The Assassination of JFK…
The Fall of the Berlin Wall…
The 9/11 World Trade Centre Incident…
History is full of “Where Were You” moments; historical events that were so significant that almost everyone remembers the time and place they were in when they heard the news.
For Malaysians, the events of 9 May 2018 surely rank among that list. Because it was on this day that 60 years of single-party rule came to an end as the voters toppled the Barisan Nasional (BN) juggernaut from its perch. More than 100 days after this historic event, International Business Review talks to those instrumental in executing this change in our special edition “The Dawn of a New Malaysia”.
Prior to its defeat at the polls, the BN (including its previous incarnation The Alliance) held the record for having the longest run in power in a country where multi-party elections are held, having been in office since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
The reasons for the BN’s long stay in power are many. For one thing, Malaysia had undergone a lot of positive developments over the past 60 years. In fact, when it comes to standard of living and socio-economic progress, the country ranks only behind Singapore and Brunei (both very small, easily managed states) in Southeast Asia.
On the shadier side of things, the BN’s dominance was also the result of severe abuses of certain democratic principles. For instance, the mainstream media was muzzled by a combination of political control, licensing laws and censorship. The police was often used against dissenters, using laws such as the former Internal Security Act (which allowed for detention without trial) and the Sedition Act.
The line between political activity and government was also blurred and crossed many times. Constituencies that voted for the then Opposition were often denied development funding, while Ministers would indulge in political campaigning during government activities. In other words, the machinery of the state was used to move the goalposts in favour of the BN.
Gerrymandering was also rife. As the BN’s support came mostly from rural and some semi-urban constituencies, the electoral map was woefully imbalanced, with mainly Opposition-held seats having more than 80,000 voters per constituency while BN ones would have 20,000 voters.
The odds were definitely stacked in favour of the BN during the run-up to Malaysia’s 14th General Election. Aside from the aforementioned situations, there were also other incidents that were seemingly engineered to ensure a BN victory.
For instance, just before the dissolution of Parliament, the government ramrodded a redelineation law through Parliament, which critics claimed created larger populated constituencies in areas that support the then opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. For instance, the Petaling Jaya Utara constituency, which was won by PH member the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 2013, saw its number of voters increase from 84,000 to 150,000.
Aside from gerrymandering on steroids, there was also the issue of the mid-week polling date of Wednesday 9 May. Although Malaysia has had mid-week polls, with the most recent one taking place in 1999, the Elections Commission was seen by some as trying to manipulate the results in favour of the BN.
This accusation stemmed from the belief that the polling date was chosen in order to prevent the approximately 500,000 Malaysians working in Singapore from going back to vote. These voters were considered to be more sympathetic towards PH or at least more hostile towards the BN.
Yet, despite all these disadvantages, after the votes had been counted on the morning of 10 May, the Pakatan Harapan coalition (together with the Sabah-based Warisan party) had made a net gain of 53 seats to win 121 seats and secure a majority in Parliament.
How did the BN lose the elections, despite all the advantages that it had as the incumbent? As simple as it may sound, the answer of “The BN got too arrogant” has a lot of validity. First and foremost was the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, in which RM2.6 billion was purportedly siphoned from the state-owned investment fund into the personal bank accounts of then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
The news about the mysterious deposits sparked questions, not only from the Opposition but also from his own UMNO party members. Chief among those calling for greater transparency over this matter were the then Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, then Minister of Rural and Regional Development Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, and then Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir.
Najib’s response was to remove the trio from office, and then from UMNO itself. Another person who was forced out of office was then Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Patail, who was heading the taskforce investigating the corruption allegations against the then Prime Minister. At the same time, The Edge daily and weekly newspapers, which were running a series of exposes about 1MDB, had their publication permits suspended.
Unsurprisingly, the high-handed response to the scandal only engendered greater resentment against Najib and his government. This unhappiness was further exacerbated by the introduction of the 6 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST), which critics accused of causing a rise in living costs.
Adding fuel to the fire were the reduction in subsidies, which led to an increase in electricity costs and further price hikes. While some may accuse Malaysians of having a “subsidy mentality”, the antipathy towards the cuts stemmed more from the perceived hypocrisy of a government that has been implicated in wasteful spending, expecting people to make sacrifices. Combined with rumours that Najib and his wife Datin Paduka Rosmah Mansor were living a luxurious lifestyle, the anger reached boiling point.
Although these scandals alienated the urban masses from the BN, the PH still lacked that X-Factor which would bring in a sizeable number of rural and semiurban voters. They got it in the person of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who became a vociferous critic of Najib and the 1MDB scandal.
As the man credited for Malaysia’s modernisation during his tenure from 1981 to 2003, Dr Mahathir’s experience and track record of having led the country during its most stunning period of growth went some way in convincing fence sitters that PH could be an effective government and not just a good Opposition.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly from an electoral point of view, there was his credibility among the rural and semi-urban Malay electorate. This helped mitigate and even (in some cases) nullify the racial fear mongering to which the BN (especially UMNO) resorted.
Addressing the Future
So, after a long sleepless night waiting for the official confirmation of the results, Dr Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as Malaysia’s 7th Prime Minister by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on 10 May. But while getting to power might be difficult, there is little doubt that the real challenge is in trying to set things right.
Unsurprisingly, there have been many exposes in the 100 plus days since PH took over Putrajaya, as past mismanagements have been brought to light. The most stunning is perhaps the one by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng that Malaysia’s national debt is not RM686 billion or 50.8 percent of GDP, as previously claimed, but RM1.083 trillion or 80.3 percent of GDP.
As such, the new government has been reviewing and postponing or cancelling a number of “mega” infrastructure projects, which it said were overpriced. These include the RM81 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) connecting the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia to Port Klang, the RM45 billion MRT 3, and the RM110 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) connecting Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
This of course has created another series of challenges, as the ECRL and HSR were being developed in partnership with other countries – China for the former and Singapore for the latter. Aside from having to pay compensation for cancelling the project, there is also a risk that Malaysia may get an unwanted reputation for flip flopping on its commitments.
The government has also indicated its commitment to reforming the civil service. Among the major issues that need to be addressed are allegations of corruption and abuses of power, poor work attitude and political partisanship.
Also, for all its faults, the previous administration was also quite effective in bringing investments into the country. A change in government is always a cause of concern for overseas investors, as they are wary of drastic policy changes.
At the same time, local businesses may adopt a waitand-see attitude to determine the direction of the wind, before making any major decisions. Since this would lead to an economic slowdown, it is vital for the new government to make its stand clear.
And so, we hear it from those appointed to BE that change. The Ministers who are custodians of their respective Ministries, the driving forces to execute the formation of a really new Malaysia, not a rehash of the old. A dynamic, intelligent, sophisticated group of leaders trying the best to keep that flame of hope and faith the rakyat have put in them, burning bright like a beacon, attracting better things that will surely come our way. Led by the most experienced politician this country has, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, the architect of a then bustling successful Malaysia, and now back on the saddle again to take Malaysia to the next level – where race politics, corruption, complacency, excessive bureaucracy and failing spirits are a thing of the past, and super performance future proofs the country to be the best we can be, this is hopefully, our dream team.
Here’s to us, Malaysians. May we always get better and may the wind be always behind our backs. Here’s to The Dawn Of A New Malaysia. Here’s to a better future for our children.
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