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Malaysia’s Historic Election: Does Change Mean Progress?

 7 min read / 

A Prime Minister, who potentially faces charges for his involvement in a global corruption scandal, resorted to gerrymandering and malapportionment in his fight for survival in office. A former Prime Minister, who ran an authoritarian regime, based on affirmative action policies, where he silenced his political rivals and the media when they went against him, assumed the role as leader of the opposition. Malaysia’s 14th General Election was nothing short of entertaining for the neutral observer but could result in substantial change for the nation’s people. With Mahathir Mohamad’s opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) claiming victory over Najib Razak’s ruling government, Barisan Nasional (BN), Malaysians witnessed a change in government for the first time in its post-colonial history. The transition of power may be a significant step symbolically, but will this change necessarily translate to progress?

Barisan: Rebrand or Risk Irrelevance!

It has been an awful week for BN. They have surrendered power for the first time since Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, and Najib Razak resigned as leader. Najib has also been barred from leaving the country pending investigation of his role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in what caps an embarrassing week for the former ruling coalition. But what went so horribly wrong for BN? There were two general issues the people had with the BN government: the kleptocratic tendencies of the Prime Minister and the inability to engage with the ‘rakyat’, Malaysia’s ordinary citizens, most notably, the youth.  

The scale of corruption within the Malaysian government was revealed to be at an unprecedented level during the US Department of Justice’s investigations into the 1MDB scandal. When RM2.6 billion (US$681m) was traced to Najib’s personal account and he claimed it was a donation from the Saudi royal family, many Malaysians questioned his credibility as Prime Minister. This led Malaysians to believe that every subsequent move Najib made was to pay off 1MDB debt. From the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to the increased foreign direct investment in parts of Malaysia by Chinese companies, these decisions were perceived as ways for Najib to resolve his unfavourable financial predicament. Najib found himself in a position where he could do nothing right.

Youthful Ignorance

If things were not already bad for BN with Najib’s alleged involvement in corruption, they made a huge mistake when they ran an election campaign without engaging with the largest voter base in the country, the youth, who make up about 40% of registered voters in Malaysia. While PH made a conscious effort to emphasise potential incentives for the youth, BN focused on gaining the rural vote via cash handouts, which clearly didn’t work.

This time it was not just Najib, but the BN coalition as a whole, that has to take responsibility for the increased disenfranchisement of the youth.

For the benefit of creating a democratic nation, it is in the interest of the people for BN to rebrand themselves into a credible opposition force before the next election. BN has to restructure not only their leadership but also their fundamental principles. BN has nothing to lose now. They need to be bold. They need fresh faces and ideas. Khairy Jamaluddin, former Minister of Youth and Sports and head of the youth wing of the United Malay Nationalist Organisation (UNMO), the largest party in the BN alliance, has arguably been the only shining light for BN this week. Elevate him to a role of greater significance.

BN must use UNMO Youth to engage with young voters. They must do something, anyway. If BN does not change, they may see a further loss of seats in Parliament to both PH and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and consequently a fade into irrelevance.

Pakatan: Get Your Act Together!

It has not started well for PH, with Mahathir naming three members of his Cabinet, including Lim Guan Eng who is facing unresolved charges for alleged corruption, without approval from all member parties of the coalition. The deputy leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), a member of the ruling PH alliance, Rafizi Ramli, issued a statement against Mahathir regarding the issue, which has suggested potential instability within the coalition. At the state level, PH’s Chief Minister in Johor, Osman Sapian, announced that he would “not provide any allocations” for BN state lawmakers in the Johor government. Despite running an election campaign promoting transparency and accountability across all levels of government, PH has failed to do so in their first four days in power. Decisions made by select individuals as opposed to collective discourse and the suppression of the opposition coalition probably was not the way PH imagined their first few days in office. If Pakatan wants to be taken seriously with regard to having a clean and transparent government, they need to prove it. Mahathir and his team need to get their act together and start practising what they preach.

The challenges do not stop there. Looking at PH’s manifesto pledges, it will be a testing term for them in office. Replacing the GST with a new Sales and Services Tax (SST), eliminating tolls on highways nationwide, reintroducing subsidies on fuel, and building one million homes as part of an affordable housing initiative are just a few of Pakatan’s policy proposals that sound noble but do not make much economic sense when analysed on a broader scale: reducing government income streams and increasing expenditure. Furthermore, it was a prominent Pakatan leader, Tony Pua, who voiced concern over Malaysia’s debt levels, yet their manifesto seems to indicate that they might increase the government deficit in their first term in power. It is undeniably too early to make a conclusive assessment on the competency of Pakatan Harapan, but it would be an understatement to say that they have had a poor start, as it only gets more difficult from here.

The Maturity of the ‘Rakyat’

Izzat Merican, a Malaysian student at the London School of Economics, made an astute observation about the citizens of Malaysia post-election: “It’s sad, with all the talk of democracy being restored, we still lack one important feature: political maturity”. Just scrolling through various social media platforms in the aftermath of the elections, it was commonplace to see Pakatan advocates taking a swipe at Najib and his wife to vent their frustration with regard to his involvement in corruption scandals, while BN exponents were berating Mahathir’s dictatorial past in addition to claiming he is too old to lead the nation. 

The political dynamic in Malaysia is such that the people generally make electoral decisions based on personalities instead of policies. The content of pre-election debates, especially in this election, has been largely along the lines of “he is a terrible person” or “his wife spends too much money” instead of “the party’s policy response to XYZ seems to be lacking 123”.

Essentially, governments are supposed to enact policy decisions. These policies are what people should be dissecting and debating before the elections, not whose wife drives what car. Of course, unusual spending patterns by politicians should be under scrutiny as well, but that should not be the only element of discourse. Discussing the feasibility of policy and competency of governance is the hallmark of a politically mature nation; that is what Malaysia lacks today and what it should aspire to be in the future.

What now?

So what should Malaysians do now? Should they just sit there and wait until the next election in 2023? Should the people just give Pakatan some time to sort themselves out? Should BN supporters let them go through a period of transition without expecting progress? No. They have made this mistake before. BN was once an efficiently run ruling-party with commendable values. But the inability of the people to hold them accountable for their actions led to their descent to corrupt practices and an authoritarian political structure. Malaysians cannot let this happen again. The level of political discourse in Malaysia must be raised, and the ‘rakyat’ must make their voices heard.

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