KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 17 — Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) win in the May 9 polls came as a surprise to the region, transforming Malaysia from a democracy pariah to a reform darling almost overnight.
Countries that previously played nice with Datuk Seri Najib Razak expecting his incumbency to continue beyond the polls were left disappointed as he was replaced by the man previously dubbed “recalcitrant”: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Perhaps nobody felt the change in government as much as our neighbours across the Causeway, where the People’s Action Party (PAP) has enjoyed uninterrupted rule for nearly six decades — just like Barisan Nasional did, before it was knocked out in the polls.
Would the regime change galvanise Singapore’s Opposition to achieve a similar result in its next general election, due by January 2021? Surely this question has been on the minds of the status quo ever since news broke that PH got its simple majority.
It took only 10 days for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to visit Prime Minister Dr Mahathir in Putrajaya, although Lee later was quoted saying that it was merely a “courtesy call” with no substantial issues discussed.
But just as many had compared the current situation with Dr Mahathir and his then nemesis, Lee Sr — Lee Kuan Yew — Putrajaya has managed to ruffle Singapore’s feathers on more than one occasion in its first 100 days.
In June, Dr Mahathir hinted that the decades-old water concession agreement between the countries would be revisited as it was “lopsided”, only to downplay the topic later as “not urgent” after Singapore swiftly responded by urging Malaysia to fully comply with the 1962 deal.
But then just earlier this week, he suggested again that he was considering raising the price by more than 10 times to reflect the rising cost of living.
Dr Mahathir had also cancelled the long-anticipated Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project, then said Putrajaya was merely deliberating the issue at this point. Again, it was “not urgent”, he said.
In May, Dr Mahathir said Malaysia was “rethinking” its recent challenge to the 2008 Pedra Branca judgement, noting that Malaysia wanted to enlarge Middle Rocks, which consisted of two clusters of rocks one kilometre south of Pedra Branca, so as to “form a small island.”
The “tremors” have yet to subside for Singapore.
Dr Mahathir has also incurred ire from China-based companies for placing at least US$20 billion-worth of projects on ice; including the East Coast Rail Link and two gas pipeline projects.
And yet, he has not written China off, as he heads there today with an impressive entourage of influential ministers — seeking to walk his talk of appreciating China’s One Belt One Road policy.
If anything, Putrajaya seems to be hedging both China and United States in an inconspicuous proxy war of influence, and the more obvious trade war. Dr Mahathir has made clear his distaste for Donald Trump, calling him “mystifying” and “mercurial.”
“This is the cause of all tension, where you have people trying to be leaders of the world. We should be equal partners,” he was quoted saying in June.
But Putrajaya itself can also be mystifying.
Even until now, Putrajaya still does not plan on giving up controversial televangelist Dr Zakir Naik, a fugitive in the administrative capital itself, despite India wanting him for ties to terrorism.
It was also absent from aiding close neighbour Thailand during the Tham Luang cave rescue in June and July.
PH has now finalised its full Cabinet, with Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah an excellent choice in heading the foreign affairs portfolio. His track record as deputy minister, and passionate advocacy for human rights and a moderate strain of Islam speak for themselves.
In July, Saifuddin said Malaysia’s foreign policies would largely stay status quo, but he also unashamedly pledged to push Putrajaya to ratify the remaining six international human rights conventions — among others on racial discrimination, political rights, migrant workers, and enforced disappearance.
So far, Indonesia seems to be Malaysia’s “best friend” in the region. The two have not only collaborated to return fugitive Datuk Jamal Md Yunos and Jho Low’s superyacht Equanimity, but also mulled over an Asean car project.
As Indonesia heads to its presidential election, Malaysia may well take away an important lesson as part of its “bromance” with Indonesia. President Joko Widodo was said to have been forced to choose Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, after his former No. 2 Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama fell to Islamic hardliners and went to prison.
Facing similar hardliners here, Putrajaya would do well to resist the vocal hatemongers if it wishes to finish its reforms.
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