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Malaysia gets ready to ride out the storm

Malaysia’s hopes of political and economic reform proved short-lived. The appointment of a new prime minister means the discredited political party UMNO is back in the driving seat.

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Malaysia has squandered the chance for genuine reform and appears to be heading back to the future, politically and economically. No wonder the fourth-largest economy in southeast Asia has endured a decade of missed opportunities.

The appointment of Ismail Sabri Yaakob as prime minister – the fourth in a mere 40 months – in the middle of August means that his United Malays National Organization (or UMNO) party, which was discredited because of high-level corruption and eventually ousted in 2018, is now back in power.

What does this augur for Malaysia, particularly at a time when it is struggling to cope with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic?

An ill-timed increase in corruption and government dysfunction, warns Alex Holmes, emerging-Asia specialist at Capital Economics.

“Having an unreformed UMNO back at the centre of power hardly bodes well for the future”, he says.

For Malaysia, adds analyst Adib Zalkapli at Bower Group Asia, “it’s basically the status quo”. It’s also a bad look, Adib notes, that the political empire that “engineered the collapse of the previous government” is “reaping the rewards” by returning to power.