected in 2018 was to get a loyal pardon for Anwar to get him out of jail. Anwar came out of jail and ran for and won a by-election this week. It was a carefully constructed by-election which he could not possibly lose. And now he will be back in the legislature, which raises a very important and interesting question of the timing of the transition to Anwar.  Mahathir has said that he would be in power for 2 years. It is a little bit arbitrary. Will there be a contest between the two? Basically what Mahathir has now is a very loose coalition, which in no way resembled what UMNO was, and is still.  Politics will continue to be unsettled in Malaysia. Presumably Anwar is a leader-in-waiting, but currently you have Mahathir, who is 93 years old. Mahathir was a strongman leader in the 1980s and 90s. So we will see if there's a struggle within the ruling Coalition now between Anwar and Mahathir and how that turns out. 

The diversity in Mahathir’s cabinet is substantial, with the main principle uniting the disparate parties in the last election being their shared opposition to the incumbent National Front (Barisan Nasional) party. Do you think the ministers from different parties and backgrounds can resolve their differences and work effectively as a ruling coalition over the medium and long-term?

The difficulty isn't that there is a diverse cabinet.  The problem is that they're an inexperienced cabinet because Maharthir cannot call upon experienced officials who are right now still with UMNO.  The cabinet is pasted together and has intrinsic restraints. The governing coalition is not a typical political party.  They're kind of making it up and going along.  They' only recently filled the position of foreign minister that was open for many months because Maharthir doesn't have a lot of candidates to choose from. This is going to weaken the cabinet. It also calls into the question of the sustainability of the government as a whole. But again, this is just an interim arrangement. Somebody has to square the circle with UMNO, whether it’s Anwar or Mahathir,

Does the loss by the Barisan Nasional party signify an important shift toward democracy in Malaysia?  Or was this loss a reaction to the enormous corruption scandals associated with Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib Razak?

UMNO has governed Malaysia since independence. The only way that there was going to be someone that could topple UMNO was a Malay-based party of coalition. The primary opposition party in the Malay history is PAS, the fundamentalist Islamic party. Malaysia is not prepared to put that party into power as the mainstream party. Particularly in 1990, when PAS gained power in local two districts, they attempted to impose the Sharia law. It is democratic progress that a semi-authoritarian party or a party that has been the ruling party forever has been voted out of office. But UMNO, perhaps a reconfigured one, ill be back in power someday. One of the things Mahathir is trying to do is to bring Najib down to the extent that this would hurt UMNO for sometime to come. But UMNO will come back. Also, it has to be said that Mahathir ran UMNO for two decades, so he is partly to blame for the way that UMNO is today and for its hold on power. So the legacy of UMNO is also the legacy of Mahathir, and vice versa. And Anwar is a leading UMNO official as well. We will have to wait to see whether they can put together a genuine alternative political party, whether this is just a one-off change, or whether the next time UMNO comes back, it might be more democratic. But for now it is a democratic moment. The Malaysian people deliberately wanted UMNO out.  This took  several elections. The legitimacy and popularity of UMNO was eroding. But this is by no means the end of the story. UMNO will come back.

Mr. Najib’s fall from power is attributed to his involvement in a major money-laundering and embezzlement scandal. Were Malaysians angry with Najib mainly for his theft from Malaysian development fund (1MDB), or were Malaysian citizens mainly angry with his austerity measures and other pocketbook issues?

They were upset mainly for the economic situation. Najib fell because of poor performance legitimacy. If you have to run the election when the economy is down, you are in bad shape. There had been increasing disillusion with him over the 1MDB scandal although corruption was no exactly unprecedented in Malaysia. One of the interesting things about UMNO is that, in many ways, it was very intricately involved in economy. Many political parties have firewalls between themselves and the economy, but it was not the case for UMNO. If the economy had been up, there would have been a good chance that Najib could have squeezed through again. But the economy was down, and there were austerity measures.  Malaysia was getting to that point where the growth rate just wouldn’t be that fast every year. The more Malaysia moved towards being a developed economy, the harder it was going to be to maintain a high growth rate. And Najib was trying to increase that goal from 7% to 8%. That was probably not a good idea.

In 1990, Mahathir developed Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) as long-term goals for Malaysia. To what extent have his goals changed since returning to power? 

Vision 2020 has a lot of long-term government plans; it was designed to make Malaysia a developed economy by 2020. That was the intent. I don’t think Vision 2020 is the most powerful or impactful program that Mahathir has put into place. The New Economic Policy has far greater impact on Malaysia in the wake of racial riots against ethnic Chinese in Malaysia in the late 1960s. The percentage of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia is about 25%, but they have a disproportionate influence on the country’s financial system. Mahathir and many other leading UMNO officials believed that they needed to keep the Chinese population there for economic progress, prosperity and development. But they also needed to address the grievances of the Malay-Muslim population. Mahathir put into place what was called the New Economic Policy, it was an attempt to elevate the Malays close to the economic level of the Chinese, lessen those resentment and create more harmony. That was a more impactful program than Vision 2020.

SiKe Wang CMC '21Student Journalist

Image by Dudva, “The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia),” via Wikimedia Commons.

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