A first-ever opposition victory signals voters’ disgust with corruption
By CHANDRAN NAIR
Malaysians woke up on Thursday, May 10, 2018, to a new reality.
With the unexpected victory of Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), Malaysians have overcome their fear of change and voted out the Barisan Nasional (National Front), after more than 60 years in power.
The people have seized an opportunity to reshape their country after years of underachievement and feelings of shame.
Malaysia may have elected the world’s oldest Prime Minister in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 92. We have also elected the youngest Member of Parliament in P Prabakaran (at 22 years old), and chosen our first ever female Deputy Prime Minister in Datuk Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
For the first time since her independence in 1957, there has been a power transfer between political parties.
Only Singapore has remained under single party control for longer: its People’s Action Party has governed since 1959, before the country was independent.
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The recent 14th general election should restore a little faith in democracy, at a time when it is now common to talk about “democracy in retreat”.
The truth is that many Malaysian reformers worked tirelessly and peacefully for years with very little reward, until now.
It is also important to note that power has changed hands without incident, a testament to the endurance of state institutions despite allegations of corruption and legal manoeuvres aimed at keeping the ruling party in power.
Malaysia is perhaps the most culturally diverse country in its region, with a diverse mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians and many other ethnicities.
Four of the world’s major religions have a vibrant presence here: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.
It is also wealthy, behind only Singapore in South-east Asia. Her people are relatively well-educated, with a sizeable middle-class workforce proficient in English.
The country really should be much more of a player on the world stage, but it has not capitalised on its competitive advantages.
In addition, the pride in the country has been hammered hard in recent years, and many have left the country.
A new dawn
Much of the credit for this change goes to Tun Dr Mahathir (and fellow Malaysians, of course!), perhaps Malaysia’s most well-respected and revered politician.
In Malaysia, the deck was heavily stacked against the (former) opposition. They were denied coverage in the mainstream press and television.
Leaders are often harassed, if not arrested, by the previous government.
Mahathir’s decision to come out of retirement to stand as the head of the opposition gave the alliance of hope the strength to go toe-to-toe with the previous government. He was not someone who could be threatened or thrown into jail.
Mahathir is not perfect, of course: he also harassed the opposition during his previous tenure as Prime Minister.
But he has apologised for his past mistakes and has promised to give up his prime ministerial position to his former nemesis and current ally Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim within two years.
The result was also brought about by former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who pushed his luck and ultimately went too far.
Corruption has always been an issue in Malaysia, but the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal is the worst the country has ever seen.
Lurid stories about bribery and money laundering have embarrassed Malaysia on the world stage. Malaysians were used to poor business practices and money politics, but this brought great shame to the nation.
Perhaps Malaysians needed to face the stark choice between someone as discredited as Najib and as revered as Mahathir before they would vote for change. At least it has now happened!
This election saw voters young and old, near and far, reject politics based on ethnic, racial and religious divisions.
Najib’s campaign tried to capitalise on the old division between the Malays – the bumiputra – and ethnic minorities.
He routinely tried to instil fear in the majority by arguing that Pakatan Harapan would be far more sympathetic to the Chinese and Indian minorities.
Beacon of hope
Pakatan Harapan inherits a country with many challenges, including stagnating wages, a bloated civil service, unethical business practices and declining education standards. But, several immediate steps come to mind.
First, Pakatan Harapan needs to clean up the 1MDB scandal. If Malaysia resolves this problem within the rule of law, which Mahathir has committed himself to, it would restore international confidence in the country and allay fears about the state of the public coffers.
The alliance should work to create a new system of politics that does not distinguish between races, ethnicities and religions. It needs to restore meritocracy in the civil service; it needs to start reforming the country’s national development policy so that it serves all disadvantaged Malaysians equally.
A Malaysian society and economy structured along these lines would give any economy in South-east Asia, if not the entire continent, a run for its money.
This is no time to rest on our laurels. The end is just the beginning of much hard work to turn things around.
Read also: United We Stand, Divided We Fall
The writer is chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, a think-tank based in Hong Kong. He is also the author of Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet. This article was originally published in The Financial Times. For more Hard Talk articles, click here. To bring Chandran into your organisation for a learning session or talk, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com.
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