September 17, 2021


MALAYSIA: Positive optics for unity pact, but deal is vulnerable

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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New prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob struck a deal on Monday, 13 September, with the opposition Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan, or PH) coalition to push forward with electoral reforms. In exchange, Pakatan agreed not to table a confidence vote until August 2022 or oppose next year’s budget. On the face of it, the agreement is a positive one offering some significant steps forward. However, optimism must be hedged with the risk that implementation of these agreed conditions could easily get bogged down by short-term electoral calculations and political maneuvering on both sides.

Called the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Transformation and Political Stability, the agreement lays out broad commitments to electoral, parliamentary, and judicial reforms; implementation of the Malaysia 1963 agreement providing equal status for Sabah and Sarawak states; and strengthening the Covid-19 response.

Some of the significant political changes promised include a ban on party hopping, a reduction in voting age from 21 to 18, and a 10-year limit on the prime minister’s term.. Commitments were also made to improve opposition representation in parliamentary committees. As for the Covid-19 response, the focus was on assistance to the lowest-income groups, such as a moratorium on interest payments for the poorest bottom half of the population and additional funds for cash payouts.

One glaring omission was the lack of mention of any reforms on electoral redistricting, since gerrymandering had allowed majority Malay districts to be over-represented and was a favorite tool of the United Malays National Organization in maintaining control. A favorable change would have transferred this role to an independent election body, but this was likely a non-starter given the political priorities of main parties in protecting their existing bases.

In the best-case scenario, progress would be made at the agreed upon intervals: the parliamentary reforms for improved opposition representation would happen immediately; the Covid-19 plan by the end of the year; and the major political changes by the first parliamentary sitting in 2021.

In the worst-case scenario, negotiations on the implementation of the agreement would get bogged down at each step along the way based purely on short-term political calculations and the expectation that elections are increasingly likely after August 2022. In each stage there could be contentious debates that eventually lead to disagreement, since the memorandum states many of the goals in broad terms.

Side issues will be Anwar Ibrahim’s continued ability to remain at the helm of the opposition and the role of the so-called “court cluster,” i.e., the prominent MPs in the pro-administration coalition facing corruption charges such as former prime minister Najib Razak. The maneuverings involving and around these politicians could also affect public perceptions and how the key parties react to progress on the agreement.

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