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Post-GE14: Malaysia’s Democratic Wave – Expecting the Unexpected?

This is Part 1 of  our report on Post-GE14 Conference: Making Democracy Deliver, an effort done in collaboration with the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and Universiti Malaya Centre of Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL). 

The purpose of this conference after Malaysia’s 14th General Election was to discuss the broader direction of Malaysian society in light of the recent change in political administration. 

This conference hoped to elaborate on what made this change possible and how we move forward from here. More specifically, how young Malaysians, who make up a majority of voters, perceive this change and what role they can play in keeping our leaders accountable to the promises they have made. An emphasis was placed on the ways in which more inclusivity can be injected in all aspects of democratic life. This included understanding the future of race and religion in Malaysia’s political discourse.

The idea behind this event was based on a realization that anticipation of GE14 has been a very unique moment as it has brought forward refreshing perspectives and mobilization of diverse interest groups. Given that this was the “mother of all elections”, it is worth reflecting on this event and its connection with Malaysia’s most recent past. 

Imagined Malaysia is committed to the plurality of narratives and providing greater public exposure to critical and marginalized perspectives. Historical literacy is our main interest and this also means that contemporary events that become turning points in the country’s history is of our interest too. 

This public event brought together eminent political scientists and nongovernmental individuals to share their reflections on GE14 in order to promote more mature and nuanced discussions about politics in Malaysia. 

Keep reading to get a picture of our conversation.

The first session focused on the recent general elections changed the course of Malaysian politics for the first time in 60 years.  It explored the factors that made this democratic wave possible through the 14th general election, the reasons it took Malaysia this long to elect an opposition party and the possible direction the political discourse in Malaysia.

“Malaysia has entered a new path. How can we set the debate not only relevant for now but also long term relevancy?” asked Ali Salman, the CEO of IDEAS during his opening remark. 

Malaysia – authoritarian regime disguised as fair-game democracy 

Electoral authoritarianism 

William Case, Professor and Head of School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, was the first to present. As an expert on South East Asian politics, he discussed the system in which democracy operates in this region. 

He explained that in Malaysia, specifically, democracy functioned under a false pretense. Although the system in place appeared to have the mechanics of democracy, it functioned under electoral authoritarianism.  

By establishing an institutional facade of democracy, especially by holding regular multiparty elections, the truth of the authoritarian governance under full control of a dictator was somewhat concealed. 

“The average life expectancy of an electoral authoritarianism regime is 23 years,” William said. “But in Malaysia, it lasted a lot longer.” 

Electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia was most effectively reinforced through a single dominant party – United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Ironically, it was under Tun. Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s presidency from 1981 to 2003, when there was no strong opposition party that could threaten UMNO’s position. 

According to Professor Case, by using strategies such as but not limited to posing as a protector of the Malay-Muslim community, forging and elite-level unity within the party and energizing mass-level support among the Malay community, the party has dominated the country’s politics for more than six decades. 

The Alliance of Hope

As any developing country progresses and its people’s educational levels increase, the socio-economic change that is a result of this modernization, inevitably causes a shift in mindset. As an upper-middle income country, Malaysia’s fast modernizing society not only consists of a large middle class but also one that is dissatisfied with the country’s prolonged economic stagnation, he said. 

“I think it’s rapid economic growth followed by economic stagnation of this kind that drives the middle class to bring about political change,” William added. 

William attributed the outcome of the 14th general elections to several strategies used by the opposition party – Pakatan Harapan. To overcome electoral manipulation and avoid a repeat of the 2013 general elections, Pakatan Harapan made deep inroads into the rural Malay community as their votes largely determine the outcome of an election. 

 Nazir Sufari © The Malaysian Insight  

Tun Dr. Mahathir preached a consistent message – that Najib Razak was not only ruining the country but also stealing from the people and was making them pay a Goods and Services Tax (GST) because of his own 1MDB scandal, William said. 

Instead of forming a coalition, he said, Pakatan Harapan presented itself as a loose consortium of four parties, each appealing to a different voter segment and neither of the parties appearing as dominant. 

What could go wrong?

According to William, if the new Pakatan government strengthens civil liberties and reduces electoral manipulation, a democratic transition has taken place. 

However, if the new government pushes institutional reform too far and too fast or if it fails to undertake reforms at all, the credibility it relies on could be lost. UMNO, now the opposition party could even coalesce with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and unleash a right-wing populism that energises voters through more exclusionary appeals to Malay-Muslims. 

Multicultural politics post-GE14 

New politics

Khairil Izamin Ahmad, an Assistant Professor based in the Department of Political Science, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) discussed the New Politics in Malaysia which isn’t just literal but also has an academic meaning. 

The term New Politics, was first developed during the reformasi era by Francis Loh Kok Wah, a professor at University Science Malaysia (USM). 

Khairil explained that according to Francis, Malaysian politics contested along three things which are long standing ethnic based political formulation, developmentalist ideology and participatory democratic consciousness. 

What seems like a breakdown in ethnic relations in New Politics in Malaysia, according to Khairil, can be attributed to the emergence of the political cultures of developmentalism combined with a more participatory form of democracy, which allows the slow demise of ethnicism. 

Forming an alliance

From 1999 to the 2008 general elections, the opposition party has posed itself simply as the Barisan Nasional (BN) alternative, said Khairil. In 2013, the opposition party started having a more solid and differentiable identity for itself and then finally formed strong enough of an alliance in 2018. 

“One if the things that defines these alliances is, they realised they needed to come together and work together despite ideological differences and offer themselves as a single alternative, a grand coalition,” Khairil said. 

By negotiating for the contest to be one on one, the opposition party was able to maximize its chances on winning. 

Besides that, Khairil said that the manifestos used by opposition parties through 1999, always offered the same type of unified option as a BN alternative. However, since then, a different kind of rhetoric was offered. “We saw the opposition trying to portray themselves as the more progressive and inclusive choice,” he said. 

The racialized politics played by BN was contrasted with Anwar’s proclamation which was a play on inclusion, Khairil said. His (Anwar) famous line, “Son of a Malay is my son, son of an Indian is my son and the son of a Chinese is my son,” effectively worked against BN’s sentiment. 

What to anticipate

Wrapping up his presentation, Khairil discussed possibilities of what the political climate will be like post GE-14. 

“Is it going to be a mirror image of the BN approach but with more openness or will it be a radical democratic reform,” he asked rhetorically. Referring to the opening speech by Salman, he too pointed out that institutions in Malaysia need to be enhanced in order to strengthen the democracy. 

Will this change in governing party also mean the end of race based politics and is there still a need for a mono-ethnic party? 

Effective changes cannot be rushed 

Khairil explained that regardless of predictions and theories, for now we can only speculate as to what will happen and we should remain optimistic but cautious. 

“We need to adopt a cautious attitude to the possible rise of new liberal tendencies,” he said. 

Drawing parallels to Margaret Thatcher’s approach in the United Kingdom when she was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Khairil said that if the new government used radical austerity and radical privatisation as an approach, it will slow down the GDP growth and there will be a lot of suffering as a result. Hence, he said these things cannot be rushed as there have been eerily similar experimentation abroad that have failed. 

Khairil ended his presentation by reinstating that we, as the people, can and should play a role in cultivating a new democratic ethos. 

Malaysia’s erased history

Fadiah Nadwa Fikri a human rights lawyer and a mover in the recent Malaysia Muda movement presented on the role of youth in navigating change in present day Malaysia and how it has been done in our history. 

Who are we as a nation, what is our history and how do we discover our mission are questions Fadiah said are important for us to ask. 

“Some of us are still in this euphoria but we have to ask the important questions to move forward,” she said. Questioning these things and understanding them ourselves is important to figure out how to sustain it. 

Fadiah also added that understanding our history is pivotal as it shapes a lot of our present reality. 

The missing history

The history taught in government schools in Malaysia omitted parts of its own history to conceal some of the controversial yet important discourses that took place, said Fadiah. When she was made aware of this missing history, she felt betrayed because according to her, it was something that needs to be told. 

The history she speaks of specifically is the left anti-colonial movement that took place about 10 years before independence. This movement was powered by political organisations such as Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API), Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) and the coalition – PUTERA-AMCJA. 

Focusing on API, Fadiah explained that they played an important role reminding the youth that they have an obligation to contribute to the change they want to see and to build a world that is more just. 

API advocated for the concept of a broader Malay which included the Malay civilization that they believed to be held together by a shared culture and language that went beyond the artificial borders created by the British-Dutch agreement of 1824. 

The principles API stood for which were radical change, genuine democracy, social justice and world peace, appealed to a lot of of people and this is evident as the number of members they had grew immensely from 2,560 in 1946 to somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 in 1947. 

Resistance

API was the first political organisation that was banned by the British, Fadiah said. The justification used by the British to ban API was “API have been and could have been used for purposes that are not in accordance with peace, stability and welfare of Malaysia.” 

Drawing parallels to the our present reality, Fadiah pointed out that the justification used is essentially the same reason used by a lot of the oppressive laws created in Malaysia by the past government to stifle freedom of speech such as the sedition act and the fake news act. 

“Laws are used as a tool to oppress and control the population,” she said. 

Learning our history, teaches us about the goals that didn’t get to materialise back then and gives us an idea on how to move forward. ”We have to capitalize on the euphoria we’re feeling right now,” Fadiah said. 

Narrowing the gaps

Moving on, Fadiah discussed the concept of “lesser evilism” and how it has become an accepted standard. “That is why fascism is thriving around the world and we see history repeating itself,” she said. 

She pointed out that the human life, in so many instances has been reduced to papers such as identification documents and to statistics. This combined with an over reliance on icons and politicians to bring social change, has caused us to forget that a genuine democracy means people are part of it. Hierarchical structures, she said, should not change this. 

Creating a democracy that narrows these gaps is important, because instead the notion of change becomes so narrow that it limits our creativity to explore alternatives that are different from what we are used to. 

“The agenda of change is so distant from the masses and so reliant on a few figures,” Fadiah said. “It undermines the people power and people as an agency for change.”

Lastly, Fadiah re-emphasised the importance of historicising and conceptualising our current political system. Doing so will provide us with a clear analysis of power hierarchies and will allow us to understand how power works. Perhaps more importantly, this exercise will teach us to identify how the exclusion of certain voices are being perpetuated and will equip us with the ability to Identify and dismantle systems and structures that perpetuate oppression and injustice. 

 * Special thanks to our volunteer rapporteur Vasuki Rao for producing the 1st part of this report. She currently works at the Human Resource Development Fund (HDRF).

Photographs © Kalash Nanda Kumar