For the first time since gaining its independence, Malaysia will not be governed by the powerful United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) as an opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan has decisively won parliamentary elections. With Pakatan Harapan winning 121 seats while the UMNO and its partners have been reduced to 79 seats, Malaysia’s era of de-facto one party rule is now over.
Malaysia’s former one-party rule was the product of a functional democracy rather than dictatorship. Because of this, today’s revolution in Malaysia is clearly an ideological one rather than a revolution in governance. In this sense it is all the more important as far from creating arguments about how the country should be governed, the Malaysian people have made a decision regarding how they want their country to be governed.
One of the biggest changes the election brings is that Pakatan Harapan is in part comprised of the long time Malaysian opposition party Democratic Action Party (DAP) which itself is effectively the Malaysian branch of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP). One of the main reasons that Singapore split from Malaysia in 1965 was due to the PAP’s insistence on legal multiracialism (aka full legal equality regardless of one’s race) while the rival UMNO favoured policies of affirmative action which gave preferential treatment to ethnic Malays within civic society.
The New Economic Policy (no relation to the 1920s Soviet policy of the same name) introduced by UMNO in 1971 encapsulated the differences between a Singapore based on race equality vis-a-vis a multi-ethnic Malaysia based on the principles of affirmative action. While both multiracialism and affirmative action can be theoretically justified by differing ethical arguments, the reality is that under Lee Kuan Yew’s multiracial system in Singapore, a swamp land was transformed into a thriving, beautiful, prosperous and safe first world country in just over a decade while Malaysia remained woefully underdeveloped.
This changed in the 1980s with the emergence of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who governed the country between 1981 and 2003. During this time, Mahathir relaxed many elements of the New Economic Policy and allowed Malaysians of all backgrounds, including and especially ethnic Han Chinese who had been disproportionately targeted with reverse discriminatory measures, to play a larger role in the economic, political and public life of the country.
The result was Malaysia’s economic boom which transformed many of the country’s cities into shining examples of Asian modernity. Mahathir also pursued a foreign policy which aimed at neutrality in the Sino-US rivalry for influence in South East Asia, all the while Mahathir stood up for pan-Islamic causes far from South East Asia. While Mahathir’s policy towards neighbouring Singapore was at times very tense, Mahathir did often admit that his own economic reforms were greatly modelled on those instigated by Singapore’s founding father and long time Premier Lee Kuan Yew.
Today, after splitting from the UMNO which he led for decades, at the age of 92, Mahathir is once again the Prime Minister of Malaysia and the oldest living head of government in the world. It is thought that this time, Mahathir will not remain in office for long as he plans to convince Malaysia’s head of state Muhammad V of Kelantan to pardon a former political partner turned jailed political rival Anwar Ibrahim.
Beginning in 1993 Anwar Ibrahim became Mahathir’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.
Now that Anwar’s family and Mahathir are reconciled, it appears as though the veteran statesman will now make preparations to pave the way for his one time political acolyte to become Malaysia’s new Prime Minister.
Beyond the soap opera qualities of the personal fallings out and reconciliations of the individuals involved in the Malaysian elections and far from this being a case of ‘meet the new boss – same as the old boss…but with a different political party’, the elections in Malaysia represent a giant leap away from the policies of affirmative action and racial suspicions and towards an opening up of society on a Singapore style basis which prioritises a single rule of law and single set of rights, privileges and responsibility for all Malaysians. Unlike Mahathir’s previous reforms which were partly rolled back in the early 2000s, this time Mahathir has behind him, a coalition that seeks to forever change the political philosophy of Malaysia for the long term future.
In terms of the wider pan-ASEAN dynamics effected by Pakatan Harapan, if anything with the elder Mahathir back in power, President Duterte of The Philippines may now have a new partner in ASEAN when it comes to straight talking, having a long term vision of economic reform and a wider vision of an ASEAN bloc that is not beholden to any superpower, especially a hyper-meddling United States. While Mahathir is not by any means pro-Chinese, he is neither anti-Chinese. The fact he holds no special favour for the US or China, effectively means that the coalition government in which the Democratic Action Party will play a large part, will necessarily veer towards a policy that embraces economic opportunities from wherever they derive. Pragmatically speaking, this means that Chinese investments in Malaysia will if anything, likely grow stronger over the long term as basic pragmatic realities of the 21st century dictate no less.
Today is therefore a good day for a revitalised Malaysia and a strong, independent and crucially, multipolar ASEAN.