Malaysia’s Elites Ride The People’s Tsunami

Amid a democratic triumph, the new boss is still literally the old boss.

Supporters of former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad celebrate in Kuala Lumpur on May 10. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of former Malaysian prime minister and opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad celebrate in Kuala Lumpur on May 10. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — It has taken 61 years, but Malaysia is set to finally have its first-ever transition of power since the British left. The country’s 92-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, came out of retirement to lead the opposition to Najib Razak, the scandal-ridden leader of the Barisan Nasional (BN), or “National Front,” the coalition that, under different names, kept a firm clutch on power ever since Malaysia became a modern state.

It’s a bright spot for Southeast Asia, where authoritarianism is ascendant across the board. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is undermining democracy with a brutal extrajudicial war on drugs, Thailand’s oppressive military junta remains strong, and, in Cambodia, the world’s oldest dictator, Hun Sen, has demolished the free press and maintains a firm grip on power. Even in Myanmar, a few years ago thought to be at the vanguard of a new wave of democratization, the army has shown its power and impunity with its vicious persecution of the Rohingya minority.

Najib would have stayed in their ranks had he not pushed the envelope a bit too far, purloining almost $700 million in state funds and implementing a widely loathed goods and services tax. His defeat is remarkable — but the new government is not so much a revolution as a return to the earlier status quo, the 22 years when Mahathir was prime minister. And remarkable though the victory is, it represents a struggle among Malaysia’s existing political elite as much as a sudden democratic surge.

Mahathir’s camp was claiming victory by late Wednesday night as votes were tallied nationwide, but Malaysians breathed a collective sigh of relief on Thursday morning when Najib officially announced that he would step down. This is, after all, a country where show trials and murders have been part of politics as usual. A peaceful transition was not a given.

But Mahathir won’t actually serve as prime minister. He will hand off the post to his de facto running mate, Anwar Ibrahim — once Anwar is released from jail. He is still serving the second of two different prison terms for alleged sodomy, which meant his wife had to be the official running mate. Both charges are considered politically motivated, and the first one (confusingly, to the casual observer of Malaysian politics) was lobbed by none other than Mahathir himself in 1999 because Anwar, then the deputy prime minister, dared to criticize his party.

Anwar’s reconciliation with his former nemesis is extraordinary. He is now 70 and awaiting a royal pardon. He was Mahathir’s deputy prime minister in 1998 when he criticized the party and was shipped off to jail for the first time. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is a politician in her own right and is now the next deputy prime minister. The idea that Wan Azizah and Mahathir would campaign in open-air rallies, side by side, would have been unimaginable for a Malaysian in the early 2000s.

That’s a signal of just how far Mahathir’s clout extends, even when he reverses his position. “Yes, yes, I am still alive,” Mahathir told reporters at 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, after claiming victory. Born in British-ruled Malaysia to a middle-class family of 11, he went on to rule Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 1993. He was, of course, part of the National Front, too.

That is why, despite Najib’s growing unpopularity, the coalition’s power seemed totally entrenched. In Malaysia’s distant and rural areas, “BN” was synonymous with “government.” The National Front has kept its constituents flush with farm subsidies, scholarships, eyeglasses, and television decoders and promised much more. It controlled the mainstream newspapers and could vastly outspend the opposition on advertising. It was unstoppable — until it was stopped, in part thanks to the man who helped maintain its power for so long.

Mahathir’s unique star power infused the opposition with the energy to draw huge crowds of thousands of people night after night as the election approached. This did not make headlines in the state-controlled mainstream media, but the rallies’ message spread wildly on social media. The Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”) coalition eventually won 122 contested seats to the National Front’s 79 seats, 10 more than what it needed for a simple majority in parliament.

“Mahathir is the only one who is able to reach Malay Muslim voters,” says James Chin, a Malaysian politics expert at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “He is a star attraction.” Chin mention Mahathir’s recent audiences of 5,000-7,000 people in Johor province, a traditional stronghold of the National Front.

The phrase “rural Malays” was thrown around with abandon this year, somewhat like how the “white working-class” was a subject of intense fascination in the last U.S. election. About 60 percent of Malaysians are Malay Muslims, whose special allowances (such as preferential access to land rights and jobs) are often resented by other ethnic groups, including Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is the largest constituent party in the National Front. All of Malaysia’s prime ministers have been members of UMNO, including, in his last ministerial stint, Mahathir.

Speaking shortly before the election, Chin was skeptical of the opposition’s leverage because UMNO had “very strong patron-client relationships” in the Malay heartland. “For example, if you’re a rural Malay farmer, you get free fertilizer, cash handouts, and a lot of free stuff like cooking oil, salt, and sugar from UMNO. … The opposition simply doesn’t have those kinds of financial resources,” he said.

Mahathir reached them instead with a straightforward message: no more Najib. It’s rare that a negative message goes so far in politics, but that was the extent of the animus against the aristocratic leader, who has been accused of pocketing nearly $700 million in state funds.

The scandal, dubbed “1MDB” after the state-owned development company from which Najib is accused of stealing funds, is so complex and difficult to prosecute that many dismissed its importance to voters. But it mattered more than expected, according to Ross Tapsell of Australian National University, who studies digital culture in Southeast Asia.

“Everyone, even in the Malay heartland, knew about Najib’s corruption and 1MDB, even though it was not at all reported in mainstream media,” Tapsell says. “Kuala Lumpur officials often say that ‘1MDB doesn’t resonate,’ and certainly most people don’t understand all its complexities, but at the end of the day, there were enough stories about it on Facebook and WhatsApp that many people believed that Najib was indeed corrupt.”

Malaysia’s election season is very short, and the single month of campaigning is intense and absurdist. Najib only dissolved the parliament to call an election on April 7, giving candidates just four weeks to prepare. (It was implicitly understood that the election would happen before Ramadan, which starts on May 15 this year.) He took the additional, widely criticized step of holding elections on a Wednesday, hoping to decrease voter turnout.

While it is remarkable that Malaysian voters ousted Najib despite all these roadblocks, it is telling that the only person who could lead the “change” camp had already been prime minister for more than two decades. This raises the question of whether a squabble between elites can really strengthen and entrench democracy. “This is a fight between old and new Malay elites,” Chin says. “Najib comes from a very prominent old Malay, royal-linked family, whereas Mahathir [a trained medical doctor before he was a politician] is from the new class of meritocratic Malays.”

Yet even if this is a quarrel among Malaysia’s elites, it was ordinary votes that made the difference. Given Malaysia’s extensive recent gerrymandering, carried out expressly to help the National Front, the opposition’s chances were quite dim. The National Front could have retained power even while losing the popular vote, just like it did in 2013. “What the opposition needs is a historic turnout,” Chin said just before the election. And that is exactly what they got. Overseas Malaysians’ votes were flown in by fellow citizens; millions of people commuted home in cars, planes, and boats for election day; and young Malaysians broadcast a nonstop stream of information about voting fraud and potential means of disenfranchisement on social media.

For some analysts, the improbable show of voting power remains its own reward. “This is without a doubt the best news for democracy in Southeast Asia since Joko Widodo beat [former military general] Prabowo in Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election,” says Tom Pepinsky, a political scientist at Cornell University. “At a time when civil liberties are in decline, and populists and authoritarians are consolidating their roles across the region, this is an incredible result.”

Amid the euphoria, it’s worth recalling that Mahathir’s record as prime minister was hardly that of a champion of democracy. He was hostile to the free press, brutally purged dissenters, and bailed out his friends’ banks. The force of scandal that helped bring down Najib, however, could mean that the new government will be under more scrutiny to stay clean.

For Malaysians who have ever known only single-party governance, jubilation was in order this week. Many stayed up until 2 a.m., 3 a.m., or even dawn on Thursday, scanning for official results; they waved flags, set off fireworks, and danced in the streets. Mahathir declared Thursday and Friday to be national holidays.

“Let’s be clear: This election was never free, and it was never fair,” says Mandeep Singh Karpall, the secretary of the watchdog group Bersih (which means “clean” in Malaysian). “The result yesterday was because of the Malaysians who came out to save their country.”

“I think this was the dirtiest-ever election in Malaysian history,” he says. “But despite this, how did the opposition win? That’s people power. We use the ballot box.”

Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikavaragur

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