Santhi Krishnamoorthy was ecstatic. Some of her favourite Indian playback singers would be performing in her hometown of Penang, Malaysia: Naresh Iyer and Andrea Jeremiah would be there; so would Sunitha Sarathy and director-singer Venkat Prabhu.

A great opportunity to see them in the flesh, she thought as she Facebooked relatives and friends about the concert to be held at the Queens Bay Mall car park on May 4, the eve of Malaysia’s 13th general election. She had heard from friends that it was being organised by or for the Barisan Nasional, or National Front (BN), the ruling coalition, although the organisers had said it had nothing to do with politics. She was suspicious as such a major concert should have been announced much earlier.

Penang Indians began hearing of it only a few days earlier and the newspapers carried it only on May 3. Could it have to do with the massive ceramah (political rallies) planned for May 4 by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Alliance (PR), which was working to unseat the BN, the coalition that has ruled the country without interruption since independence?

Similar concerts were being held in different parts of the Penang island to attract the Chinese and Malays. She suspected they were timed to draw people away from the PR ceramah.

But Santhi was not overly concerned about the “why” of the concert; her favourite singers were coming. That was enough. She knew the concert would have no bearing on her vote: for PR.

Santhi wanted change. She felt BN had been in power for so long that it had lost touch with ordinary Malaysians. Her sentiments were expressed on Facebook. She didn’t care if the people in power knew. She felt, as a citizen, she had a right to voice her opinion and vote for any party she liked. And she liked PR because it promised a more inclusive Malaysia.

Santhi is one of the faces of a new Malaysia: ordinary people who are no longer afraid to voice their opinions. More importantly, they are not afraid to stand up to the government and its institutions in demanding their rights. Not too long ago, it was so different. The story of the last two elections is the story of that difference and how it came about.

For decades, ordinary Malaysians had accepted whatever the government—until 2008 it had taken more than two-thirds of the seats—did. Many were unhappy with the policies of the BN and the arrogance of those in power, particularly in the 22 years when Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister. He ruled with a firm, or iron, hand depending on whether you speak to his admirers or critics. He did not tolerate dissent and cleverly and quietly bent most institutions into subservience.

He was not averse to using draconian laws to punish those who “fomented trouble”. It was no coincidence that these were often also his political opponents. But despite growing corruption and allegations of cronyism, he ensured peace and economic growth, which, on balance, seemed not too bad a deal, particularly to a generation that had gone through the hardships of the Second World War, the tribulations of a communist insurgency and a declaration of emergency just before independence, and the May 13, 1969 racial riots which left a deep scar.

No Malaysian wanted a repeat, and Mahathir’s “benevolent authoritarian” ways helped keep a lid on this, or so most people were led to believe.

Critics claim the reforms don’t go far enough or that their implementation goes against the grain of the intention behind the amendments and new legislation. For instance the administration still targets those who speak up against it, such as the non-governmental organisation Suaram.

Only when Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as prime minister in 2003 did the nation see a loosening of controls, especially on the media. Although he did not repeal the laws that strangled civil liberties, he appeared reluctant to use them. This was also the period when people discovered the power of the Internet. Malaysians took to blogging in droves to ventilate their thoughts.

But there were no structural changes to address long-standing grouses, including freedom to gather unhindered, practices favouring the Malay community (but mainly the connected Malays), and a lack of opportunity in higher education and government employment for non-Malays.

[ndians, particularly, felt the pain. Forming about eight per cent of the 28 million population, they increasingly felt alienated in the country they call home. At independence, they formed the core of the civil service and were found in large numbers in departments dealing with railways, telecommunications, electricity, education, and public works. Many were in senior positions.

After Mahathir, who is part Indian, became prime minister in 1981, the number of Indians in the civil service was slowly whittled down. By 2005, Malays made up 77.04 per cent of the 899,250 civil servants, with Chinese making up 9.37 per cent, other Bumiputras (or indigenous people) 7.77 per cent, Indians 5.12 per cent, and other races 0.7 per cent.

Between 2003 and 2007, there were at least 85 deaths in police lock-ups, many of them Indians. Between February 2006 and June 2007, at least 70 Hindu temples and shrines were reported to have been demolished in various parts of the country. Several temples which were ordered to be relocated to make way for development were offered alternative sites that were not appropriate, including one near a sewage pond.

These grievances gave birth to the Hindu Rights Action Force or Hindraf.

As anger against the government swelled, a Hindraf lawyer, on the 50th anniversary of independence—August 31, 2007—filed a class action suit against the British Government in London for $4 trillion for “withdrawing after granting independence and leaving us (Indians) unprotected and at the mercy of the majority Malay-Musim government that has violated our rights as minority Indians as guaranteed in the Federal Constitution when independence was granted.”

The suit also asked the Royal Courts of Justice to strike out an Article in the Constitution which Hindraf felt was being abused by the Malay leadership, and a declaration that Malaysia was a secular state and not a Muslim state as claimed by Mahathir.

Hindraf then collected 100,000 signatures to request Queen Elizabeth II to appoint a Queen’s Counsel to argue their case, as they could not afford the money. On Nov 25, 2007, Hindraf organised a rally to walk to the British Embassy and hand over the petition.

To prevent the rally from taking place, police placed roadblocks at many places leading to the embassy, and stopped buses from the states coming into the federal capital. All the same, tens of thousands of Indians—estimates put it at 30,000-50,000—congregated in Kuala Lumpur in the first popular uprising of the Indian community.

Police fired chemical-laced teargas and baton-charged at the protesters. Five leaders of Hindraf were arrested under the Internal Security Act and placed in detention for two years.

Even before this rally, however, groups of Malaysians were openly criticising the government. Several NGOs had come together in November 2006 to form the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, better known by its Malay handle of Bersih (clean).

Bersih, headed jointly by former bar council president Ambiga Sreenivasan and national laureate A. Samad Said, is pressing for electoral reform as the system favours the entrenchment of BN. Bersih feels the election commission is complicit in the manipulation of the system—through gerrymandering and by allowing “phantom voters” (bogus voters in Indian parlance). The EC vehemently denies the charge, saying it is independent.

Bersih organised a rally to protest the irregularities in the electoral system and to call for reform on Nov 10, 2007, just weeks before Hindraf. Tens of thousands turned up (Bersih said 30,000 while the authorities said 10,000) and police had used tear gas to disperse them.

There have also been groups calling for the repeal of the Internal Security Act of 1960 (Revised 1972)—which allows for detention without trial. It was promulgated to fight the communists but, over the years, used to detain political opponents, too. In 2005, the government revealed that 10,662 people had been detained under ISA over the years.

Anti-ISA activists and families of those in detention bravely faced police action while holding candlelight vigils over the years.

In short, over the years, the BN government kept alienating more and more people. As action was usually taken against certain interest groups and opposition politicians, the general populace, slumbering in its comfort zone, did not raise a ruckus.

But the use of force at the Bersih and Hindraf rallies led to general outrage. Many people took part in these rallies and knew that all they had done was to march and make a point; they had not done anything that justified tear gas or police baton charges.

This outrage found substantial voice on the Internet. Online portals were providing information that the government-controlled media tried to suppress or spin. Now, people got the other side of the story as well. The government monopoly on the creation and dissemination of news had vanished, with profound consequences for its credibility.

To this development add the power of social media. Facebook, especially, allowed users to share not only information and experience, but also to upload pictures and links to video clips. During the 2007, and especially subsequent Bersih rallies (it has held three so far), Facebook users were chatting about preparations, where to meet, how to avoid police blocks, and how to reduce the effects of tear gas.

The effects were dramatic. For perhaps the first time, people saw the way the government actually handled the Bersih and Hindraf rallies, and other gatherings, to suppress dissent. The opposition rode on this disenchantment.

When Abdullah Badawi called for elections on March 8, 2008, it fed into a perfect storm of the disenchanted. They marched in lockstep to the polling booths, much like the Israelites when they brought down the walls of Jericho. Disgruntled Indians, Chinese and Malays who felt only cronies were benefiting; those against the ISA; those against unfair practices and perceived religious persecution; and those suffering under the weight of rising food prices expressed their frustration in a vote for a strong opposition that nearly brought the house of BN down.

The alliance won 140 of the 222 parliamentary seats, short of a two-thirds majority for the first time since 1969. That meant it could not tinker with the Constitution or consider gerrymandering. It also lost five states to the opposition (but got one back when three opposition lawmakers defected to the BN within a year).

The following year, Abdullah was forced out by a mutiny in his own party, the United Malays National Organisation, linchpin of the BN. Najib Razak, his deputy, assumed command.

British-educated Najib quickly promised reforms. He abolished the ISA in 2012 and introduced its replacement, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 or Sosma, annulled the Emergency proclamation and repealed the Banishment Act 1959 and the Restricted Residence Act 1933.

Under the ISA a person can be detained for up to 60 days without trial and access to legal counsel if the authorities suspect that “he has acted or is about to act or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia or any part thereof or to maintenance of essential services therein or to the economic life thereof”. After 60 days, the minister of home affairs can release him or extend the period of detention without trial for up to two years. The detention order can be renewed every two years at the discretion of the minister.

He later amended the Printing Presses and Publications Act, doing away with the need for annual publishing permits and introduced the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011 to allow for, and manage, public protests. Najib also promised to repeal the Sedition Act 1948 to offer, in his words, “a better right to freedom of speech and expression”. But this has yet to be done.

Critics claim the reforms don’t go far enough or that their implementation goes against the grain of the intention behind the amendments and new legislation. For instance the administration still targets those who speak up against it, such as the non-governmental organisation Suaram.

After the Peaceful Assembly Act came into force, the administration used it to charge opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and several others for participating in the Bersih 3.0 rally of April 2012. Suhakam, the country’s Human Rights Commission, in its report into police handling of Bersih 3.0, which was released last month, said that police had used disproportionate force and that there were incidents of misconduct against participants.

May 5 came and went, a quiet revolution that was devastating for the ruling coalition. BN won 133 of the 222 seats, the opposition gaining seven more than in 2008. But it managed to wrest back one state—Kedah—from the opposition. In Terengganu and Perak states, the BN holds power by the slenderest of margins—two and three seats more than its rival, respectively.

Given the advantages of incumbency and Najib’s reforms, given an electoral system that favours the BN, given that the government raised salaries of the 1.2 million civil servants and gave cash handouts to the “deserving” just before the elections; given that the administration spent RM57.7 billion from the time Najib took office to last month (estimated by Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University and a Malaysia watcher); given that BN-friendly mainstream media assailed the opposition at every opportunity and heaped praise on Najib; given that the BN allegedly used some instruments of government to secure votes; given that BN-friendly groups gave free dinners, concerts, and even cash or coupons that could be redeemed for cash—the government should have won hands down.

But it did not. In fact it lost a further seven seats to PR (which has 89) and was outpolled for the first time. The opposition got 5.62 million votes (50. 9 per cent) against BN’s 5.23 million (47.4 per cent). That means it was not just the disenchanted—those who felt left out or felt there was too much corruption or cronyism or felt their rights had been trampled upon—who voted for the opposition. Indeed, PR supporters are the majority now.

The BN was thus brushed off also by those who felt their government should be transparent, accountable and inclusive; that it should include them in its decision-making and not assume it knows best; that people should be allowed more space; that civil liberties should be respected.

This is the result of a new, mainly urban, demographic. About 70 per cent of Malaysians live in urban and semi-urban areas and have sufficient education to aspire after democracy and human rights. This is the turf of the burgeoning middle-class, and it is, therefore, not surprising that most of the urban seats were carried by PR.

Urban voters, by knocking off independent candidates and the smaller parties that contested the election, showed they want a two-party system, a message first delivered in 2008.

One could also read into the verdict the intention of Malaysian voters to have a strong opposition. They do not want to give the ruling government a two-thirds majority as it would be open to abuse. They want checks and balances, and a strong opposition to keep an eye on the government. The danger, of course, is that both sides will be so busy politicking that governance will suffer.

That a record 84.8 per cent of the 13.26 million voters turned up to vote speaks volumes for the greater awareness of citizens. First-time voters, mostly the young, who constitute 2.3 million of the registered voters, indubitably played a significant role in the results.

Some older voters were persuaded to vote for the opposition by their children or grandchildren. Take the case of Mohd Shukri Abdullah, studying in Kuala Lumpur. He telephoned his parents in Sungai Petani, Kedah, to vote for the opposition.

Consider the case of T Arumuga of Kuala Lumpur. His grandmother, who stays with his uncle in Kuala Lumpur, is a registered voter in Ipoh, Perak. As he is also registered in Ipoh, his hometown, he drove her down to Ipoh on May 5 to cast her vote. No prize for guessing which party got her vote.

Coincidentally, both the Sungai Petani and Ipoh Barat parliamentary seats were retained by the PR.

Arumuga said many people were unhappy that the BN was still looking at everything with racial glasses. Shukri said young people wanted to be seen as Malaysians, not as Malay or Chinese or Indian or Kadazandusun. Nauseated by the misinformation and spin in the mainstream media, they are hoping for a change. Shukri said all they want to see is fair and balanced reporting. They want to be able to gather and voice their opinions without fear of police action; they do not want to be told that they should be grateful to the government each time they criticise some policy or other; they do not want to be reminded of the May 13 clashes, as BN leaders to do when they are in panic mode.

Shukri and Arumuga are the new faces of Malaysia. They don’t carry the baggage of the communist insurgency or the May 13 riots. These are events in the history books. They don’t owe BN anything either. It is the duty of any government to take care of their interests and allow them space to express their views and to compete on a level playing field. And if the government is in the way, well, they will vote for those who will listen to them.

They don’t think like S V Rao of Penang who has always voted BN because he feels it has been able to keep the peace; he does not want to have to go through another May 13.

Rao, however, was not happy with some of the things the BN did this time. “Groups associated with them were throwing money everywhere, free dinners, cash vouchers, and nightly dinners for about a week before May 5. Free beer was available, too. People enjoyed what was dished out but they were upset that BN or BN-friendly groups thought their vote could be bought with a dinner or two.

“Can you imagine throwing concerts when people are more concerned about issues of governance? First, the BN brought in Korean pop sensation Psy for a dinner attended by Najib. Then they held these concerts on the eve of elections. While the BN was busy entertaining voters, PR was serious, having ceramah where its leaders explained issues and listed promises,” said a disappointed Rao.

But Santhi didn’t mind the concert, except that her favourites—Naresh Iyer and Andrea Jeremiah—did not turn up. She felt cheated. She wondered if the organisers had lied to get a bigger crowd. That made her even more determined to vote for a change the following day, helping PR to a massive win in Penang. It won 30 of the 40 state seats to retain the state. Two BN candidates even lost their deposits, something that has never happened before. PR had 66 per cent of the popular vote here.

Santhi is happy with the Penang government because it has, so far, shown that its policies and programmes are race blind. It also passed the Freedom of Information Enactment.

Looking forward to further expansions on freedoms, she hopes both BN and PR will work to improve civil liberties so that she and her children can live in a truly open society. If they don’t, she knows what to do in the next general election, five years down the line.