Magazine

Japan’s Lessons for Malaysia

Japan’s 2009 election experience has lessons for Malaysia’s first opposition government.

By Nithin Coca for
Japan’s Lessons for Malaysia
Credit: Associated Press, File, Andy Wong

Malaysia has just embarked on its biggest post-independence experiment – rule by a political party not connected to Barisan Nasional (BN), the longtime ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (UNMO). The landslide victory in May by the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) was a surprise to many both inside and outside the country.

“Malaysia is in a totally new environment. We were not prepared for this,” said Khairil Yusof, founder of the non-profit Sinar Project. “We were under the assumption that [Prime Minister] Najib [Razak] was going to win, and with the fake news laws, we were going to work under a more constrained environment after the elections.”

Yusof’s was a common belief, partly because the BN did nearly everything it could, short of ballot stuffing, to stack the election in its favor. Yet it did not work. The shocking outcome has been analyzed countless times by media, analysts, and pundits, but for Bala Chelliah, president of Global Bersih, it was the result of a mix of years of action and timing.

“It was a combination of many factors, a perfect storm,” said Chelliah. “For any change to happen, [you] have to have a perfect storm, and that’s what we saw in Malaysia on May 9.”

So what’s next? While many believe Malaysia is already a symbol of democratic hope for the world, others urge caution. Perhaps history can be a guide. The closest parallel comes from a country not too far away, Japan, which saw a similarly shocking electoral result not that long ago, one that quickly went sour. Though there are several caveats and key differences between the situations in the two countries, Japan’s recent political experience can still inform Malaysia’s new rulers as they chart the complicated path from a single-party state toward a stable, multiparty democracy.