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The revolving door in Malaysian politics is worrisome.

The country has had three prime ministers in three years. More troubling still is the return, in the last spin, of the old guard — the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — in the person of Ismail Sabri Yaakob, sworn in as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister last weekend.

UMNO lost power after six decades in office when a multibillion-dollar scandal ensnared its leading figures, including Prime Minister Najib Razak. The return of UMNO without the endorsement of voters is a cynical and disillusioning moment for Malaysia. Overturning the verdict of the voters in a democracy is always dangerous.

UMNO was forced from office in 2018, after ruling Malaysia since the country won its independence in 1957. The party had virtually institutionalized its rule on the back of a Malay nationalism that provided economic protection for the 56% of the population that identified as Malay. As is so often the case, the party ossified and was widely viewed as captured by vested interests, if not corrupt.

Voters’ threshold for tolerance was breached in 2018 when Najib was accused of involvement in a scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, a state fund. Some $4.5 billion is alleged to have been embezzled and spent, not on political favors but reportedly on yachts, jewelry and abstract paintings. Najib was convicted in 2020 on charges of financial misconduct and abuse of power, although he maintains his innocence as he appeals the verdicts.

In a weird twist, the 2018 election resulted in the return to power of Mahathir Mohamad, who had served as prime minister from 1981-2003 as head of UMNO, but who joined the opposition in dismay and disgust over his former party’s evolution. Tensions within that coalition resulted in its collapse in just under two years, and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, became prime minister with support from UMNO.

UMNO then pulled the rug out from under Muhyidden, prompting his resignation earlier this month rather than face a vote of no confidence. Ismail Sabri replaced him, and he now holds a razor-thin majority of four seats in the 220-seat Lower House of Parliament.

The new prime minister is a lawyer by education and has held several Cabinet posts since becoming youth and sports minister in 2008. He was defense minister for Muhyidden, a position that allowed him to become the face of the government as he provided daily briefings on security dimensions of the pandemic. He was appointed deputy prime minister in early July in a bid to ease mounting tensions with UMNO.

While considered clean by many voters, the return of the old guard without the public being given an opportunity to weigh in has angered many Malaysians. Social media has provided ample opportunities for protest — as an online petition against his appointment collected 360,000 signatures in just three days.

Ismail Sabri faces two pressing tasks, ones that will be familiar to every regional government: getting COVID-19 under control and restarting an economy that has faltered because of the pandemic. Malaysia has one of Southeast Asia’s highest vaccination rates — at 35% — but daily infections topped 23,000 for the first time last week, and total cases now exceed 1.4 million with over 13,000 deaths.

Official estimates of growth in 2021 have fallen to 3.0% to 4.0%, from a previous range of 6.0% to 7.5%, after the economy contracted 5.6% last year. That is unimpressive but it is likely the best to be hoped for during a pandemic that has forced restrictions on movement and while the country is experiencing political uncertainty.

Ismail Sabri is trying to broaden his base, inviting the opposition to join a group advising the government on ways to restart the economy and another to fight COVID-19. With bread and butter issues dominating voters’ concerns, most observers expect the new government to remain in power until elections scheduled for next year.

Japan has a stake in Malaysia’s future. When he was prime minister, Mahathir’s “Look East” policy, launched in 1982, used Japan as a guide for its development. Japan reciprocated by investing substantially in the country: There are some 1,500 Japanese companies in Malaysia that have created 340,000 jobs in manufacturing alone. Japan is the country’s second largest source of cumulative investment in the manufacturing sector and was the top investor in 2019.

Human capital has been built up as well. About 27,000 Malaysians have studied in Japan since the “Look East” policy was launched.

Malaysia is also an important security partner. Malaysian governments have been zealous defenders of national sovereignty and the principle of noninterference that guides relations in Southeast Asia, not only among states in the region but those that seek to engage them. Japan has provided substantial assistance for maritime law enforcement capacity building. Malaysia has been a refueling stop for Maritime Self-Defense Forces engaged in counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.

The Southeast Asian nation takes nonalignment seriously, chiding U.S. governments for overbearing behavior and criticizing China when it goes too far as well. Chinese military aircraft have flown 100 km from Malaysian claimed territory in the South China Sea and its coast guard vessels have harassed Malaysian oil and gas projects in the South China Sea off Sarawak state on Borneo Island.

Recent exercises reinforced the message that it is prepared to use force to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, despite its dispute with China. In another signal, Malaysia also recently participated in the annual multilateral Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise with the United States and 20 other countries.

The events in Malaysia subtly, but unmistakably, contribute to the erosion of democracy in Southeast Asia. Politicians and parties have maneuvered behind the scenes since Mahathir returned to power to frustrate the will of Malaysian voters. Those acts were not brutal like the coups in Myanmar and Thailand but threaten to be no less corrosive. The return of Malaysia’s old guard must be validated by voters in an election — and soon.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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