Malaysia’s New Political Tsunami

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Malaysia’s New Political Tsunami

What led to the historic election result — and where does Malaysia go from here?

Malaysia’s New Political Tsunami

Mahathir Mohamad, center, celebrates the election results at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (May 9, 2018).

Credit: P Photo/Vincent Thian

“Reformasi!” (Reformation) “Pakatan Harapan!” (Alliance of Hope, the name of the opposition coalition)

On the evening of May 10, just one day after the historic election, people were spontaneously gathering and chanting these slogans around Istana Negara, the Sultan’s Palace in Kuala Lumpur, where Mahathir Mohamad was about to be sworn in as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister. These opposition slogans had frequently been heard as anguished cries during the harsh campaign period. This time, however, the people’s chants were rather filled with joys and hopes for the country’s future.

Around the capital, not just in this one place, people celebrated the historic electoral result that would bring Malaysia’s first democratic change of government by waving flags representing the opposition or honking their horns. It is a really historic moment considering the country’s history since independence, which has been characterized by six decades of rule by one political coalition, Barisan Nasional (the National Front or BN).

Looking back, last two general elections — in 2008 and 2013 — were precursors. The decline of BN had become clear since the election in 2008, when they lost their two-thirds majority, which is required to amend the constitution. In addition, at the state level, BN lost their rule in five states, though only one state had been under the opposition control before this election. This event was remembered as a “political tsunami” as the decline of the then-ruling coalition was more than expected.

In the next election, held in 2013, BN further lost seats while still maintaining a simple majority in the national parliament. At this point, however, BN lost the popular vote to the opposition. While facing unpopularity, BN had managed to maintain its power through authoritarian measures such as incumbent-favored gerrymandering and media controls.

Besides the authoritarian nature of the regime, Malay support to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a core component of BN, had sustained its reign. The ruling coalition consists of more than 10 parties, including UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and local parties of Sabah and Sarawak state. Though the coalition is supposed to represent each of these ethnic groups, it has promoted policies that could be regarded as favoring Malays or indigenous people (Bumiputera), and observers have often characterized Malaysian politics as “ethnic politics” for this reason. While Malays, particularly in nonurban areas, seemed to have remained loyal to BN, non-Malays, particularly ethnic Chinese and Indians, had broken away and started to take the opposition’s side, particularly from around 2008, when the “political tsunami” happened.

Based on these recent trends, the steady support for Pakatan Harapan (PH), the opposition coalition formed to fight against BN, was certainly expected. Still, however, the magnitude of BN’s downfall was more than anticipated. What was behind this stunning result? What made it possible for PH to record a historic win despite the unequal playing field?

Detailed analysis remains to be done, but a major factor seems to be a shift by Malays, including those in nonurban areas. The unexpected erosion of BN support in Johor state, the birthplace and longtime stronghold of the UMNO, is one indicator of this tendency. BN lost control of Johor’s state government, keeping just 19 seats while PH won 36. In fact, at the state level, BN could defend their majority in just two states, Perlis and Pahang.

One likely explanation behind Malay voters’ shift is the “Mahathir factor.”

Mahathir Mohamad, one time prime minister and leader of BN from 1981 to 2003, re-entered politics as the leader of PH, criticizing the government led by Najib Razak. Mahathir, who once retired and will turn 93 this year, is regarded as the “father of modern Malaysia” and still widely respected, particularly among the Malay population. His strong commitment to PH as a leader influenced Malay votes especially in nonurban areas, those thought to be loyal to BN.

In Langkawi, an island in Kedah state, where Mahathir contested for his parliament seat, some Malay voters expressed their support for Mahathir and PH just two days before the poll. One longtime supporter of UMNO and BN said, “I will vote for the opposition for the first time in my life because I respect Tun Mahathir,” adding that “he contributed to the development just not of this island but the whole country.”

Similar opinions were heard in other places as well. In one area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in Selangor state, one Malay voter expressed his anger toward Najib and some UMNO cadres, saying that insults to Mahathir were not acceptable. He said BN’s negative campaign against Mahathir made him decide to vote for PH. Besides the unpopularity of scandal-sunk Najib and the rise in living costs, this “Mahathir factor” seems to have a certain impact on the outcome.

As Mahathir has already been sworn in and started to form his cabinet, what is to be expected for this new government? While uncertainty definitely exists, besides Mahathir himself, some core members of PH have experience in the government, such as Muhyiddin Yassin, a former deputy prime minister who was kicked out from the then-government by Najib in 2015. Also, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (the People’s Justice Party or PKR) – both key components of PH – have experience in ruling state-level government in Penang and Selangor, respectively. Thus, the capability to run the government is there.

Having said that, coordination among groups representing diverse interests within PH could pose some challenges, including the process to install Anwar Ibrahim, a popular opposition figure who has been imprisoned, as prime minister. Mahathir has promised to obtain a pardon for Anwar to pave the way for him to assume Malaysia’s top government position. Looking at the policies that PH promised during the campaign, some of them — including the abolishment of the good and services tax (GST), the reintroduction of fuel subsidies, and the introduction of a new healthcare scheme for lower income households — would certainly be financial burdens. At the same time, to renege on the manifesto could provoke public anger, which could be another source of political crisis. Rising expectations among people for the new government will be sure to make challenges even complex and difficult.

In the long run, we may see some earthshaking changes to the country’s political landscape. For instance, East Malaysia, namely Sabah state and Sarawak state, have long been seen as “BN’s fixed deposit” and the crucial support base for BN. However, this election eroded BN seats in both states. In this situation, local parties that have been a part of BN in these states might seek to enhance relations with PH, as it is important for them to maintain relations with the federal government. There is no reason for them to stay in BN as the opposition. Moreover, BN itself would face a severe future as ethnic-based parties — particularly the MCA and the MIC — have lost support from their supposed bases. The defeat of Liow Tiong Lai, the leader of the MCA, is one clear indicator of the end of their era. The UMNO, the core component of BN, they might approach Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party or PAS) as their Muslim Malay base could somewhat overlap. From PAS’s perspective, however, there seems to be little incentive to align with BN or the UMNO without power.

As noted, one key takeaway from this general election could be the end of “ethnic politics,” which has been regarded as key characteristics of Malaysian politics. Throughout the opposition movement, even before this election’s campaign period, unity across ethnic lines has emerged. In a major PH campaign gathering held in George Town in Penang state just two days before the election, a massive crowd showed up to the park even in heavy rain. Among them, not just ethnic Chinese, a dominant ethnicity in the area, but also Malays and Indians joined together under the same PH banners.

Likewise, at the spontaneous gathering around Istana Negara, mentioned at the start of this article, people celebrated the historic moment regardless of ethnicity. One Indian boy who came with his mother and sister held a placard saying “I love Malaysia – we are all one Malaysian,” which received warm responses from fellow citizens.

While there certainly exist some challenges ahead, the country has just entered a new uncharted phase through this election.

This article was written based on the author’s local research and interviews in Malaysia from May 6 to 11.

Michio Ueda is a former Fulbright scholar based in Tokyo. As a political scientist, he studies party politics and elections in Southeast and East Asian countries. Previously, he worked in Japan’s Ministry of Defense and the Boston Consulting Group.