Mahathir Appoints Malaysia’s First Ethnic Minority Finance Minister since 1974

In an immediate sign that newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government is going to function as a far broader socio-political “big tent” than his previous reformist governments in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, Lim Guan Eng of the pro-multiracial Singapore style Democratic Action Party has been appointed as Malaysia’s new finance minister.

The Democratic Action Party which is effectively the Malaysian branch of Singapore’s long government People’s Action Party now forms an important part of Premier Mahathir’s new coalition government after decades of opposition to UMNO led coalition rule tended to shut out ethnic minorities from key government positions.

Lim’s appointment represents Malaysia’s political coming of age as the new coalition looks to solidify commitments to multiracial policies which will likely supplant the affirmative action policies which saw so-called positive discrimination in favour of the ethnic Malay minority for decades. While Mahathir’s previous governments relaxed affirmative action measures in order to promote more economic and political activity from minorities, including Malaysia’s prominent ethnic Chinese minority, the current government looks to totally reverse these policies and embrace a Singapore style of socio-economic equability based on full legal equality for all Malaysians.

Lim said of his appointment to one of Malaysia’s most important Cabinet positions,

“I don’t consider myself as a Chinese, I am a Malaysian. I will ensure that the interests of all Malaysians are protected”.

While Mahathir’s former protege turned political enemy Anwar Ibrahim is on the road to a full political rehabilitation after Mahathir followed through on his promise to ask Malaysia’s Monarch to grant the jailed Anwar a full pardon, the real movers and shakers of the new coalition will be the members of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) for they represent the clearest break with the past for Malaysian politics.

As the DAP is the party most committed to ending the traditional UMNO policy of affirmative action measures to favour the political, economic and social position of ethnic Malays over that of minorities, including the ethnic Chinese minority, there is now a real chance that Malaysia will now permanently abandon policies whose legacy served to retard economic and social progress in Malaysia during the 1960s and 1970s.

Of the many groundbreaking reforms of Mahathir during his last lengthy tenure as Premier while still a member of UMNO, his most important domestic policy was easing the affirmative action implicit in the New Economic Policy of 1971. This when coupled with his economic reforms led to an unprecedented period of growth in the Malaysian economy during the 1980s and 1990s.

Now, with the Democratic Action Party in government, there stands a real chance to change Malaysia from a country pivoting between strong affirmative action measures like the New Economic Policy and the earlier pro-multiracial reforms of Mahathir’s previous period of rule, into a country that embraces a permanent multiracial Singapore style settlement in which all racial groups are given equal access to all socio-economic and political opportunities while both negative and so-called positive discrimination measures give way to a future based on total equality for all citizens.

Irrespective of when (some would still say if) Mahathir gives way to Anwar, the consistent force behind the power of the new governing coalition will be Democratic Action Party leader Tan Kok Wai. Like his long serving predecessor Lim Kit Siang, Tan Kok Wai will help to guide the most overtly pro-multiracial party in Malaysia but this time he will have his voice and those of his deputies heard from within the seat of power rather than the opposition.

Now, not only will the presence of the Democratic Action party help to shape the country’s new trajectory in terms of domestic policies, but the party can also help to ensure a pragmatic policy of neutrality in terms of conflicts between the global superpowers. This will necessarily mean that while Malaysia can, should and likely will further develop a policy of ‘trade with all’, it can also work to decrease geopolitical tensions with conflicting superpowers, especially regarding US antagonism of China in the South China Sea and in ASEAN more widely.

During his previous time in power Mahathir was known for being highly critical of US policy in Asia and in particular, he won praise throughout the developing countries of the wider Muslim world for frequently shaming the US policy of hostility towards Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

In an ideal situation, Mahathir’s ideological opposition to US hegemony can form a new alliance with the pragmatic Singapore style neutrality of the Democratic Action Party. In such a scenario, Malaysia will be able to expand its economic relationship with fellow ASEAN members and with China, while remaining out of the fray of the wider Sino-US conflicts in the region.

While Mahathir has in the past been criticised for taking a line against China which was almost as harsh as that which he took against the US, the reality is that the new coalition will necessarily temper any such individualistic tendencies and push the government, whether led by Mahathir or Anwar closer to a direction of win-win multipolarity. Here again, one must not underestimate the influence of the Democratic Action Party in shaping improved Malaysia-Singapore relations, improved Sino-Malasyian relations and creating an atmosphere in which Malaysia is able to trade with the US while retaining independence from US designs on the region.

Far from just being an ideal situation, this is the new reality of Malaysian politics where an old experienced leader has teamed up with a multipolar minded and multiracial minded party to help form the core of a new political programme for all Malaysians.

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