By Andrew Lim
The 14th Malaysian general election (GE14), held on 9 May 2018, will be long remembered as an important date in Malaysian history. For the first time in the country’s 61-year history, the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN; National Front) lost its majority in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives), the Malaysian Parliament’s lower house. In what some media have described as the “Malaysian Tsunami of 2018”, the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH; Alliance of Hope) and the allied Party Warisan Sabah (Sabah Heritage Party) led by veteran former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed defeated the embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose administration has been plagued by allegations of corruption and mismanagement. In addition, Pakatan Harapan captured eight of thirteen state assemblies in the urbanized peninsular states of Selangor, Johor, and Penang, and the easternmost Bornean state of Sabah. The new government has many serious challenges ahead of it, but signals indicate that they may be up to the task: only time will tell.
The 2018 Malaysian general election marked the triumph of a coalition of liberal and left-leaning reformist parties advocating racial and religious equality and “corruption free” politics. Since 1957, BN – a coalition of conservative and centrist parties dominated by the Malay nationalist United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – had maintained its grip on power through a combination of racially divisive politics, gerrymandering, and pork-barrel populism; with their tenure being extended by an entrenched culture of patronage and corruption.
To understand the significance of GE14, it is important to understand the important role of race in Malaysian politics and society. Since 1970, the Malaysian Government has practised affirmative action policies favouring the indigenous Bumiputera (or “Sons of the Earth”) – a demographic category that includes Malays, Ibans, Bidayuhs, Melanau, Kazadan-Dusuns, Bajau and the Orang Asli (“first peoples”). Affirmative action led to the introduction of racial quotas at universities, government departments, and private companies, which understandably created friction with the ethnic Indian and Chinese communities. In addition, non-Malay Bumiputera – particularly the largely Christianized and pagan Ibans, Kadazan-Dusuns, and the impoverished Orang Asli – often felt treated as second class Bumiputeras in comparison to the largely Muslim Malays. Even among the Malays, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the BN government’s patronage system, which has tended to favour those connected to UMNO.
The fall of Barisan Nasional
Prime Minister Najib had assumed office in March 2009 when his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had resigned after BN had lost its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat during the 2008 general election. Najib’s premiership had been plagued by several scandals such as the MH370 disaster, his alleged involvement in the 2006 murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Sharribuu, and the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. The 2013 general election, where Barisan Nasional won the majority of the seats but lost the popular vote, indicated growing disillusionment particularly among urban Malaysians. Rejecting calls to resign from inside and outside the ruling party, Najib held on to the reins of power for the next five years.
Opposition to Najib’s rule came from an unexpected source: his former mentor, Dr. Mahathir, who had previously served as both Prime Minister and President of UMNO between 1981 and 2003. Disillusioned with Najib’s leadership and corruption, Mahathir defected to Pakatan Harapan in November 2016. As Prime Minister, Mahathir has left a mixed legacy behind for Malaysia. While Mahathir raised the country’s economic development and international profile, his avowed Malay nationalist agenda, use of detention without trial to silence political opponents, the imprisonment of his charismatic deputy Anwar Ibrahim on trumped up sodomy charges, rejection of “Western-style human rights”, and anti-Semitic remarks generated much controversy at home and abroad. Despite his controversial past, Mahathir seems to have undergone a sort of “Damascus conversion” by embracing his former foes; the People’s Justice Party (PKR), one of the member parties of Pakatan Harapan, is led by Wan Azizah bin Ismail, the wife of his former political foe Anwar.
BN electoral countermeasures and news media access
The 2018 general election saw a no-holds barred effort by Barisan Nasional to stay in power at any cost. These measures took the form of redrawing electoral boundaries, passing a “Fake News” Bill, disqualifying opposition candidates, and the obstruction of voting by overseas voters, who tend to support Pakatan Harapan. During the election, Barisan Nasional campaigned on tinkering the status quo; focusing on issues such as female social mobility, housing, job creation, communications and transportation infrastructure, and raising the minimum wage. While those issues are relevant to contemporary Malaysia, BN’s brand lacked credibility since it was tainted by the 1MDB scandal and Najib’s unpopularity. By contrast, Pakatan Harapan campaigned on a bold program of reducing taxation, eliminating public sector corruption, spurring sustainable and equitable growth, granting greater autonomy to Sarawak and Sabah, and promoting a “more inclusive and moderate” Malaysia.
In addition, Barisan Nasional tried to harness their monopoly over much of the traditional print and broadcast media in Malaysia. For example, UMNO owns all four of the country’s free-to-air commercial television stations as well as its seven newspapers. The Malaysian Government has also used sedition and printing licence laws to curtail press freedom; giving Malaysia an abysmal 145 score on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. In 2015, the Government blocked the investigative journalistic website Sarawak Report for its coverage of the 1MDB affair.
Despite BN control over traditional media, the Malaysian public were able to turn to online news websites such as Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today. In addition, many Malaysians have access to foreign-based Internet and broadcast media such as Yahoo! News, CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. According to a 2017 study by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, 76.9% (24.5 million) of Malaysia’s population of 31 million have access to the Internet. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WeChat, Google, and WhatsApp are also widely used among Malaysians. Access to alternative media sources and the Internet have allowed Malaysian to circumvent the BN-dominated traditional media.
Malaysia is now at the crossroads of a new era. As the world’s oldest serving leader, the 92-year old Mahathir plans to hand the reins of power to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. The new Pakatan Harapan government faces many challenges including a crippling RM1 trillion (US$ 251 billion) national debt, eliminating racially discriminatory policies, and combating a long-standing culture of corruption. To its credit, Pakatan Harapan has taken steps to undo the previous government’s unpopular GST tax, investigate Najib and other high-ranking figures for corruption, and pardon Anwar of his sodomy conviction –the latter which many Malaysians believe were politically motivated. The appointment of Lim Guan Eng, a Malaysian Chinese and Secretary-General of the centre-left Democratic Action Party (a member of the PH coalition), as Finance Minister signals that the new Malaysian Government will represent all ethnic communities in Malaysia. Plans to re-introduce local council elections, which were suspended under the Local Government Act 1976, bodes well for democratisation.
Other worthwhile policies include ending race-based affirmative action policies in favour of a more equitable system that helps the poor of all races; ratifying the UN Refugee Convention; granting citizen to stateless and refugee communities such as Muslim Filipinos, Rohingya, and segments of the Malaysian Indian community; and introducing legislation to stop the practice of “waka jumping” or party hopping, as shown by recent events in Sabah; depoliticizing the civil service particularly the Election Commission; instituting electoral reform, and making the Dewan Negara (Senate) an elected body. Modelled after the UK House of Lords, the Malaysian Senate consists of 72 senators; two-thirds of whom are appointed by the King at the Prime Minister’s recommendation while the remainder are elected by the state assemblies.
Malaysia has abundant natural resources, a well-educated population, and a developed infrastructure. Good leadership is essential to exploiting these assets. Hopefully, the 2018 election will herald a new era of transparency, harmony, and democracy for Malaysia. Malaysia can, Malaysia boleh!
This article was originally published on Pacific Outlier: A Politics and International Relations Blog and was republished with permission.
Andrew Lim is a Ph.D. student in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.