Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

The Institutions of Authoritarian Neoliberalism in Malaysia: A Critical Review of the Development Agendas under the Regimes of Mahathir, Abdullah, and Najib

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

The Institutions of Authoritarian Neoliberalism in Malaysia: A Critical Review of the Development Agendas under the Regimes of Mahathir, Abdullah, and Najib

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Malaysia's 14th general election (GE14) on 9 May 2018 was a historical turning point in the country's politics. It marked the end of the uninterrupted electoral dominance of the Barisan Nasional (BN, or the National Front) coalition - particularly its major party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) - which had governed the country since independence from Britain in 1957. It also paved the way for Mahathir Mohamad to return to premiership at the age of 92 after his first long stint as prime minister in 1981-2003. In a surreal political moment, Mahathir emerged as the leader of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Alliance of Hope) in partnership with his old critics and enemies, notably Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang. He challenged his former friends and allies in the UMNO/BN coalition led by his protégé, then incumbent premier, Najib Razak. Eventually, the Mahathir-led opposition pulled off an electoral upset on a campaign platform that promised institutional reforms, anti-corruption, democracy, rule of law, and a range of populist economic policies (including the revival of fuel subsidies, increase in minimum wage, and the abolition of the controversial goods and services tax). Yet, any reform efforts by the new ruling government will have to proceed from the existing structures and institutions in Malaysia's socio-economic environment that have been adapted and forged by UMNO/BN in the last 60 years.

The purpose of this article is to take stock of the historical trajectory of Malaysia's contemporary development policies. In doing so, the article reveals a compelling institutional pattern in the structure of the country's political economy in which ethnic and other social relations are embedded. This is important to understand in the current context when the new government under Mahathir enjoys a popular mandate to undertake comprehensive reforms. The prevailing institutions in Malaysia's political economy that are unpacked in this article can be considered: firstly, as a structural reflection of the 'initial conditions' where reform initiatives begin; secondly, as a 'normative indicator' of the specific policies and practices that must be reformed; and thirdly, as a 'benchmark' against which the processes towards the objective for regime change are to be monitored and evaluated.

Historically, the political-economic attributes of Malaysia have been a mesh of a strong state and a relatively open market economy since the colonial period (De Micheaux, 2017; Tajuddin, 2012). Politically, Malaysia has had strong features of authoritarianism where the general citizenry has been deprived of at least the procedural requirements of fair elections, equal privileges before the law, and a modicum of civil liberties and human rights (Case, 1993; Gomez & Jomo, 1997; Zakaria, 1989). Economically, Malaysia's open economy is manifested in its pragmatic - rather than theoretical - adaptation of trademark neoliberal policies of privatization, liberalization and deregulation, as well as in its active production, trade, and financial activities in the world market. Even though laissez faire economic policies in Malaysia became more prominent since independence, the British state had already set in train in colonial Malaya the rudiments of the capitalist institutions that structured the unequal relations between classes and ethnicities (Nonini, 2015; Stubbs, 2004). The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1971-1991 combined state intervention for the reduction of inter-ethnic disparity with the empowerment of private sector activity in the development process. By the 1980s, intensified privatization and deregulation initiatives and other structural adjustments through the Malaysia Incorporated Policy were undertaken (Gomez & Jomo, 1997).

This article examines the evolution of Malaysia's political economy through an analysis of the post-NEP development strategies undertaken by successive governments since the 1990s, namely: Mahathir Mohamad's Wawasan 2020, Abdullah Badawi's Islam Hadhari, and Najib Razak's Malaysia. …

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