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In Malaysia, It's Out With the New, in With the Old

A supporter of People's Justice Party waves its party flag outside the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Malaysia's ruling alliance collapsed this week after 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned and…

Parliament is not due to reconvene until May 18, after Muhyiddin postponed the original March 9 start date to give himself time to shore up support in case of a no-confidence vote.

With parties championing Malaysia's Malay Muslim majority back in power following February's spectacular collapse of Mahathir Mohamad’s reformist Pakatan Harapan, or Coalition of Hope, government, many expect a conservative turn with more race-based policies that risk raising tensions in the multiethnic country.

Pakatan, which had toppled the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition at the polls in 2018, had watched its popularity nosedive as Barisan heavyweight United Malays National Organization and the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, played up fears that Malay Muslims and other indigenous groups, or Bumiputra, were being sidelined.

Fearing Pakatan would lose the next poll, a handful of its lawmakers broke away in February to ally with UMNO and PAS. Then-Prime Minister Mahathir resigned in protest, setting off a leadership tussle that saw the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, name Mahathir's interior minister and fellow Bersatu party member, Muhyiddin Yassin, the winner.

“I am a brother to the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, the Sikhs, the Ibans, the Kauaians, the Dusun, the Murut," Muhyiddin, a Malay Muslim, said in his first public address after taking power. "I am your prime minister."

Many have their doubts.

"The core of this government coalition is really the three most popular ethnic Malay conservative parties. That means that these politicians are likely to push for a revival of the kind of racial policies that we have seen prior to the 2018 election," said Harrison Cheng, an associate director with consulting firm Control Risks who follows Malaysia.

Malaysia's ethnic Malays and Bumiputra draw on a raft of affirmative action benefits that help placate a deep-seated complex about losing out to the country's generally better-off ethnic Chinese. With the main Malay and Muslim parties at his back, Cheng said, Muhyiddin will likely push those benefits forward by increasing the majority's promised quotas for jobs and public contracts, even at the risk of scaring off some foreign investment.

Parliament is not due to reconvene until May 18, after Muhyiddin postponed the original March 9 start date to give himself time to shore up support in case of a no-confidence vote.

Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, a professor of government at Utara Malaysia University, said the new government has begun beefing up subsidies for Malays and Bumiputra already. Because they make up a disproportionate share of the lowest-income earners, he said they will also benefit most from the economic stimulus plans sure to follow the coronavirus outbreak.

"After all, UMNO, PAS and Bersatu, these are the Malay groups, they get the support from the Malays, so of course what they are doing now is to make sure that they are targeting this group first," Martadha Mohamed said.

The return of UMNO and PAS to power also comes with a fear of more race-baiting politics.

"There is nothing in UMNO and PAS' track record in opposition in the past 18 months [to suggest] that they would shy away from using inflammatory rhetoric to stir up public anger against the Chinese and the Indians," said Cheng.

"That is their modus operandi, and I don't think they're going to move away from that, because they have seen how it has helped them to secure several by-election victories in the past 18 months as well as propel them into federal office now."

How high Malaysia's racial and religious tensions run will turn heavily on how hard PAS pushes its Islamist agenda, including the federal application of Islamic law. The party has imposed a degree of it in the few states it runs but had efforts to take it nationwide rebuffed by UMNO during its first stint in power.

The new government has sought to allay fears of an Islamist push and conspicuously passed PAS over for the religious affairs portfolio.

Cheng and Martadha Mohamed said the new government could not afford to rile other groups and parties too much before its strength in parliament is tested and proven but added that PAS may be given more rope if and when it is.

"I'm sure sooner or later it will come time when, you know, they will try to push for their own agenda ... now [that] they are also part of the government, because that's been the objective of the party," Martadha Mohamed said.

Before its demise, Pakatan had lined up several reform-minded bills to make the government more open and accountable. They included a bill that would set up an independent committee to hear complaints against the police and another to make the funding of political parties more transparent. In an article for Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia, an advocacy group Tricia Yeoh of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian research group, said those bills "will likely be shelved."

Thomas Fann, chairman of the Malaysian democratic rights group Bersih, said the country was in for the return of a more repressive brand of government as well.

In the days that followed Pakatan's collapse and Muhyiddin's rise by royal decree, protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, complaining of a "backdoor" government and calling for new elections. Police ordered them to stop.

Some were called in for questioning and investigated for sedition.

"They were very quick to call people in for questioning, and even people who showed up to show solidarity were also called in for questioning. So that was, I think, a sign that the police are taking their cue from the new government that they should crack down more on any sort of dissent," said Fann.

"We do expect that this government ... will be less tolerant of civil rights."