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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

A Deeply Transformed Political Landscape Calls for Confident Voters

By OOI KEE BENG, The Edge Malaysia, October 24-30, 2022

MUCH HAS HAPPENED in Malaysia over the last 25 years. Not only that, in fact, so much profound change has happened to the political landscape in the country that it is now actually quite unrecognisable.

I returned to the region in 2004, just after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad retired as prime minister, and Tun Abdullah Badawi had just taken over and secured a huge parliamentary majority. There was a strong sense — a fervent wish — in the air that change was coming; and that the financial crisis of 1997/98 would bring political adaptations. Abdullah appeared to have taken a leaf from the Reformasi movement that the jailing of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 had precipitated.

The opposition in 2004 was a depressed lot, having lost badly in the elections that year. However, the absence of serious reform under Abdullah’s tenure soon saw social forces demanding to be heard, most notably the Bersih movement calling for electoral reforms.

These forces proved so deeply rooted in Malaysian society that the opposition parties, through an electoral pact, managed to take over the government in five states in 2008. Let us not forget how great an achievement that was for common voters. Perak falling back to Barisan Nasional (BN) rule within a year after that due to defections was like a prelude to the Sheraton Move, happening at state level.

So, there has been a tendency in Malaysian democracy for such flip-flopping to occur. Par for the course. Hopefully, the recent legislation to forbid parliamentarians from switching parties mid-term will remedy that disregard of voter sentiments.

The opposition continued doing well enough. Today, one month before the country goes into the third general election since 2008, the Pakatan parties have managed to retain control over the country’s two most industrialised states, and remain a strong challenger in Johor.

Over the last four years, the country has furthermore experienced three changes in government at the federal level. This has dissipated a lot of the superstition over the infallibility of Malaysia’s long-lived populist racialist parties, in the process also loosening the semi-authoritarian label that Malaysia has been saddled with since the 1970s. This psychological break is highly consequential, and should certainly not be underestimated when we now think about what is possible and what is not in the coming elections.

The taste of power that the Islamist PAS has enjoyed since 2020 has also revealed the materialist inclinations of its leaders. This can be expected to negatively affect its credibility as a religiously driven political force. Indeed, PAS may have begun its retreat back to being a provincial party again, and be perceived as a “normal” political, rather than a harshly religious, force.

The plethora of parties now vying for support from Malay voters also reflects deep changes in the political game, echoing the serious loss of trust in Umno on the one hand, and the maturing and cultural diversification of the Malay constituency on the other.

The unprecedented gathering of support over the last decade for Pakatan Harapan (PH) (formerly Pakatan Rakyat) among non-Malays, in turn, poignantly reflects the sense of desperation and hopelessness that this group had felt vis-à-vis the Malay agenda for decades.

No going back

The fall of BN from power in 2018 was not an event whose consequences were neutralised by the Sheraton Move. That coup should not be allowed to define democracy as a sham in Malaysia. In fact, one could turn the situation around to say that what GE14 did was to produce a situation in which the Sheraton Move needed to be made by conservative forces to postpone their own approaching irrelevance.

The recent jailing of a powerful — and once-popular — prime minister is definitely another event that was unthinkable not many monsoons ago. So, let no one say that things always remain the same in Malaysian politics. They do not.

The coming to federal power of PH in 2018 was itself a clear demarcation of the turning of a corner in Malaysian politics. After 2020, the magnitude of what it managed to achieve in 2018 has been actively diluted in social media and by propagandists; it has fairly or unfairly been taken to task for having compromised with its former nemesis Mahathir and other Umno dissidents in order to win the 2018 election, albeit “by a nose”.

Voters can be unforgiving. But what does the cynicism about the reform movement — which grew, and that still remains, after the Sheraton Move — say about the Malaysian voter?

First, the cynicism is exaggerated, the way some small quarrel at an otherwise enjoyable dinner with friends is remembered and allowed to colour the whole evening.

It is not only the high expectations not being met by the PH government that is to blame for this cynicism. PH was, after all, only in power, following the first change in government in Malaysian history, for a short 22 months. I believe a lot of it has to do instead with the sense of helplessness and fear that Malaysians had and have tended to live with, within the semi-authoritarian racialist-populist system. Being only partially broken in 2018, this system continued to exert a sense of hopelessness and passiveness and fear among the general public.

More stabs needed

Once that brave stab at the BN dragon in 2018 proved insufficient to kill the beast, they withdrew in fear and disappointment, and with a need to blame somebody. But as anyone who has ever watched dragon-killing or beast-slaying movies will tell us, dragons and beasts do not die from one single stab. They tend to rise again; their hide is tough.

The maturing of a democracy, as far as I can see, lies with the populace — with the voters. Interestingly, this time around, the young voters are expected to play a decisive role. That is another point to remember when we ponder political staticity in Malaysia. The voting age has been lowered, and that is a big deal. Things are not the same.

Consequently, there is now a party, Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), whose targeted constituency is the newest and youngest voters. This party has significantly chosen to associate itself with PH, lending to it — over time, if not immediately — some of the cool factor that the coalition had lost through being in power so briefly, and then losing it so compliantly.

Former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak imprisoned and his wife sentenced to jail; Umno President Zahid Hamidi running scared of going to jail on corruption charges; Malay voters now confident enough to diversify their political voice; federal power not only no longer unassailable but already changed hands thrice; an anti-hopping law in place; a lowered voting age; state elections now largely following locally determined interests and not federal directives; great uncertainties — and possibilities — in coalition building… The list of unthinkable situations goes on and on.

This is not the Malaysia of the Mahathir era or the Najib era. Or the (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin (Yassin) era or the (Datuk Seri) Ismail Sabri era. This may finally be the beginning of an era in which the Malaysian public leaves behind the reflexive cynicism born of fear and despair, and instead chooses to decide who should represent their interests, and not who should lord it over them.


Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng (wikibeng.com) is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018, Penang Institute, ISEAS & SIRD).

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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