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One year after Malaysia's shock election, here's how Mahathir's government is doing

Key Points
  • Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling alliance, Pakatan Harapan, has governed Malaysia for a year since ousting a political coalition that led the country for more than 60 years.
  • The new government's approval rating has fallen from 79% to 39% in 10 months, according to research firm Merdeka Center.
  • But the Mahathir administration has "generally been good" for Malaysia as it committed to several important reforms, said Harrison Cheng, associate director and lead analyst for Malaysia at risk consultancy Control Risks.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (center) after his coalition, Pakatan Harapan, won the 2018 general elections.
Lai Seng Sin | Reuters

One year ago, Malaysians stunned the world when they toppled the political coalition that had governed the country for more than 60 years, and voted the opposition into power. The historic election win surprised even the victors themselves.

That surprise election outcome rocked financial markets, with investors selling down Malaysian stocks, bonds and currency in the immediate aftermath. But within the country, many were optimistic about the future under the rule of the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan — the Malay language term for "alliance of hope."

"When Pakatan won the election, there were a lot of elevated expectations," said Harrison Cheng, associate director and lead analyst for Malaysia at risk consultancy Control Risks.

The Southeast Asian country had made international headlines for a financial scandal involving former Prime Minister Najib Razak, Hollywood, Wall Street banking giant Goldman Sachs and billions of dollars missing from state fund 1MDB. Questions around the missing billions contributed to Najib's defeat in the vote, with the former leader still facing charges now over money-laundering and corruption.

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As the new government took over, Malaysians expected reforms in areas including economic management, governance and anti-corruption efforts — aspects in which the previous government seemingly under-delivered, according to Cheng. But the people have been disappointed so far, one national poll showed.

The latest survey of Malaysian voters by research firm Merdeka Center found that the approval rating of the new government has plunged from 79% in end-May 2018 — shortly after the election — to 39% in March this year.

Tony Pua, a Malaysian member of parliament from the ruling coalition, said he isn't surprised that people are unhappy. The economy and rising costs of living were big factors at play during last year's election.

"I think it is understandable that people are not happy because they're expecting, or they have very high expectations for, an immediate turnaround in the economy — which is not possible given the current economic climate around the world," he told CNBC.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (center) at a press conference after the 2018 general elections.
Ulet Ifansasti l Getty Images

It's not just the government that Malaysians are unhappy with. Public satisfaction with current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also dived from 83% to 46% during the same period, according to the same survey.

The 93-year-old Mahathir, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, returned to politics partly because of the 1MDB scandal to lead Pakatan Harapan against the coalition he once headed. Many political analysts attributed Pakatan's election success to Mahathir's appeal to the majority Malay race, especially among conservative voters in the rural heartlands.

Racial politics

Ethnic Malays — an important vote bank for any political coalition — appeared to be the most uneasy with the Mahathir government, according to the Merdeka Center poll. The survey found 58% of Malay respondents, the most out of all ethnic groups, said Malaysia was heading in the wrong direction under the new government.

To me, the obvious thing I see is the Pakatan Harapan government is losing the narrative, losing control of the public discourse, especially on social media.
Azmil Tayeb
lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia

Malays make up around 60% of Malaysia's population and are among indigenous people who have certain privileges protected under the country's constitution. Their doubts about the Mahathir administration have resulted in the government walking back on several decisions, such as a pledge to ratify a United Nations convention against racial discrimination.

Such backpedaling has disappointed some of Pakatan's supporters who would like to see the country move past race-based political rhetoric and work quicker on reforms.

Economic reforms

While battling such challenges on the political front, Mahathir's government also found itself struggling to convince foreign investors to invest in the country. Many foreign investors have stayed away, with some questioning the government's ability to manage the country's finances.

Economists from consultancy Capital Economics said the government made a policy mistake by abolishing the Goods and Services Tax introduced by Najib. The GST was an unpopular policy among Malaysians as it was widely believed to contribute to higher cost of living in the country.

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"Scrapping the GST has led to a major deterioration in Malaysia's fiscal position," the economists wrote in a note.

Such concerns have led to Malaysian stocks being among the worst-performing in Asia this year, and government bonds at risk of being dropped from a major global index by index provider FTSE Russell.

Social media

For other analysts, the main problem is not that the new government cannot get things done, but its inability to steer public conversations in its favor.

"To me, the obvious thing I see is the Pakatan Harapan government is losing the narrative, losing control of the public discourse, especially on social media," said Azmil Tayeb, a social sciences lecturer from Universiti Sains Malaysia. "That is definitely something that has to be worked on."

That particular weakness has been exploited by former leader Najib, who frequently takes to social media to criticize the government. Analysts said Najib's popularity on social media has helped prolong his political career and has been crucial in the opposition's three recent by-election victories.

Some 'successes'

But not all is lost for Malaysia under the Mahathir administration. Control Risks' Cheng said the change in government has "generally been good" for the country. He explained that the ruling coalition has taken steps to improve the independence of several public institutions, including the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which would benefit the business climate.

"These are important institutional reforms that have been undertaken by Pakatan," said Cheng.

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"And they are definitely an improvement from the Najib era when power was centralized. Many of these agencies — meant to be independent and act as a check on executive power — were not allowed to function the way they were supposed to because they were subject to political influence," he added.

In addition, the government has done "reasonably well" in delivering promises outlined in its election manifesto, according to the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysia-based research firm. Some "successes" include plans to tackle corruption and the improvement already seen in "the transparency of the budget and the government's overall financial situation," the firm said.

Investment opportunities

The sell-off in Malaysian financial markets have also attracted some foreign investors to hunt for opportunities again.

Many private equity investors "seem to have moved from spending little time in the (Malaysian) market to it being a core focus, with the intention to spend more time there in the coming months," said Rohit Elhence, managing director and head of Southeast Asia at investment bank Rothschild and Co.

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"Part of the reason is a general increase in the number of potential opportunities. Another driver is the perception that the market may now offer greater relative value compared to other Southeast Asian markets," Elhence told CNBC.

Despite the plunge in the approval ratings of both Mahathir and the government, many Malaysians still appeared willing to give Pakatan Harapan time to find its footing as government, according to Merdeka Center. The research firm's latest survey found that 67% of voters agree that the government needs more time to lead and fulfill its election promises.

"Reforms will take time, reforms will take a couple of years," said Pua, the member of parliament.

"But we believe that the economy will turn around, we believe that once we get out fundamentals right again, once we get rid of the corrupt practices of the past ... over time the economy will only get better," he said.