The stunning victory of the opposition in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary elections led by former strongman Dr. Mahatir Mohamad has left people ecstatic, bewildered or anxious.
While it was generally welcomed by the Malaysian population which gave Mahatir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition more than a simple majority in parliament, there are those who are crossing their fingers that indeed something was going to dramatically change for the better after the scandal and corruption-wracked government of Najib Razak slithers away. And with it– euphoric citizens believe– a troublesome era.
Indeed, citizens were exultant with the political tsunami that transpired even if it appears to be surreal.
Ironically, Mahatir himself led Razak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance that had controlled Malaysian politics since its independence from British colonial rule in 1957, for 22 years. Razak was a Mahatir protégé along with the jailed opposition stalwart Anwar Ibrahim who was then Mahatir’s Deputy Prime Minister before their falling out in 1998. Anwar was then imprisoned under contested sodomy charges instigated by Mahatir and after his release in 2004 was again detained by Razak in 2008 of the akin charge of sodomy.
Consider too that Mahatir aligned with a coterie of opposition parties some of which were powered by former human rights activists and democrats whom he incarcerated and incessantly quarreled with during his era. It is perhaps their presence in the consortium with Mahatir — initially met with raised eyebrows among human rights denizens — that has raised the benefit of the doubt for the former strongman that he will indeed deliver on the reforms they pledged.
In a bizarre twist of events, Mahatir teamed up with Anwar to lead the opposition charge against Najib as the 92-year old politician could not stand the blatant and massive corruption that tainted Najib and sought to oust him from BN. He failed and instead resigned from the coalition he helped cobble together led by his United Malay National Organization (UMNO) party and said it was “no longer the party he knew and led”. Mahatir was Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 overseeing the transformation of the country from an “economic backwater” to one of the region’s leading economies. He then became the galvanizing figure of the disparate opposition forces while the charismatic Anwar was in jail. Mahatir claimed in an Al Jazeera interview in 2016 that Najib has “gone off track” and if he remains in power, Malaysia was “going to the dogs”.
But that was also how Anwar and a lot of human rights activists accused Mahatir of when the strongman ruled with an iron fist amidst charges of cronyism, nepotism and racial politics during his time as Prime Minister.
Indeed there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics.
Anwar’s party had almost snatched power in the elections of 2013 having won the popular vote, but heavy gerrymandering by the Najib government skewed the votes to dominant BN bailiwicks and gave Najib the coveted majority parliamentary seats.
Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah is now poised to become Mahatir’s Deputy in a deal within the opposition. Call this a kind of poetic justice.
Yet some democracy and human rights activists in the country and the region cannot help but be wary of this change. It seems that Malaysians – like some of their counterparts in the region —have resorted to re-cycling leaders of a bygone era. Never mind that these leaders ruled with some, if not, a lot of democratic deficit during their time, but since they have repackaged themselves as either populists, statesmen or transformed and remorseful democrats while in the company of genuine ones, then they seem to have clinched the imagination and trust of their public. Yet we count our blessings.
Mahatir has a rare second chance to make things right and to prove that he has transformed into a “compassionate” statesman. The world may be watching but it will only be a sustained people power and a lot of collective hard work that will undo six decades of corruption and tyranny and ensure the promises for comprehensive reforms. The Malaysian people must all firmly resolve to never let their nation sink to such pits again.
Last week’s elections was not without its challenges.
Again, BN divided the voting districts specially in the rural and Malay-dominated areas to slant it further in their favor; the elections was for the first time scheduled on a weekday purportedly to ensure low turnout in the cities that favored the opposition. But a massive turnout of youth voters and a shift of loyalty of the BN rural base to Pakatan turned the tide against Najib. One pundit also observed the contrasting campaign pledges of the candidates. Najib run on some sort of a “bribery” type of campaign promising to give “this and that” including additional holidays if he is given a third term, while Mahatir appealed to the electorate as a statesman promising a return of “dignity” to Malaysia.
Najib has been tainted by colossal corruption charges foremost of which was the so-called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) project, where more than $3.5 billion went missing and close to $700 million from the state fund allegedly lined his personal pocket. He has denied the charges claiming the money found on his accounts were personal gifts from the Saudi Arabia royalty. His appointed Attorney General exonerated him from the accusations.
Other issues such as a shady French Scorpene submarine deal also hounded Najib along with the gruesome death of a Mongolian woman in 2006 related to the transaction.
In July, a French judge investigating alleged kickbacks on the maritime vessel matter indicted Abdul Razak Baginda, who negotiated the transaction and was an advisor to Najib, then the minister of defense.
A Mongolian woman, Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa, who originally worked as a translator and model allegedly became Najib’s paramour and was reportedly killed then blasted by a C-4 explosive allegedly by cohorts close to Najib in the aftermath of the Scorpene submarine scandal when she became privy to suspicious commissions related to the deal. Baginda was also linked to this crime but was acquitted.
Mahatir however has been wracked with controversy himself.
He was a dominant political figure, winning five consecutive general elections and fending off a series of opponents for the control of UMNO. However, his accretion of power came at the price of the independence of the judiciary and the customary powers and rights of Malaysia’s royalty. He used racial politics in firming up his base among the majority Malay population. He employed the controversial Internal Security Act to detain activists, religious figures, and political opponents including, Anwar.
In the deal with Anwar and the opposition in challenging Najib, Mahatir promised to work on a royal pardon for his erstwhile rival. Once delivered, he is supposed to give way for Anwar to assume the Prime Minister post—the same job he promised him before their falling out in 1998.
Now he is the oldest elected Prime Minister in the world. And as if to show his vintage acerbic tongue and autocrat tendencies, he said in his first press conference after his victory that Malaysia will return the rule of law including “arresting journalists” if they break them. Sounded like a return to an olden, yet familiar era.
Whether or not that is portentous of things to come or if he was just naughtily waxing nostalgic is anybody’s guess.
But the change in Malaysia is also an opportunity for democratic forces to consolidate its ranks and ensure that never again must the people be afraid of their government. Perhaps Malaysians can show the way in some kind of a second whiff of democracy the same way Filipinos inspired the world in 1986 when they ousted the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos as they ushered in a new dawn of democracy. What the Philippines have become after that is another story.
For indeed the region is confronting the backsliding of democracy all over. Cambodia’s opposition has been emasculated with the imprisonment of its leaders and the muzzling of its independent press. Thailand continues to be ruled by a military junta. Burma is controlled by its military despite civilian rule led by the erstwhile democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Syu Kyi. Thousands of Rohingya have fled the country in the face of what the United Nations (UN) claim is a virtual “ethnic cleansing”. A spike of religious and ethnic hate crimes is testing Indonesia’s democratic credentials. Just this week, families of suicide bombers have blasted themselves in Christian churches in Surabaya killing innocent churchgoers. Laos and Vietnam continue to be closed societies. Brunei and Singapore remain practically under a one-party or one-man rule.
How can we then bring about a strong, vibrant democracy in the region where human rights are upheld with zero tolerance towards corruption? How can we establish a government and an ASEAN founded on principles and policies, not personalities? How do we reclaim the illicit billions of dollars that have been stolen by former corrupt leaders like Marcos and Najib and return them rightfully to the people?
Only when we persist to struggle and ensure that we build an open, vibrant, multicultural, tolerant society where truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law are upheld for all shall we achieve these lofty ideals.
The Malaysian people may be showing us again the way to do it.