Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has shaped Malaysia more profoundly than any of its modern leaders. Apart from just being the longest serving Prime Minister of his country (1981-2003/2018-present), Mahathir’s reputation as a no-nonsense, forward looking, pro-development reformist helped to transform Malaysia from a country that was decades behind neighbouring Singapore in terms of economic development, into one of south east Asia’s major success stories. It was under Mahathir that Kuala Lumpur became the major ultra-modern metropolis that it is today, whilst Mahathir also excelled at dramatically increasing foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country. As such, Malaysia continues to grow more prosperous, not withstanding pre-Mahathir era affirmative action laws (the so-called New Economic Policy) whose absence could have unleashed even more substantial growth.
In many ways, Mahathir shares many similarities with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Both men helped to pivot their respective countries towards a non-aligned foreign policy model, both men emphasise the importance of sustainable economic development, both men are deeply opposed to corrupt political and business practices and both men are deeply aware of the multifaceted cultural dynamics of their respective nations. But there is one big difference.
Mahathir rose to power through a parliamentary system within the framework of a federal constitutional revolving monarchy that under Mahathir’s first premiership, ushered in nothing short of a revolution in terms of opening the country to sustainable foreign direct investment (FDI). By contrast, The Philippines remains a backward unitary presidential system with arcane constitutional restrictions on FDI. This limits Duterte’s ability to pull off a Malaysia style (let alone a Singapore, Vietnam or China style) economic miracle in the Philippines – even though unlike his predecessors, it is clear that if given the right tools, he could most certainly do so.
Whilst not possible under the current 1987 Constitution of The Philippines, Malaysia’s federal-parliamentary system of governance allowed Mahathir the ability to dramatically change his country for the better. By continually securing the confidence of parliament and the trust of Malaysia’s democratic electorate, Mahathir was able to remain in power for over two decades (before returning to power last year on a new democratic mandate – leading a different party than that which he led during his previous time as Prime Minister).
As such, Malaysia, like neighbouring parliamentary Singapore, was able to perpetually develop without interruption, under the tutelage of a leader who governed with a consistent and unflinching mandate. As a result of a meritocratic parliamentary political system, Mahathir was able to use this mandate to attract the interest of global investors and secure a steady stream of FDI based on investor confidence in the stability and good governance of the country.
Whilst Duterte is arguably even more popular in his country than Mahathir is in his, due to the arbitrary and regressive term limits that are commonplace in presidential systems, Duterte will not be able to lead his nation past the year 2022, even if the people wish him to do so. Here, Mahathir has a further advantage over Duterte in respect of governing in a parliamentary system. Unlike Duterte, Mahathir governs as the chief executive by virtue of the fact that he is the head of Malaysia’s legislature. This means that Mahathir’s ability to pass reforms is more efficient, more streamlined and subject to more intelligent real-time scrutiny than that which is possible (or even fathomable) in The Philippines. Furthermore, Mahathir is able to select his own deputies from his coalition’s parliamentary majority, whilst inversely, President Duterte has to contend with two separate legislative bodies and a deeply hostile deputy (Vice President Leni Robredo).
It is hard to imagine Mahathir being able to accomplish what he did, if rather than work with colleagues in a democratic parliamentary majority, he had instead to contend with obstructionists like Robredo, Antonio Trillanes, Frank Drilon and the army of other useless anti-meritocratic political relics who are allergic to reform, parliamentary debate and other normal features of governments that are run with a true sense of realism and modernity.
Finally, if Malaysia had the kinds of draconian restrictions on FDI that remain part of constitutional law in The Philippines, much of Mahathir’s efforts to bring prosperity to his people would have been largely if not entirely in vain.
These are the big lessons that The Philippines can learn from Mahathir and Malaysia more widely. At a time when The Philippines is being politically, economically and socially retarded by not just an imperfect constitution but a fatally flawed one, the most important lessons that The Philippines can learn from Malaysia are those related to federal-parliamentary governance, a pro-FDI-constitution, as well as a broadly pro-FDI political class.
There will be much to discuss when Rodrigo Duterte meets with Mahathir Mohamad, but if there is anything to take away from this week’s meeting, it will be an opportunity for The Philippines to learn from the best practices of Malaysia’s pro-FDI federal-parliamentary system of governance.