Asia-Pacific

Mahathir win to reboot Australian ties

Relations between Australia and Malaysia are tipped to improve following Mahathir Mohamad's stunning election win, analysts say.

A stunning election victory by Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia will enable Australia to reboot relations with a sometimes testy neighbour and chart a course free of the corruption scandals which have dogged Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The 92-year-old Mahathir won what he described as the "dirtiest election" in his country's history.

Heavy gerrymandering amid accusations of dirty tricks had marred the election with the incumbent Najib widely expected to win despite widespread public anger over his scandal-plagued administration.

"The unexpected election of the four-party coalition headed by Mahathir provides an opportunity to reset bilateral relations with Australia," Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at The University of NSW, said on Thursday.

Mahathir, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, quit the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled for six decades since independence from Britain, and re-entered politics after Najib ignored calls to stand down.

He then joined the opposition four-party Pakatan Harapan alliance.

Importantly, Mahathir is expected to seek a pardon for jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and hand power to him once he is released in June, ending an acrimonious relationship that dates back decades and helped keep Najib in the top job.

Anwar, jailed for sodomy charges his supporters say were politically motivated, won the popular vote five years ago but failed to form government with the UMNO, lead party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, capitalising on gerrymandering.

Mahathir's relationship with Australia is also expected to improve.

Malaysia is Australia's 10th largest trading partner with two-way trade at about $A19 billion a year and around 3800 Australian companies currently exporting into the Southeast Asian country.

"Mahathir's past antipathy towards Canberra is now water under the bridge," Thayer said.

"Mahathir will be looking for international support and he will get it from the Coalition Government in Canberra."

Thayer said Australia's recent successful holding of the Australia-ASEAN summit, when Indonesia backed Australia's entry to the 10-member trading bloc, was a solid foundation for moving forward.

"Australia and Malaysia both oppose protectionism. There is also common ground on another front," he said, referring to accusations that Australia had given Malaysia a free pass on human rights in exchange for cooperation in halting refugee boats heading south.

"Mahathir's victory will ease problems on the human rights front and cooperation to stem refugee departures will continue," Thayer said.

Mahathir's view of Australia as a European outpost has also softened. He told Fairfax Media in March: "If they (Australians) understand the priorities of East Asia, then I think they are entitled to join ASEAN".

Of the corruption allegations, the state-owned investment fund One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), established by Najib, and its missing $A4.65 billion, remains prominent.

Investigations are still underway in half a dozen countries, including the US, Singapore, and in Europe. Thayer added: "The 1MDB scandal-ridden Najib government presented problems for Australia, now that is off the table."

Phil Robertson, spokesman for New York-based Human Rights Watch and critic of Australia's refugee policies and relationship with Malaysia, welcomed the result.

"Malaysian voters bucked a regional trend of increased repression by upsetting a sitting government that obviously got too comfortable in tolerating corruption and abusing the rights of those who objected," he said.

"The challenge to the leaders of the new government is ensuring an end to the arbitrary application of vague and abusive laws, and ensuring that "rule of law" respects human rights in the future."

A Malaysian-based analyst, who declined to be named, said Australia should be relieved with the result and that his country had emerged as one of the few bright spots in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"It's difficult for democratic countries to deal with countries that jail opposition leaders and crack down on free speech as we have seen in one form or another in Cambodia, Thailand, The Philippines and elsewhere.

"Mahathir's victory, and assuming Anwar does become the next prime minister, could position Malaysia as an important go-to country for an Australia seeking to improve its relationship with ASEAN," he said.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch