A hopeful future for Malaysia

It's been a few hours, and I'm still reeling from a swirl of emotions I can't seem to put my finger on. It's a bittersweet emotion - one that holds elation in one hand, and cautious optimism in the other.

Pakatan Harapan is now officially the new government of the day.

For the first time in six decades since Malaysia's Independence in 1957, the Barisan Nasional coalition had lost its grip as the ruling body. The results had shocked the nation, and understandably so.

Although Barisan Nasional had been slowly losing its political influence since 2008, the then-ruling coalition had held on stubbornly. It had the advantage of a huge voter demographic tied Umno's promise of protecting Bumiputera Rights. This was a failsafe card Umno used to deride the diverse Opposition that was made up of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic People's Action Party (DAP) and then, Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) - threatening its Malay demographic that they would lose their privileges and rights under Opposition rule.

But the past year and a half had transformed the entire political landscape for the Opposition. Former premier Tun Mahathir declared open battle against Barisan Nasional, or more specifically, the (former) Prime Minister Najib and set out to form a new political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) that had shades of neo-Umno ideologies. Its membership was formed out of defected members of Umno and those who disagreed with Umno and Najib Razak's leadership. PPBM offered a viable alternative to the Malay demographic, one that was not burdened by political and financial scandals that had haunted Najib Razak.

 The 14th Malaysian General Elections results. Data from  Malaysiakini .

The 14th Malaysian General Elections results. Data from Malaysiakini.

With PPBM reaching out to PKR and DAP, the latter two set aside their past grievances against Tun Mahathir and set out to wrest the nation away from Barisan Nasional. There are a few factors why Pakatan Harapan was able to mark this historic win:

  1. Tun Mahathir's influence. The late prolific writer, Barry Wain gave Tun Mahathir the moniker, "Malaysian Maverick" and for a good reason. Mahathir has had an illustrious political career, from his political exile in the 60s, ruling as Prime Minister for two decades and having developed the country's industry and name internationally. Contesting in this election at 92, his exit from retirement to 'save the country' from the current Barisan Nasional regime paints him as a saviour figure. And despite his difficult record in human rights, Mahathir has an equally prolific resume as a former Prime Minister that can assure even the most sceptical of Malaysians of his ability to govern and perform.
  2. Najib Razak's reputation. Ever since his Deputy Prime Ministerial days, Najib Razak's name has been plagued with political scandals. From the grisly murder of the Mongolian national Altantuya to the globally-recognised 1MDB financial scandal, his reputation has been continuously painted by the Opposition as a kleptocrat within a corrupt leadership. This was a point repeatedly hammered by Pakatan during their campaign, as well as prior to the election.
  3. Stark economic conditions. While not directly the fault of the previous Barisan Nasional government, the broader global economic slump had affected Malaysia's economy, and its effects were felt by its citizens. The rising cost of living, a stagnant wage pool and the nation-wide implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was too much for the bootstrapped nation to handle. This fire was stoked brighter with Pakatan tying these challenging economic conditions to Najib Razak's 1MBD financial scandal, as well as other financial scandals such as the Mara Melbourne purchase and Felda's suspicious land purchases.
  4. Rising ethnic and religious tensions. The years leading up to this decisive election had been mired with issues of religious and racial tensions, many of which have noticeably eroded harmonious relationships between the diverse Malaysian citizens. Where race has failed, religion is invoked for political survival. Issues such as the strengthening position of Islam in the country, at the expense of non-Muslims as well as the Barisan government's non-stance or defensiveness on controversial religious issues, will have struck a negative chord with the non-Bumiputeras and non-Muslims who desire to live in a nation of equal footing. The then-Barisan government often glosses this over with Najib's philosophical brand of 1Malaysia that implies diversity but has instead adopted a postmodern existence. It is entirely possible the country has grown tired of those in power pitting Malaysians against each other.
  5. The Internet and social media. While one could argue that Tun Mahathir's regime in the 80s and 90s were one with few regards to human rights and decency, Mahathir had an advantage that Najib didn't: the lack of technological information. Media laws during Mahathir's time were draconian at best, and the regime then got away with many things that left the country's majority in the dark - while national media were forced to rewrite narratives favourable to the ruling government. Najib Razak did not have the same advantage - having administered the country in the age of social media and mass information dissemination. Scandals are difficult to cover up when it could easily be talked about and shared through social networks and instant messaging across the country. Misdeeds become difficult to hide or justify. On a smaller note (as my wife pointed out), seeing a friend in your social network go out to vote might also pressure you to do the same - which adds to the political participation.

These are but a few intersecting factors that decisively galvanised Malaysians to express their desire to vote out Barisan Nasional for the promise of newer politics; one without the historical and racial baggage from a postcolonial past.

In the hours between the polls closing up to the final moments of the Election Commission declaring the final tally, I had delved deep into a mixtape I had crafted just for the occasion. One fitting for the "Mother of all (Malaysian) Elections". And indeed, the moniker had proven itself to be true, as a Pakatan defeat would have completely obliterated any form of future political resistance to Barisan Nasional.

But I want to move away from the analysis, the hard facts and take a moment to reflect on what this Pakatan win means for us as a nation. For decades, we have slowly lost faith in the political infrastructure. Apathy had set in; reflective in movements such as #UndiRosak, the increasing brain drain or the (then-perceived) lack of youth participation. Even though the Pakatan had been making gains since 2008, the splintering and in-conflict between the coalition had disillusioned us. This 14th General Election was a do-or-die. If we failed to prove through our votes that we wanted change so badly - then change perhaps will never come at all.

This election saw Malaysians go out to vote - waiting for hours in polling lines, and Malaysian overseas move heaven and earth to ensure their ballots get back home in time to make a difference. There was genuine concern that like the previous election, this one too, would be rigged: massive gerrymandering, the delayed service of overseas postal votes, "blackouts", migrants being given ICs to vote in place of Malaysian citizens, and vote buying among others. These were obstacles that we tried very hard to overcome, to show that we can aspire better and that each vote, each voice does count for something.

Pakatan winning has restored Malaysians' faith in the political system and institution. To know that collectively, we can make a difference for the better. That despite the decades of institutional degradation, if we resisted hard enough, if we tried our best - we'd be able to make a change. Not just for ourselves, but for others. So that even if we mess up in the future, and end up in a situation where hope is lost - we need only look back at 9th May and tell ourselves that change was possible then, and it is possible again. This election had proven to us how important it is to participate in the democratic process. That each vote is a voice of our aspirations and desires. An indication of the direction we want to head towards socially, politically and economically.

I have my own set of disagreements with the politics of Pakatan, but for all their faults - I can comfort myself in knowing that as Malaysians, we have trusted them with a mandate to bring us back on a path of healing, of recovering what we had lost in each other and ourselves as countrymen. And that if they fail to live up to their promises within this five years - we now have precedent to do to them, what we had done to Barisan. And there's comfort in knowing that we can finally restore faith in our political institutions. And that's why maybe now, with cautious optimism - we can collectively start working together towards a better Malaysia. Democracy isn't a one-day thing, it's something you live, breathe and make an effort with every single day outside the polling booth.

Thank you, to each and everyone one of us. The real work starts now.


A version of this article has been published in The Malay Mail.


Recommended Reading:

  1. You Did It Malaysia! - Malaysiakini
  2. Why BN lost, or how we decided to embrace a 92-year-old - The Malay Mail Online