Dr Mahathir and institutional change in Malaysia

ON May 9, people spoke and Malaysians voted for change.

This was a historic moment for Malaysians, who saw Pakatan Harapan oust the ailing Barisan Nasional that had been gripping onto power for more than half of a century.

If BN still retained power post-GE14, it would have been the longest serving political party in the world. However, this did not happen.

Malaysia recorded a new milestone in history, with its seventh prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, being the oldest elected prime minister in the world. For the record, Dr Wan Azizah became the first female deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

Soon after PH formed a new government, Dr Mahathir sought a royal pardon for Anwar Ibrahim, a “friend-turned-foe-turned-friend”, to make way for him to be the prime minister-in-waiting.

There was so much unbelievable drama before GE14, but what is certain is that the people want change, and new ways of governance and reform. New ways of doing things require new “rules of the game”, all of which link to institutional change.

The return of Dr Mahathir, along with his cabinet, is clearly to pursue institutional reform and fix institutions put into decline by the long-serving BN. However, to dismantle old institutions and come out with new institutional settings is not a straightforward matter. The legacy of government institutions more than 60 years old handed over to Pakatan Harapan is not easy to fix.

Political patronage is deeply embedded in Malaysia’s institutions. It has become how things get done. It was at its worst before GE14; sycophants were rewarded, while credible individuals had lesser opportunities.

Political patronage is not something new in the political system. The rise of political patronage was during Dr Mahathir’s era in 1981-2003. Much literature and analysis conducted by prominent scholars would concur this point, including that done by Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

Political patronage is broadly practiced in the political system and policy-making process. Examples of Malaysia’s economic development that were based on political patronage include the heavy industrialisation programme, and the privatisation and development of the Bumiputera Commercial and Industrial Community – although patronage was deemed necessary at the time because the growth of such programme mainly depended on the government’s substantial resources.

To fix political patronage embedded in the institutions is not easy. After the fall of Indonesia’s President Suharto, the new government intended to make institutional reforms, but they failed to do so because they found the existing political patronage gave them a lot of political advantages.

Since Dr Mahathir is back in the administration, it is hoped he will be able to break the political patronage that has hindered coherent policy implementation. I fear current politicians may fall to the same trap, enjoying political patronage and compromising institutional change.

The new government also inherited unclear lines of dichotomy between government administrations – bureaucracy – and the ruling government. They tend to overlap, with political elites having undue influence on the bureaucracy.

The previous government had strong influence over the bureaucracy, including the judiciary branch. This was inevitable due to BN’s longevity as the ruling government, and this is one thing the PH government is trying to reconfigure, by making a clear demarcation between the bureaucracy and the ruling party.

As we can see, several top civil servants who had close ties with the previous political leaders have already been replaced and sacked. The bureaucracy should not in the grip of the political masters. This can compromise its creation and implementation of policies. The bureaucracy has to be partially autonomous, so that it can advise on policy professionally. A freer bureaucracy should be able to implement coherent policies and improve delivery, based on public interest, and not as a yes-man to its political masters.

Malaysia institutions must be repaired. The reason for the rise of kleptocracy, corruption, abuse of power, and maladministration was the weakening of the institutions. Institutional reform is paramount, so that the government may be able to enforce the rule of law, and more importantly, prosecute kleptocratic practices.

The new government will not be able to implement good policies if the old institutions still prevail. Because of our previous institutional environment, Malaysia’s economic development has slowed down and industrialisation has stalled. Our debts are more than 60% of the country’s GDP, despite the revenue gained from GST (which, thank God, has been abolished). The GDP’s growth rate is hovering around 5%. There is no way we can become a high-income nation with such a rate.

Solving economic problems does not depend so much on implementation of policies. What matters most is institutional change. Only through institutional reform can Malaysia move forward and once again become an Asian Tiger – hopefully not a cub. – June 21, 2018.

* Firdausi Suffian is a lecturer at UiTM on political economy and policy analysis.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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