Today May, Malaysians will begin voting in one of the country’s most important and possibly most groundbreaking elections in history. Ever since gaining independence from Britain, Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been the dominating party of government which in recent decades has been at the head of the larger Barisan Nasional coalition.
While the last election in 2013 saw the opposition Pakatan Rakyat win the popular vote, due to the electoral arithmetic of Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy, the ruling UMNO led Barisan Nasional coalition won the most number of seats and subsequently formed a government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Now, opinion polls show the new opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) ahead of the UMNO led governing bloc. For Malaysia, this could mean putting an end to decades of a political system which favours so-called affirmative action mechanisms designed to favour the material position of ethnic Malays against other ethnic groups, particularly the significant Han Chinese minority. Pakatan Harapan is a coalition of various centre-left/progressive parties including those who draw from non ethnic Malay factions of society including the Democratic Action Party which has often drawn support from ethnic Han Chinese voters. Additionally, the coalition contains leftist parties arguing for progressive Islamic democracy.
With this in mind, a Pakatan Harapan victory could see Malaysia finally shedding the policies of affirmative action that in various guises have dominated Malaysia since the 1960s and embrace a more Singaporean style multi-racial definition of equality based on progressive values of continued economic modernisation and an increased distribution of wealth across all segments of society.
What makes Pakatan Harapan’s possible upcoming victory all the more intriguing is that the coalition is being led by two men who helped modernise the Malaysia economy in the 1980s and 1990s and in so doing, loosen the affirmative action laws that were initially defined in the New Economic Policy of of 1971 (no relation to the 1920s Soviet policy of the same name).
During the 1980s, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ushered in an economic boom in Malaysia that is crediting with bringing the country an erstwhile unknown period of prosperity and infrastructural growth. Beginning in 1993 Anwar Ibrahim became Mahathir Mohamad’s influential deputy and continued to expand Malaysia’s economy through radical reforms. For much the 80s and into the 1990s, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim were seen as a political ‘dream team’ that helped to revitalise the country. However, in 1998 Mahathir and Anwar famously fell out amidst accusations that Anwar engaged in political corruption and had performed acts of sodomy (a criminal offence in Malaysia whether consensual or otherwise).
Since 1999, Anwar has been in and out and prison due to courts being engaged in a tug of war in respect of affirming or overturning the initial convictions against Anwar for corruption and sodomy. During such periods, Anwar has spoken in favour of even greater economic modernisation and has remained deeply critical of affirmative action legislation that remains on the books even after Mahathir’s initial reforms.
In 2008, Anwar faced fresh accusations of sodomy and after a series of competing verdicts in various appellate courts, he was eventually jailed again in 2015.
Today, Anwar has found an unlikely new political comrade in the form of a 92 year old Mahathir Mohamad. In spite of a fierce rivalry beginning in the late 1990s, the former colleagues are now the joint heads of the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition with Mahathir acting as Chairman and a jailed Anwar acting as chairman. Working along side Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah, the 92 year old former Premier has pledged that if Pakatan Harapan wins the election, he will ask for a royal pardon from Anwar from head of state Sultan Muhammad V. If pardoned, the 70 year old Anwar would be freed from prison and would see his prohibition from working in politics lifted.
Beyond the clear soap opera quality of a partnership turned rivalry, turned into a new political partnership, all while salacious allegations are fired in multiple directions, from a dispassionate point of view, a would-be Pakatan Harapan victory and a restored Mahathir/Anwar partnership could actually bring profoundly positive change to the political and social system in Malaysia.
While the return of the Mahathir/Anwar partnership might look like a literal case of ‘meet the new bosses…same as the old bosses’, the political dynamic of reform has been transformed from arguments within the long ruling coalition into a new genuine opposition that holds the potential to take the economic modernisation reforms and progressive social reforms of the 1980s and 1990s to new heights.
With Mahathir admitting he is now too old to do anything put pave the way for Anwar’s public rehabilitation and with Anwar being no young man himself, the Pakatan Harapan coalition gives Malaysia an opportunity to write a new chapter in its often fraught history of modernisation which has brought the country untold prosperity in recent decades but without the air tight social cohesion of air tight Singapore, a country which ultimately became independent of Malaysia because of Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew’s opposition to affirmative action based policies.
In a world where multiple countries are experiencing more and more inter-connectivity at an international level, it would behove Malaysia to ultimately transform itself into a society that is shaped more by the prospect of a united future based on social harmony through prosperity rather than a country living in the shadows of the race riots of the 1960s.
While Pakatan Harapan may be lead by an ageing man and very old man, the ideas behind the coalition and the parties that support the bloc represent the future for Malaysia and one that could once and for all challenge the UMNO’s stranglehold on national politics.