Malaysia’s Reformasi Movement Lives Up To Its Name

A revolution took place in Malaysia on May 9, 2018. It was a silent and peaceful one, amazingly achieved through the ballot box, and is therefore not noticed for what it is. But it is a revolution nevertheless, and the effects of it are moving like a strong undercurrent throughout the nation—cutting down old structures, be these mental ones, social ones or political ones. A sense of jubilation and disorientation now permeates the country, and will do so for a few weeks yet, if not months.

A Silent and Peaceful Revolution

A revolution took place in Malaysia on May 9, 2018. It was a silent and peaceful one, amazingly achieved through the ballot box, and is therefore not noticed for what it is. But it is a revolution nevertheless, and the effects of it are moving like a strong undercurrent throughout the nation—cutting down old structures, be these mental ones, social ones or political ones. A sense of jubilation and disorientation now permeates the country, and will do so for a few weeks yet, if not months.

For people in the states of Penang and Selangor, which had been governed by federal opposition parties for the last ten years, the sudden change whereby the federal power is now an intimately friendly one is dizzily baffling. From being necessarily defensive, strategic and reactive in all they did to parry an antagonistic central power, they now have the weird opportunity to dream big. It will take a while before they can do that with gusto and confidence. Old habits will die hard. Some hesitation is to be expected, along with much resentment against those who had supported the fallen government so unconscionably. Some frames of thought will appear clearly outdated, and when expressed will sound revisionist or obsolete.

Economically, there is good reason to hope that the country can now live up to its potential again, that many of its migrated sons and daughters, now well trained in foreign lands, will return to help put the country back on track, and that the recent fall of the ringgit will be reversed.

This toppling of a regime that had been in place since independence in 1957 occurs two decades after the country lost its ability in 1997-98 to soar with fellow Asian flying geese. And with the change in government, it is now finally able to put the lessons it learned—or should have learned—from the Asian Financial Crisis to good use.

While countries such as South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia experienced immediate regime change and institutional reforms that today have left them as unrecognizably different entities from what they were in the Roaring 90s, Malaysia came through that period with its political system intact. That was partly due to the doggedness of then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in rejecting external assistance and interference.

But for that achievement, the country had to pay a price. It suffered greater inter-ethnic divisiveness, plunging competence in governance, stupefying levels of corruption and, worst of all, a huge loss of public faith in its ability to ever become a developed nation. The notions of “Bangsa Malaysia” (Malaysian Nation) and “Vision 2020”, pushed strategically into public discourse in the early 1990s by Mahathir to engender a stronger sense economic nationalism among his countrymen, also went down in the Crisis.

The 20-year-old Reformasi Movement

Anwar Ibrahim speaks during a rally
Along with it fell Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s deputy prime minister and finance minister. Apparently, in being too keen on IMF intrusion into the Malaysian political economy, he brought the wrath of his boss, Mahathir, upon himself. Sacked and subsequently jailed for 12 years in 1999 for abuse of power and for sodomy, Anwar’s downfall gave birth to a reform movement that would not be denied. Indeed, a whole new generation of young Malaysians, generally well educated, well informed and deeply urban, was inspired by the open battle between the two political giants, who soon turned protesting and demonstrating on the streets into a habit and an art of war.

Their general call for comprehensive reforms quickly defined public discourses, and convinced even the establishment to the extent that under Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Badawi in 2003, the government adopted “reforms” as its biggest promise to the electorate. True to that spirit, Abdullah did not stand in the way of the appeals court when it decided in favour of Anwar on a technicality, and released the prisoner after he had served six years of his two six-year consecutive sentences.

But in the end, Abdullah’s reform agenda was seen by many to be a failure. In the meantime, the opposition had, together with many non-government organisations, formed a body to call for electoral reforms. It went under the name The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih, Malay for “clean”) and through a hugely successful street demonstration in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007, it inspired a strong swing in public sentiments against the federal government. The issue of elections is of course one that is not communal or racial in character and it allowed for a coming together of activists of all communities. This 40,000-strong rally was followed in December that year by another unexpectedly large demonstration, this one led by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).

Quite unaccountably, in the face of these strong anti-government sentiments, Abdullah ill-advisedly called for early elections in March 2008. Riding on the tide of discontent, the opposition parties managed to agree on a concerted electoral strategy under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim. This move proved successful and together, they won power in five of Malaysia’s 13 states. They also denied the ruling coalition the supermajority in parliament that it had always enjoyed. Constitutional amendments in Malaysia require support from two thirds of parliamentarians to pass.

Stunned by this loss in seats, in power and in face, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) ousted Abdullah as its president a year into his second term as prime minister. This move was and is widely understood to have been orchestrated by Mahathir from within. Najib Razak now became UMNO’s president, and by virtue of that, also the country’s prime minister. This was a role that he apparently considered a birthright, given that his father, Abdul Razak Hussein, was prime minister from 1970 to 1976 and is still honoured by the Malay community today as “Bapa Pembangunan” (Father of Development”). Razak was also the man who brought Mahathir back in from the cold in 1973, four years after he was expelled from the party for calling for the resignation of the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra.

Najib, rightly reading the spirit of the times, assumed the word “transformation” to describe his key policies, in acceptance of the fact that the public still considered reforms a primary goal in the post-Mahathir era. His administration also coined “One Malaysia” in imitation of Mahathir’s “Bangsa Malaysia”. The target for the country to reach developed nation status by the year 2020 was kept unchanged despite the fact that the economic and statistical trajectories by then all showed that ambition to be an impossibility.

When his attempt at winning back the electoral middle ground – meaning the urban population, especially the Chinese vote – failed, as became obvious in the 2013 general elections during which his ruling coalition lost the popular vote for the first time in its history, he swung to the right. This he did in two related arcs. While pandering to Malay extremists, he at the same time encouraged or at least avoided discouraging expressions of Muslim fundamentalism in the multicultural country.

This proved strategically effective in that Najib was soon able to draw PAS, the Islamist party that was a member of the opposition coalition, to push for Islamist legislation in parliament. Such a move could only end in a break-up of that coalition since the DAP, the Chinese-based multiracial and nominally social democratic party, was expected to, and did, oppose it vehemently.

This may have weakened the opposition considerably, but it did not win the BN much extra support. In fact, it can be compellingly argued that Najib’s cozying up to extremists accelerated divisions among UMNO supporters—with decisively detrimental results for the party come election time in 2018.

A waving Malaysian flag in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Horrified at the bigotry of the extremists, some in the Malay community, both young and old, began slowly but steadily to speak out against the regime. In the meantime, Najib had Anwar jailed on a charge of sodomy when the latter tried by way of a by-election to become the chief minister of the rich state of Selangor.

What made things increasingly intolerable for many Malaysians were the scandals that seemed to circle the Prime Minister. These included suspicions of a shady submarine deal done between Malaysia and France when Najib was Minister of Defence, which had been hanging over him for years, and of course the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a female Mongolian national who had played an assortment of roles in the arms deal. Her body was blown up with military grade explosives outside Kuala Lumpur. Two bodyguards assigned to the Najib household were found guilty of this crime, although the motive was never ascertained. Several strange murders, disappearances and deaths occurred over the few years that Najib was in power.

And then the 1MDB scandal broke. The intricacies of this phenomenon are too many to describe here, but suffice it to say that Najib, soon after taking power in 2009 had started a sovereign investment fund—called 1MDB—through which he is now being investigated for using to finance his political machinery and from which billions are purported to have been channeled overseas for the enjoyment of individuals close to his family. The case has allowed foreign powers to brand Malaysia a kleptocracy, and several countries including the USA, Singapore and Switzerland have ben investigating cash transfers and money laundering related to 1MDB. Indeed, it is generally suspected that it was this scandal that brought Mahathir back into politics to unseat Najib.

If that was the case, it could then also be the case that gave Mahathir the epiphany that his style of running the government all those years ago was now bringing ruin to the country. He could now not die without righting those wrongs. Now that he has done more than anyone could ask for by way of repentance, he will go down in the history books as the man who had made it possible for others to almost destroy the country, but who at great cost returned to right this wrongs to the extent it was possible to right them. The picture of Mahathir greeting Anwar on the latter’s release on May 16, 2018, is therefore a poignant moment that was in effect the closing of a karmic circle.

The Future is Now

The electoral victory of the Pakatan Harapan was indeed a convincing one. It leaves the Barisan Nasional governing only three states—tiny Perlis at the Thai border, Najib’s home state of Pahang, and the giant state of Sarawak. Had the margin been small, the change in power might not have happened, given the Barisan’s history of electoral trickery.

What seems clear at this point is that UMNO and BN are paying the ultimate price for refusing to carry out reforms when they had the chance. The BN will now almost definitely disappear. Apart from UMNO, its members on the peninsula are as good as wiped out, its members in Sabah are leaving in a rush, and signs are pointing to a strong possibility that BN parties in Sarawak will also leave but without joining Pakatan. No doubt UMNO still has 54 seats in parliament, but it is a party in decline, and support for it is bound to drop much further before it has any chance of rebounding.

The Reformasi era in Malaysia—at least its initial stage—is therefore bookended by the street demonstrations of September 1998 at one end, and by its political manifestation, the Pakatan Harapan coalition, taking power in May 2018 at the other end. More poignantly, it is framed by the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 to his release in 2018 by the past and present Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right) with Finance Minister-designate Lim Guan Eng (left) and DAP Strategist Liew Chin Tong (middle)

During its first ten days in power, the Pakatan Harapan government led by Mahathir Mohamad had already fulfilled more of the promises made during the election campaign than anyone could have imagined possible. Among some other awe-inspiring things, Mahathir freed Anwar Ibrahim, stopped Najib and his wife from leaving the country and initiated an investigation against the fallen prime minister. He cut the hugely unpopular goods and services tax (GST) down to 0 percent, and in a move that pleases the Chinese Malaysian population and the stock market greatly, made DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng the finance minister of the country. Lim Guan Eng was the chief minister of the rebel state of Penang in the last ten years who had managed its economy well and put certain transparent policies into place.

Creating a cabinet that is acceptable to all the parties in the victorious Pakatan Harapan is no easy task, and early delays caused some worry among observers.

The education system in Malaysia has been deteriorated  in recent decades, and many therefore thought it was a wise move when he took on the additional portfolio as Minister of Education. However, the public quickly reminded him that his manifesto did promise that no prime minister is ever to hold a second portfolio at the same time, especially the finance portfolio. He quickly backed down, and appointed the lecturer Maszlee Malik to that position instead.

The sense of hope is strong in Malaysia at the moment, as is the sense of bewilderment and disorientation. But there is also a strong sense of empowerment, and of a growing willingness to forgive the past sins and past cowardice of fellow Malaysians.

The future has arrived for the Reformasi Movement and for Malaysia. Now in power, there is much reforming of the system to get on with.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, Malaysia.