Anwar Ibrahim has been set free from prison and given a full pardon by Malaysia’s monarch after partly serving the second of two major prison sentences which have dogged the politicians career for decades. What’s more extraordinary is that Anwar’s public rehabilitation has been made possible by his former political partner, turned rival/enemy and now partner again, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
As part of the 92 year old Mahathir’s campaign pledge, he will only serve one to two years as Premier before handing the leadership of the Pakatan Harapan coalition to Anwar. While there is a clear soap opera quality to the last historic election cycle which for the first time in Malaysia’s post-colonial history brought an opposition bloc to power, what’s more remarkable is how the new governing coalition represents Malaysia’s best opportunity to turn a new socio-political page in respect of its historic and controversial policies of so-called positive discrimination in favour of ethnic Malays at the expense of minorities, including the substantial Chinese minority.
Of the many important factors which give the new government a realistic opportunity to pivot Malaysia away from an affirmative action based society towards one based on Singapore style multiracial equality is the fact that the Democratic Action Party forms an important part of the new government. This represents a clear break with the previous ruling coalition which was so dominated by the the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that Malaysia was for decades effectively a democratic one party state.
As 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. The appointment of Lim Guan Eng to the new Cabinet as Finance Minister is a further sign that the Democratic Action Party will play a prominent role in the economic future of the country. Lim has also made history for being the first ethnic minority Finance Minsiter since 1974.
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.