It was a moment long awaited, indeed prayed for, though few believed it would happen. The odds were stacked against it, with a compliant election commission, constituencies gerrymandered beyond recognition, political opponents jailed or otherwise silenced, the media muzzled and bonuses, gratuities and grants doled out right, left and centre in the last three years whether you wanted it or not. It required nothing less than a miracle to turn the tide. In a most unlikely turn the miracle did happen; it was the Malaysian voter.
As a result Najib Tun Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition went down to the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, defeated by the weight of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the worst scandal in Malaysian history, and assorted other missteps. Nothing could shake off the odium that clung to the Prime Minister and his regime from what is described as the wholesale loot of up to $11 billion in public funds.
May 9 is a day every Malaysian present in the country (or not) will remember. Voters showed the door to Southeast Asia’s oldest ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), an alliance of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and seven other smaller parties. In the process, they also shattered the communal consensus so zealously cultivated over four decades by BN.
The old alliance grouped Malay, Chinese and Indian parties in their separate realms as representing their community. While constituencies were not exclusive to a particular community (or race) the number of seats at the federal and state levels was roughly proportional to each community’s strength in the population. It was a calculation that seemed both reasonable and designed to promote stability even if there was a flavour of apartheid about it. But it had been accepted over the years and become part of the political landscape, a bit like vote bank politics in India. Over the years it was taken for granted by virtually everyone that voters would accept no other arrangement.
In the 1990s, the heyday of this model, anyone who said they supported the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) was greeted with a sigh, or worse, pityingly dismissed as an idealist. Most reasonable people agreed that it was a good party with a committed leadership but DAP would never cut it in an environment where Malay nativism was encouraged, either by the bread-and-jam Bumiputera Umno variety or the Islamist version promoted by Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS). In any case few people wanted to rock the boat when it was sailing so splendidly in the economic boom of the decade.
Malaysia was one of the tiger economies of Southeast Asia, picking up the baton from South Korea which had graduated to a higher level. The country was awash with foreign investment, in the throes of a vast infrastructure expansion that created tens of thousands of jobs in every sector and put money in everyone’s pockets. It was economic opportunity on steroids and everyone was too busy smelling the money to catch the reek of political and institutional rot.
n October 27, 1987, the Malaysian police launched Operasi Lalang (Operation remove the weeds), a major crackdown ostensibly to prevent the recurrence of racial riots on the pattern of May 13, 1969, an event that haunts Malaysians even today. The operation led to the arrest of 106 persons—artists, opposition and ruling party politicians, intellectuals, NGO activists, scientists and students under the Internal Security Act. Under ISA they could be detained without trial, denied habeas corpus, in short due process was cut out altogether. In addition, the operation jerked the publishing licences of two major dailies, The Star (English) and Sin Chew Jit Poh (Chinese) and two weeklies, The Sunday Star (English) and Watan (Malay) citing the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984.
The architect of the crackdown was Prime Minister (then) Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, caught in a defining battle for his political life with Umno virtually split into so-called Team A (Mahathir) and Team B (those against). There were other irritants as well, over religious conversions and education, ethnically sensitive issues. The reason he gave for the operation was that racial tensions had reached dangerous levels and both the arrests and newspaper shutdowns were necessary to cool things down. But it is worth noting that the Umno politicians arrested were all part of Team B, while the others had been severely critical of his actions. Moreover, it is not clear even today if there was potential for anything on the scale of the racial riots of May 13, 1969 that left more than 200 people dead.
The net result was that the federal government became a veritable ministry of fear, with a penchant for arbitrary action and liberal use of its powers of detention without charge. No one was certain what was next on its agenda and the press was discouraged even from offering contradictory opinion. But there was more to come in the form of what came to be known as the 1988 Judicial Crisis. In the years leading up to the crisis the judiciary had shown an increasing independence of the other arms of government. But 1988 was the year when it came to an end with the removal of the Lord President of the Supreme Court Tun Salleh Abbas and five other judges, and amendments to the constitution that relegated the judiciary to a subordinate status.
The provocation was the hangover of the Umno crisis, the detentions without trial of Operation Lalang and the expulsions of foreign journalists. In each instance, the court rulings affected either the executive or Mahathir’s faction of Umno. In January this year, he denied any responsibility for the sacking of Salleh Abbas, insisting that he was under orders from the then king. But it is also true that the court rulings of that time directly affected him as party leader or as Prime Minister.
Mahathir’s 22 years in power (1981-2003) were notable for the increase in national prosperity but also for the increasing infantilisation of the political set-up. Politicians tended to talk down to the voter, like a primary school teacher addressing a particularly dull pupil. After 1988 the opposition was greatly weakened, with the exceptions of Sabah and Kelantan. In the latter, the Islamist PAS defied the prevailing trend. The price the two states paid was heavy. Every BN coalition leader seemed to be reciting from a pre-arranged script, which the press dutifully reported. Dissent and disagreement were absent from the story except as perversions of the natural order.
ut that is so much history now; to a lot of Malaysians it would be like a surreal idyll, given the turmoil that followed the economic crisis of 1998, the revolt of Mahathir’s deputy Anwar Ibrahim and his arrest, trial and conviction for sodomy in a perversion of justice equalled only by his second sodomy conviction by the Najib administration. But that turmoil did make 2018 possible, with all its promise and perils.
In the last 15 years the pendulum has swung decisively away from the ruling coalition. The high point for it was the 2003 general election, when Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, oversaw a return for BN of nearly 64 per cent of the vote at 4.5 million, and an astounding 90 per cent of the seats, 198 out of 219. Umno alone took 35 per cent of the vote and 109 seats. The other major components, MCA and MIC, also had highly satisfactory outcomes, with MCA polling over a million votes (31 seats) and MIC 220,000 and 9 seats.
2008 was the first warning of the reckoning to come as BN lost 58 seats and, for the first time, took less than two-thirds of the seats (140 of 222). While BN held its own in terms of votes (2.49 million in 2003, 2.38 million in 2008) it lost 30 seats (down to 79 from 109). But MCA dropped nearly 250,000 votes and MIC too lost substantial support. Both saw a dramatic reduction in seats with MCA down from 31 to 15 and MIC down from 9 to 3. The real story, however, was the breakout of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance, which more than doubled its share from 1.67 million votes to 3.76 million. The seat tally rose to 82. For the first time in a long time there was a real opposition and the ruling alliance was left licking its wounds. The result led to the resignation of Abdullah Badawi, replaced in 2009 by Najib.
BN’s attempts to recalibrate strategy have not helped. The needle continues to swing away. In 2018 BN was simply eclipsed by the opposition. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this result as this time the victorious Pakatan Harapan was without PAS and still managed to take nearly 46 per cent of the vote, decisively outpolling the ruling combine. If we include the PAS component the total comes to about 63 per cent of the vote. So BN is in all sorts of trouble even if Umno managed to hang on to its core vote (2-2.5 million votes).
Even that is cold comfort today. Umno’s seat losses are grievous enough but it must be having nightmares over the breaching of two hitherto impregnable strongholds, Johor and Najib’s home state Pahang. In Johor state, for the first time ever, BN will sit in the opposition. In the race for Parliament it kept just eight seats, conceding 18 to PKR. In Pahang it held on, with nine out of 15 Parliament seats and retained the state. But the electoral map shows the extent of the disaster. BN holds just two state governments on the peninsula, Pahang and Perlis. The richest states, Selangor, Penang, Johor and Perak all have either DAP or PKR regimes. The navy blue of BN is in retreat everywhere.
Between the 2013 and 2018 elections BN lost over 1.2 million votes in the parliamentary contest. Umno was the big loser, down to 2.48 million from its spectacular showing five years ago. This is the main reason for BN’s slide and it tells a simple tale. The 2013 election, with Najib at the head of BN, was highly polarised (84.4 per cent turnout) and saw a communal consolidation that raised Umno’s share from 2.38 million votes in 2008 to 3.52 million. Though the opposition alliance still outpolled BN it couldn’t match the seat tally.
t that time, however, there was no 1MDB scandal in all its global iterations and billions of dollars stolen or misused, or mysterious and massive cash flows through Najib’s private bank account, nor was Anwar in jail on charges that few people believed to be true. So 1MDB and the sodomy trial gave Malaysians a clear view of the pervasive rot in the system as Najib’s government mounted a desperate cover-up with a brutal crackdown on the media, and bent the law and key institutions to its illegitimate purposes.
His explanation that the money came from a Saudi benefactor, and had been mostly returned, sounded feeble even to close supporters. The central bank’s attempts to trace the transaction was aborted and led to the resignation of its governor, Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, one of the region’s most respected bankers. Then the attorney-general was sacked and replaced by a more pliable figure. By now even the most naïve had begun to suspect that Najib personally and his government by extension were involved in a criminal cover-up of a kind that no one had known.
There was another consequence to the stink that surrounded 1MDB, Mahathir’s decision last year to leave Umno and join PH. To a lot of Umno supporters it signalled that the issue was central to the crisis in which BN was embroiled. His Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia took nearly 700,000 votes. Pas raised its tally from 1.63 million to over 2 million votes. As the Malay vote fractured, so did BN.
This desertion has little to do with race. It could be put down to a widely perceived dereliction of duty by the rulers, which the electorate punished severely. A fifth of BN’s supporters in 2013 did not turn up this time, the vast majority being Umno voters. It suggests that performance is vital and puts all governments, state and federal, on notice. The swing may not be so dramatic next time but if there are no “special circumstances” anti-incumbency will be a powerful factor.
The numbers tell an interesting story but this result was always about emotion. Would enough people agree that it was necessary to vote for the opposition? In the event, they did, and they went out of their ethnically circumscribed comfort zone, Malays, Chinese and Indians, to vote for an alliance in which two parties consciously do not identify by race. This may be the first election where ethnic identity was not the deciding factor.
But 2018 is merely the most dramatic manifestation of a trend that first surfaced in 2008 and has got stronger. While 2013 saw a Malay consolidation in Umno’s favour, DAP and PKR also vastly expanded their electoral reach. They improved further in 2018, and there was a sharp contraction in the Umno vote, leading to the results we see.
It is a development that spells trouble for the smaller ethnicities. For instance, between 2004 and now MIC has lost about 20 per cent of its vote and seems to be in a state of irreversible decline. Malaysian Indians have since 2008 been the leaders in rejecting the identity voting that is BN’s ruling philosophy, moving in numbers to DAP and PKR. For the Chinese-dominated MCA 2018 has been nothing short of catastrophic. It has a single representative in Parliament, compared to 31 in 2004 and just seven in the states, from 78 in 2004. These two parties are at the crossroads and have to decide on a credible approach to repair their sinking fortunes. At least one media report said MCA was thinking of opening up to other races in an attempt to improve its electoral chances.
he 2018 election, more than anything else, is a massive leap of faith by the Malaysian voter. It gives meaning to Anwar Ibrahim’s idea of “creative destruction” because what the world saw on May 9 was a social revolution without a single shot fired. Much is being made of Mahathir’s presence in PH and it was undoubtedly a major catalyst but this victory belongs to Anwar Ibrahim and to Lim Kit Siang and the DAP. It was Lim, his deputy the late Karpal Singh, and their DAP colleagues who fought the long defeat from 1988; it was Anwar who rebelled against his mentor, Mahathir, in 1998 and was convicted of sodomy in highly dubious circumstances.
For Lim and his colleagues it was always about an open society and rule of law against the arbitrary whimsy and nativism that increasingly characterised Mahathir’s rule. Anwar too called for reformasi, though he did not get a chance to spell out the shape of that reform. He was too busy fighting for his life. Now he has the platform as well as the authority to spell it out in detail.
Perhaps the author of The Malay Dilemma could not have done otherwise but the society Mahathir left was perilously close to apartheid. At one point, the only difference between Umno and PAS seemed to be the latter’s insistence on the Sharia as law. A part of that bogey has been exorcised by the victory of DAP and PKR, especially after PAS walked out of the old alliance over irreconcilable differences. In hindsight it appears to have cleared the ground as both parties greatly improved their showing.
For the first time, BN and especially Umno face a political opponent whose differences are philosophical as well as political. Previously it could, any time it felt its hegemony was threatened, start harping on the “Malay struggle”, which it led, in order to bring its supporters to heel. But that was the previous generation. Younger Malays are less hung up on that struggle and in any case are far more confident of their abilities to manage in the new world. While community and religious solidarity have their place many of them may be willing to invest in PH’s vision of a Malaysia where Bumiputera identity is not an automatic passport to easy street.
It is important, however, not to get carried away by the new tide. Umno is still powerful, it has a large Malay support base and could if necessary play the Islam card, even ally with PAS in the “larger” interests of the community. This election has dissolved some of the oldest shibboleths and opened the way for the future. At the same time it has also injected massive uncertainty in the ways that future might play out. But for the first time ever, this is a task for ordinary Malaysians. The mentors have proved unequal to the task, their air of wisdom a plain fraud. It is a good time to be Malaysian. The years ahead will, as the Chinese put it, be interesting.
For the moment, at any rate, change is the new mantra. Mahathir’s announcement of DAP’s Lim Guan Eng as finance minister created a stir as he is the first Malaysian Chinese in 44 years to get such a key portfolio. Gobind Singh Deo is the country’s first Sikh to join the Cabinet and the government’s council of mentors includes the famously combative Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a fierce Mahathir critic and the billionaire Robert Kuok, no fan of Mahathir either. These are the smaller eddies in the current. The big thing is that the 1MDB prosecution is running at full steam ahead.
There are two immediate tests for the government; the first of these is to remove existing curbs on the media and pass legislation to ensure press freedoms cannot be curtailed by any regime in the future. The second is orderly prosecution of 1MDB offenders without a whisper of complaint about revenge. The only factor that ought to count in indictments, prosecution and/or conviction is the weight of evidence. It would send the signal that only offenders should fear the wrath of the law and also that no one is above it. That would be the first step in restoring the status of a judiciary whose credibility is at an all-time low.
The bigger task of restoring the integrity of key institutions such as the police and other enforcement agencies, the election commission and the central bank—severely damaged by years of partisan operation—will take a longer time and many more elections, but the way is clear. It requires deep-seated change that comes from the heart, the kind, ironically, that Prime Minister (now) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seems to have undergone.
A few days after the results were announced a man was arrested for a Facebook post allegedly criticising the good doctor and Islam as well, for good measure. This was how the Prime Minister reacted on Twitter: “I do not agree with the actions taken on those who have criticised me. I have informed the police about this. This law will be reviewed when parliament convenes later.” Anyone acquainted with the old doctor would ask if this really was the same man. If Mahathir has changed this much, perhaps Malaysians can do the same.