How ordinary Malaysians took power back

4 mins read

By Carol Pang

The polls closed at 5 p.m. on May 9, 2018. More than six hours had passed since the vote counting for the fourteenth Malaysian general election (GE14) began.  There was an uncanny stillness at the Election Commission; the release of official results had stopped after the first few handful. Simultaneously, social media was ablaze as frantic speculations circulated.

Unofficial results from Malaysiakini, one of Malaysia’s few independent news outlets, had called the election. They had called it for the opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH). Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition, had lost. The result, if true, would bring forth a new era in the country, but 61 years of same-coalition rule cast a long shadow and everyone was wary. The memories of May 13, 1969 hung unspoken, particularly over the older generation who had lived through the riots that erupted in the aftermath of the 1969 general election when the Alliance Party (of which BN is the successor coalition) lost ground to opposition parties. The riots, Malaysia’s bloodiest, claimed 200 lives according to official figures, but estimates of the death toll by other observers were much higher.

BN’s power position started to tremble some ten years ago. In 2008, BN failed to amass a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time since 1969. In 2013, BN retained power despite losing the popular vote. Leading up to GE14, the then-prime minister Najib Razak, deeply unpopular and plagued by alleged corruption scandals, forced through a number of controversial measures with the help of subservient institutions. The Election Commission, for instance, undertook re-delineation exercises which resulted in accusations of large-scale malapportionment and gerrymandering; the new party of opposition leader and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was banned; polling day was set on a Wednesday to discourage urban dwellers from returning to their rural constituencies to vote; and last-minute conditions were imposed which prevented Mahathir from being featured on campaign materials.

More than anything else, the cutting out of Mahathir’s head from campaign banners signalled how much Najib must have feared his former mentor’s sway over the public. Mahathir’s reign as Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister from 1981 to 2003 was characterised by an authoritarian style, with critics denouncing his repressions of civil liberties. However, the period under Mahathir’s rule was also one associated with development and growth. The people generally thought that despite his mixed legacy, Mahathir had the country’s interests at heart. The same could not be said of Najib, surrounded as he and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were by corruption allegations of such a scale that the figures could not even be reluctantly swallowed as the ‘cost of doing business’. The return of the 93-year-old Mahathir to the political arena has energised the opposition coalition which has been beset by ineffectual leadership and internal power struggles. Mahathir’s return was all the more remarkable given that leaders of the PH opposition coalition whom he had jailed in the past were now standing alongside him. Despite the extensive combined experience of the PH leadership, uncertainties hovered as they waited for the count.

“Ordinary people doing ordinary things, that’s enough to make a change,” an environmentalist turned politician said to a small crowd gathered outside the Sunday morning wet market, his voice hoarse from days of campaigning. Doubts abounded though: is that really enough? An ordinary girl released several yellow balloons printed with the words “Free media,” “Democracy” and “Justice” near Najib; she was charged by the police. An ordinary cartoonist used his drawings to criticize Najib and his wife, Rosmah; the cartoonist’s books were banned and he faced sedition charges with decades-long jail terms.

Central to the GE14 electoral bombshell was almost ten years of Bersih rallies, held periodically since 2007. In a country where racial and religious differences are regularly exploited by various politicians to score points and incite fear, Bersih’s aim of clean and fair elections is reasonable enough for many Malaysians to support. While Bersih’s demands are seemingly uncontroversial, the rallies have proved to be game-changing in terms of the number (the highest was half a million at the 2015 rally) and diverse composition of participants. Although almost none of the movement’s demands for electoral reform had been met by the government, the most tangible benefit of the Bersih rallies was that it helped educate and engage ordinary Malaysians politically. On election night, when the establishment tried to suppress their democratic votes, ordinary Malaysians knew what to do. The people knew that if they needed to, they could take to the streets to have their voices heard. But they also knew the importance of being organised, united and disciplined.

Just after midnight, the tension finally broke. The Election Commission, having been  publicly criticized by Mahathir for delaying the result, held an extraordinary press conference in which they defended themselves against any wrongdoings. They announced a slew of official results shortly afterwards which confirmed the opposition as the election’s winner. The change in government was marked when the chief secretary  of the government took an order from the prime minister-in-waiting to declare the following two days as public holidays. The next morning, Najib conceded, saying he “accepts the verdict of the people”. Malaysians have changed government for the first time since their independence from the British in 1957, and incredibly, they have done so without bloodshed.

In the weeks and months since PH’s victory in GE14, the tagline “Malaysia Baharu” (“New Malaysia”) has sprung up. It indicates a new way of doing things by the new government as well as a new set of expectations. Those who voted for the new government  belong in a big tent. Their expectations for the new government range from the cleaning up of corruption and the efficient management of the economy to the implementation of institutional reforms and a strong commitment to social equality. As the euphoria from GE14 starts to fade and people begin to realise that the government will likely struggle to meet all these wide-ranging expectations, Malaysians are once again indulging in their favourite activity – hanging out at coffee shops and mamak stalls and talking about the state of the nation. This time though, there is a difference. Rather than just complaining, those who are dissatisfied feel more encouraged to take concrete action, whether it is through joining an NGO, taking part in politics or volunteering. Ordinary Malaysians have taken back their power, by doing ordinary things.

Carol Pang is studying for a Master in English, specialising in American Literature and Culture, in Uppsala. She is privileged to witness the era-defining change in government during Malaysia’s 2018 general election, along with hopes of a brighter future with Malaysia Baharu (New Malaysia). She wishes resilience to those who deserve better from their political leaders, and urges every ordinary person to simply do one ordinary thing and get involved.

Illustrator: Ylva Holmberg

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