In Malaysia, a change of government has been achieved for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957. This development will likely be a test of whether genuine democracy can be sustained in Southeast Asia.
With the victory by an opposition alliance in a general election, Mahathir Mohamad has returned to power as prime minister 15 years after stepping down from the post in 2003. “We want to restore the rule of law,” Mahathir said.
The government of former Prime Minister Najib Razak had been criticized over a corruption scandal and its high-handed approach to politics. He antagonized voters with such conduct as redrawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a manner advantageous to his ruling bloc and suspending the activities of a political party led by Mahathir.
Achieved in a manner reflecting the popular will, the latest change of administration was highly significant because it took place in Southeast Asia, where democracy has yet to thoroughly take root. This is likely to considerably affect national elections in Cambodia, Thailand and elsewhere in the future.
Mahathir had served as prime minister for 22 years, starting in 1981. He held up the “Look East” policy, seeking to model his country after Japan and South Korea. He has been known as pro-Japanese. He promoted a “developmental dictatorship” aimed at restricting the political freedom of the people to place priority on achieving economic growth.
As long as he emphasizes political renewal, Mahathir must not revive his previous approach to government. He should work to abolish the law introduced by the preceding administration that restrains freedom of speech and political activities.
Expand range of cooperation
He also needs to reconsider his promises akin to lavish government handouts, such as scrapping the consumption tax and giving subsidies to low-income earners.
Mahathir’s return to the position of top political leader at the age of 92 is extremely unusual in the world. As a seasoned leader, he should run the government in a way suited to accommodate the popular will and the changes of the times.
An important task for the new administration is what kind of relationship it should build with China.
Mahathir has continued to criticize former Prime Minister Najib, saying the latter relied too heavily on China. In Malaysia, a number of projects involving Chinese corporations are under way, including railway construction.
Malaysia and many other Southeast Asian countries are faced with the “middle-income trap,” a situation in which a country’s growth slows down after graduating from the status of a developing nation. One feature of such a situation is that the lack of improvement in the living standards of low- and middle-income groups can lead to political instability.
Can these nations form a growth model of their own without excessively depending on China? How should they attract investments and talented personnel from many countries other than China? These issues are shared by these nations.
Many Japanese companies have expanded their scope of business to include operations in Malaysia, and the country has strong economic ties with Japan. The Strait of Malacca, a stretch of water between Malaysia and Indonesia, is also an important sea lane for Japan.
Efforts should be made to expand cooperation with Malaysia’s new government in a wide range of areas, such as antiterrorism efforts and infrastructure development