Audiences worldwide have been transfixed by the Shakespearian twists and turns that saw Malaysia’s opposition defeat the world’s longest-ruling coalition. But the unprecedented May 9 win was also the culmination of a decades-long civil rights movement by activists who took great personal risks to bring about change.
Four days after the polls, newly elected MP Maria Chin Abdullah sat on a panel about the impact of the results on Malaysian women. “A 3 percent increase is nothing to shout about,” she said, characteristically uncomplacent about the “long journey” ahead to boost women’s representation in politics. Just two months earlier, Chin, a longtime women’s rights campaigner, headed Bersih (Malay for “clean”), an electoral reform movement that has brought hundreds of thousands of Malaysians to the streets to demand fair elections since 2007.
We wanted “to expose how governance works against the people,” Chin said ahead of the talk. “To show that we are not scared.” She had every reason to be. The 62-year-old faced death threats as Bersih’s leader and in 2016 was detained without charge on the eve of a major rally. Held in solitary confinement for 11 days, she was released only after a massive public outcry.
The outgoing Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which until a few weeks ago had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1957, kept a tight grip on dissent, unleashing repressive laws and arbitrary restrictions to stifle human rights defenders and opposition politicians. Yet despite the heavy-handed state, pockets of resistance, like Bersih, managed to thrive.
“Bersih captured the imagination of the Malaysian public,” said Zaharom Nain, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus. “It has been pushing the boundaries of dissent in a very peaceful way. And that awareness has been built over a period of time.”
The overarching narrative of Malaysia’s election has been the improbable return of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. By uniting with Anwar Ibrahim, the fast-rising deputy Mahathir previously sacked and saw imprisoned in a sodomy trial that shook Malaysia, the 92-year-old led the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) to victory. Headlines have unsurprisingly been abuzz with this dramatic tale of friends-turned-foes-turned-friends again to oust a common enemy, the scandal-plagued Najib Razak. That this reunion was based on Mahathir eventually handing the premiership to Anwar, then in jail for a second trumped-up sodomy conviction, has kept their personalities at the heart of the story.
Many Malaysians nostalgically remember Mahathir’s 1981 to 2003 rule as a time when the nation was prospering. Others remain skeptical of a former autocrat, who clamped down on critics, now heading reforms. Though opinion remains divided, Malaysia’s new-old prime minister is widely credited with swinging a critical voting bloc, the ethnic Malay majority, toward the opposition, effectively channeling widespread anger at the scale of corruption allegations engulfing Najib.
But the extraordinary events that led to the biggest surge of democracy in Southeast Asia in recent years were possible for reasons beyond the nonagenarian. While Mahathir may have turned the tide in favor of the opposition, he entered a stage that was many years in the making.
Malaysia’s civil society, Bar Council, and opposition politicians were essential to keeping cases of corruption and human rights abuses alive, said Lee Hock Guan, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Without them they would have disappeared,” he said. The seeds of this democratic movement lie in the calls for reformasi (reform) started by Anwar in 1998 after his dismissal by Mahathir. Important opposition voices such as the Democratic Action Party began the fight for plural politics earlier still, with several of its leaders detained through the draconian Internal Security Act under Mahathir’s administration.
But in the race-based politics that has dominated Malaysia since independence it took Anwar to “appeal to groups across the spectrum,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. Anwar’s imprisonment inspired a new generation of activists but their work has now independently forged democratic spaces in Malaysia.
In a small office in central Kuala Lumpur, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, is inking a sketch of Najib reporting to the anti-corruption committee. It’s a new reality in post-election Malaysia but the political cartoonist was one of the few voices calling out the former premier over the 1MDB scandal, one of the world’s biggest financial scams, long before the opposition win. “The job is to criticize the government of the day, in every part of the world. But in Malaysia that wasn’t enough. We had to fight through cartoons,” said Zunar. Police raids on his office, a ban on leaving the country (recently lifted), and nine charges under the Sedition Act that could see him jailed for 43 years all failed to stop the 56-year-old from drawing. Through his cartoons he sought to bring abuses of power to light. “There were people who were scared to talk about it and this is the group that I was targeting,” he said.
The advent of online media was vital in amplifying alternative views such as Zunar’s in Malaysia where the major newspapers and broadcasters have been under tight state control. “New technology, independent websites such as Malaysiakini, and social media, have played a really important role for people who would otherwise be unable to voice their opinions,” said Tricia Yeoh, an analyst from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank. Mahathir himself would have been unable to campaign as effectively given the attacks he faced in mainstream media. The PH alliance skillfully used independent news platforms and social media to spread the opposition’s message, despite curbs on press freedom such as the Anti-Fake News Law that the previous government rushed in ahead of the ballot.
Underpinning the contribution of Malaysia’s civil society activists and opposition politicians has been the determined band of lawyers keeping them out of prison. Legal groups such as Lawyers for Liberty, based on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, have been representing some 40 activists a year against the state apparatus used to silence protest.
“Our institutions were compromised,” said Eric Paulsen, chief executive and co-founder of Lawyers for Liberty, about the climate in which his collective decided to launch. “In politically motivated cases we couldn’t expect fair treatment. But the court was one of the few ways we could try to defend activists or opposition leaders who got in trouble. If we were lucky we would get a fair judge.”
Unlike neighboring nations such as Thailand, Cambodia, or Myanmar — where increasingly authoritarian states have dramatically eroded civil liberties — there was still “a possibility to get a fair hearing” in Malaysia if you put up a fight, said Paulsen. “At least every time there’s a push from authorities there’s been a pushback.”
For many Malaysians, the euphoria of May 9 has nothing to do with the leadership now in place but in the proof that the ballot, too often a victim of electoral fraud, finally works.
Fadiah Nadwah Fikri, a former human rights lawyer who now works as a researcher at an anti-corruption group, thinks there has been “an over-reliance on political parties and icons to bring about social change” in Malaysia. Last year she co-launched a collective called Malaysia Muda (Young Malaysia) to challenge this culture. “We want a strong grassroots movement that doesn’t leave everything in the hands of politicians,” she explained. Through art, performance, and literature the group is particularly trying to engage younger Malaysians with politics. Building alternative narratives is just as important going forwards, said Fadiah. Through another joint project, Cerita Undi (Voting Story), she is reminding Malaysian voters that they are the heroes of this election by collecting their personal stories of this momentous time in Malaysia.
Key to bringing people back into politics, rather than the epic personalities that have dominated the debate for so long, is to ensure they remain critical, said the 35-year-old. Already there are people on social media who are admonishing others for criticizing Mahathir. This is “counterproductive,” she says. “We want to remind people that change doesn’t stop at the ballot box. We cannot stop questioning what the government is doing.”
Preeti Jha is a freelance journalist who reports across Asia.