27.08.2018 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Mahathir bin Mohamad Returns to Malaysian Leadership


New Eastern Outlook has already reported on the notable political event: the parliamentary elections that took place in Malaysia, in South East Asia (SEA) on May 9 before. They resulted in the victory by the opposition, the Alliance of Hope, and the return to power of its leader, the 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, to the post of Prime Minister of a country with a population of 32 million people.

If we take into account not only the unique age of the politician in the highest government position, but also the prominent role Malaysia plays in South East Asia, as well as the fact that he had already occupied the post of Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 (i.e. for more than 22 years), it is well worth re-assessing these events and its possible consequences for SEA three months down the line.

The level of economic development (one of the key parameters among others used to determine a country’s influence in the modern game of politics) has helped Malaysia to leave its “developing country” status behind. At present, together with India, Chile and Thailand, Malaysia is part of the second group of the so-called newly-industrialized nations (with South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore included in the first group).

In the last 50 years, the average annual growth in Malaysia’s GDP has remained at 6.5 %. Currently, Malaysia’s GDP and GDP per capita (represented as purchasing power parity) are equivalent to approximately 1 trillion and 30,000 US dollars, respectively, putting the nation into 26th and 41st place in global rankings based on these two indicators. Among SEA nations, Malaysia is in second place after Singapore in terms of hi tech export volumes. Incidentally, the nation’s foreign reserves exceed $ 110 billion.

In addition, Malaysia is one of the leading ASEAN members (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes 10 SEA countries), and is also an active participant in all the international events held under the organization’s auspices.

Mahathir Mohamad was the first Prime Minister who came from modest means, and whose political stature can be best defined as self-made. And it is hard to underestimate the role this man played in Malaysia’s reaching a status of a regional player of influence and in the economic progress made by this country.

His adherence to inherently Asian development approaches and his reluctance to blindly copy European and Asian practices are certainly worthy of note. For instance, during the Asian financial crisis from 1997 to 1998, he refused to follow the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommendations to curtail large-scale national projects. This is probably why Malaysia managed to overcome the crisis without substantial losses.

In the internal politics sphere Mahathir Mohamad has never shied away from fighting his opponents and their supporters. This time around, one of the first actions undertaken by the new administration was to initiate a “cleansing” of the highest judicial and supervisory bodies from supporters of his predecessor Najib Tun Razak.

At the end of July, Mahathir Mohamad promised to repeal security legislation, enacted with support from Najib Razak in 2012 and aimed at suppressing protests by the opposition, who had accused the former Prime Minister of corruption. But it is also worth mentioning that Mahathir Mohamad himself did not shy away from similar legislation initiatives at the beginning of the 1990s.

Mahathir Mohamad’s foreign policy rhetoric has always been distinguished by his sudden attacks against the EU and the US (in connection with the war in Iraq), despite the USA and the EU (along with China, Japan and Singapore) being some of Malaysia’s key investors and trade partners.

Although Mahathir Mohamad does not view himself as an anti-Semite, he takes a negative view of Israel, and is a proponent of the international Jewish conspiracy theory.

It is widely believed that the Malaysian Prime Minister has been sincerely fond of Japan for quite some time. This actually seems true, as the political and economic concepts underlying Asia’s unique developmental path are geared towards Japanese intellectual frameworks of the pre-war era.

For example, in the 1920s and 1930s Japan saw the appearance of the flying geese paradigm, whose implementation 50 years later played a key role in the emergence of the Asian Tigers and, possibly, led to rapid economic growth of China.

At any rate, within the first three months of his victory, Mahathir Mohamad has already visited Japan on two occasions. The first trip took place during the International Conference on The Future of Asia, held on 11 to 12 June in Tokyo, and became Malaysian Prime Minister’s first foreign visit.

Some highlights from his speech at this event included his point about the need to re-negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership (the TPP) and take into account the interests of small nations.

Still, this statement was fairly general in nature, and it is not clear what specifically Mahathir Mohamad could have talked about during his subsequent meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzō Abe. We would like to remind the readers that the TPP is in its last implementation stage, and it is unlikely that substantial changes will be made to this initiative.

Malaysian Prime Minister’s second official visit to Japan took place from 6 to 9 August. During this trip he gave lectures at two Japanese universities, and also paid a visit to a company operating a high-speed rail network. According to reports he even sat behind the console of such a train.

It is now high time to express bewilderment about a popular opinion that the new Malaysian administration is pro-American nature (and that it won the election with foreign assistance).

We can also say that Mahathir Mohamad treats China with caution, and this is not only due to territorial disputes with PRC in the South China Sea. Before his 5-day visit to Beijing that started on 17 August, the Malaysian Prime Minister had been critical of some very costly infrastructure projects that his predecessor signed agreements on with PRC.

However, this does not mean that Mahathir Mohamad views China’s main geopolitical rival in a positive light. We have already mentioned his foreign policy preferences earlier. It is also worth adding that there are fewer and fewer reasons for returning to the affirmation of the Cold War era  “We say Japan but mean the USA”.

Nonetheless, despite certain preferences towards some of the world players, Malaysia (as other SEA countries) will almost certainly continue with its balancing act in the geopolitical arena, created by each and all of these players.

Hence, any speculation (primarily by the Japanese media outlets) on the topic of Malaysia’s foreign policy reorientation towards Beijing is probably baseless. In the interview with the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post, the new Malaysian Prime Minister denied that he held a negative view of China.

In the meantime, PRC’s official newspaper the Global Times also does not expect any noticeable (negative in nature) changes in Malaysia’s policies towards China from the new Prime Minister. Some adjustments to joint projects are possible, but solely for reasons of economic and financial soundness.

Finally, it is fairly important to note that Mahathir Mohamad is in excellent (for his age) physical shape as evidenced by photographs and videos of him in recent months. This fact is worth paying attention to considering the rumors that have been circulating in the media about the Prime Minister’s intention to step down from his post in a year’s time in favor of his “political successor.

Either way evidence suggests that Mahathir Mohamad will have time to reconsider this decision, especially if Malaysians ask him to. He even expressed similar views during his first visit to Japan.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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