What do Malaysia’s reformers really want to achieve?
“We have proven to the world that political transition can take place after six decades without so much as a drop of blood,” says Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian Member of Parliament, human rights activist and ardent reformist of Malaysian politics.
The past year has seen a thrilling twist in the tale of a 20 year old soap opera. It began in 1997 when her father, then-Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim fell out with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad over how to tackle the Asian Financial Crisis.
Anwar was fired by his boss and took to the streets, leading protests under the banner of Reformasi (reform). Mahathir responded by jailing him under allegations of sodomy and corruption, an internationally-disputed series of charges that were followed up by successive governments to keep him behind bars.
Twenty years later, the two rivals agreed to set aside their differences, an extraordinary peace in itself. But then, they joined forces against the ruling government, which was alleged to have looted over $1bn of public money from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.
92 year old Mahathir led the opposition alliance, which was initially formed against him, to a stunning electoral landslide. He then pardoned Anwar, appointed his wife Wan Azizah as Deputy Prime Minister, and set about rebuilding Malaysia’s trust in its institutions.
We are perched on a sofa in an upmarket Singapore hotel, elite figures wafting past as we await the Economist magazine’s gala dinner. “I know you wanted my father really,” Izzah jokes with a magazine staffer. He denies it; after all, she brokered the key truce between Mahathir and her father’s political party, and is a known campaigner for press freedom, political reform, anti-corruption and gender inclusion.
Top of her party’s agenda is to rebuild trust after a massive corruption scandal brought down the last government.“The fact that it could fester on for so long was partly because of the imperfections in the system,” she notes. Indonesia and South Korea reformed their institutions after the financial crisis, with the Indonesian Reformasi movement overthrowing President Suharto’s New Order regime, while Malaysia doubled-down on centralising political control.
Izzah wants her country to build greater accountability, both from the opposition and a free press, she feels. “We have to really look at some of the things that were not developing under our benevolent dictator, Mahathir Mohamad, who’s now the Prime Minister,” Izzah says. “You can see the sorts of things pan out as it were before. We’re not going to find closure.”
“One of the things I really want to safeguard is the freedom and space accorded to the opposition,” she adds. “The opposition must exist together with the government of the day, there’s no way you can exclude them”. It was even difficult to pose questions on 1MDB, she notes, with responses not provided in Parliament to scrutiny that started back in 2013.
Another building block of trust, says Izzah, is to encourage a healthy culture of dissent to keep democratic institutions robust. “Why do benevolent dictators survive for so long? For as long as they keep making justifications – freedom comes at a price; stability must mean sacrifice,” she notes. But “there has to be some key parameters that we set up so that governments also do not get exempted from being criticised accordingly”, she adds.
Before the landmark elections, Izzah fought to repeal an anti-fake news act that sought to outlaw what government could deem to be inaccurate statements, and what she felt would censor criticism against the ruling party. “To be against fake news is fine, but it cannot be used as a tool to suppress legitimate dissent against the government’s excesses,” she says.
Indeed, she would take a ”softer approach on tech companies,” she adds. “There’s a difference between increasing bureaucracy and ensuring that the regulatory framework works,” she states, arguing that “I want Malaysia to become the beacon where tech can sprout effectively and actively”.
Institutional reform is vital, she believes, strengthening organisations such as the Anti-Corruption Commission and acting on allegations against the old regime. “When crimes are committed, you take the necessary action,” Izzah says. Since May, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has prosecuted several ministers and auditor-generals for graft related to the 1MDB investment fund and other corruption cases. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently under investigation for having received $681 million allegedly through the 1MDB fund.
Yet there shouldn’t be a “witch hunt,” she notes, and investigations must run their course. “It’s so crucial because it’s a part of nation building, it is a part of our healing that if you commit a crime, and you happen to be a civil servant, you will be made to answer. But by the same token, you will not be victimised – that’s the kind of balance we’re trying to initiate.”
Oddly, this part of the interview is interrupted when a couple of opposition MPs walk past the sofa. “Oh hello,” she says while waving cheerily, beckoning them over to chat.
We return to the topic at hand. Malaysia is a diverse nation, and must avoid following in Thailand’s political footsteps, she notes. “You don’t want it to escalate to a Thaksin-led era whereby the junta is predominantly supported by one particular class or group, leaving many others behind”. Malaysia must unite voices from the city and the countryside, rather than risk a split between an urban elite and a rural majority.
That said, when questioned by the Economist later while on stage, she notes that Malaysia is unlikely to have a non-malay Prime Minister for a long time, suggesting that Singapore would be the first of the two to have a non-majority leader.
Gender-inclusion is a passion of hers, and her party “tried very hard to target candidacy amongst women,” she notes, with a target of 30% of its candidates as women. But Singapore currently provides better health and welfare support for mothers, she adds, and “if I have kids, it’s so much easier for me to come to Singapore and work in comparison to Malaysia”.
The nation also lags behind Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in terms of workforce participation, she says. “Why? Because while more than 60% of [Malaysian] women study in universities, who’s going to take care of my child when I get married? That inflexibility, rigidity, then lowers and inhibits women’s growth and further involvement in the workforce.”
Youth is another demographic the government wants to engage. They “have the biggest opportunities to contribute to the economy,” Izzah notes. But Malaysian students are saddled with large student debts and low salaries, she adds.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition had promised to defer payments for student loans issued by the National Higher Education Fund until borrowers earn at least RM 4,000 (US$960) per month. “But that didn’t happen,” she says. Repayment was charged after a salary of RM1,000, then upped to RM2,000 after complaints.
Tech can help government listen more to younger people, she believes. “It’s so much easier to access your politicians and the government. There’s a huge pool of millenials out there who speak completely differently from baby boomers such as myself, generation Z as you call them.”
Singapore and ASEAN
On international affairs, her party has taken a sometimes tough line on neighbouring Singapore, looking to increase water prices for example. What are her views on the city state? “I’m a firm believer that we have so much shared history together. We should not be arrogant enough, or lack the humility to understand, that even Singapore’s economy is powered by many Malaysians, and partly because of the environment, they are paid far more. The economy is managed better in many ways”.
She adds that “I know that there were some hiccups with Mahathir previously, but I am one of the Members of Parliament who proudly mention Singapore as an example if they do things rightly.”
Izzah is “very appreciative” of the Singapore Government’s decision to delay the High Speed Rail project intended to connect the two nations, which would have pitched Malaysia into greater debt in the short term.
She also believes that ASEAN should come together to take a stronger stance on China. “I always thought that ASEAN has not maximised its position fully vis-à-vis China. It’s such a lost opportunity. And if Malaysia and Singapore can begin the move, to lead the way, we would be much better off. Nobody denies the importance of China as an economy, but certain transgressions, certain belligerence should also be pushed back.”
Her mother is currently Deputy Prime Minister, and her father is set to be the next Prime Minister. But Nurul Izzah wishes to stay on the back benches, campaigning for the issues she cares about without taking up a cabinet post, she notes. After all: “my family did not choose politics; it chose us,” she says. And with that, a bespectacled Brit leads her off to start the show.