By Joseph Sipalan
KUALALUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday vowed to boost the economy under a model of “shared prosperity” in a bid to stem criticism that his government had failed to deliver on promised reforms since taking power a year ago.
Mahathir also took aim at the previous government for saddling the country with sky-high debt and mining communal issues for political gain.
Mahathir, 93, defied expectations on May 9, 2018, when he led his coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) to a stunning win over the coalition led by Najib Razak, which had ruled Malaysia since the country’s independence more than 60 years earlier.
But early optimism has quickly faded, with opinion polls showing widespread disappointment over the government’s failures to fulfil campaign promises, address rising living costs and protect the rights of majority ethnic Malay Muslims.
Mahathir, speaking to the nation on the anniversary of his coalition’s election victory, said many proposed development plans had been hampered due to depleted government coffers.
“We realise there are many people who are unsatisfied and have accused the government of failing to fulfil several promises in our manifesto,” he said.
“But our priorities changed when we found the damage left behind was too severe and there was a need for us to tackle that first.”
Mahathir has blamed the Najib administration for taking government debt to more than 1 trillion ringgit (186 billion pounds), including that of scandal-plagued state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which is under investigation for suspected corruption in at least six countries.
On Tuesday, Malaysia said it had recovered $322 million (248 million pounds) from the sale of 1MDB-linked assets seized by countries around the globe.
Mahathir said the government has also managed to save 22.8 billion ringgit after renegotiating expensive infrastructure contracts approved by Najib and cracking down on state corruption.
Announcing the “shared prosperity” economic model, Mahathir said the government planned to raise living standards, increase purchasing power and reduce wealth disparities along class and ethnic lines.
“The aim of shared prosperity is to provide a decent standard of living to all Malaysians,” he said.
Mahathir accused political opponents of mining racial and religious issues in a bid to distract from the alleged corruption of the previous administration.
“Even though their wrongdoing has been exposed, Najib and his supporters are still disputing the accounts of their abuses, graft and deception.
“After failing to prove their truth, they switched to attacking the government saying PH had failed to uphold Islam and the constitution.”
In recent months, the government has been forced to reverse plans to ratify two U.N. human rights treaties, following a backlash from Malay groups who fear they may undermine their rights and privileges.
Race is a sensitive issue for the Southeast Asian country in which Malays make up about 60 percent of its 32 million people. The rest is comprised mostly of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians.
(Writing by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Nick Macfie)