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General elections in May 2018 saw the downfall of controversial prime minister Najib Razak—and an end to the monopoly on power enjoyed by the ethnonationalist United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for the whole of independent Malaysia’s 61-year history. Key to this peaceful electoral revolution was an unlikely alliance between former archenemies: nonagenarian ex–prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and reformasi opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who under Mahathir’s government had been publicly denounced and jailed on politically motivated charges. Along with this surprising reconciliation of bitter rivals, the fallout of the massive 1MDB corruption scandal and a broader reshuffling of Malaysia’s party landscape created new electoral dynamics. While it seems clear that democratization has gotten underway, with Mahathir once again occupying the premiership and a handover of power to Anwar promised, Malaysia’s new governing coalition rests on a fragile equilibrium.

On the night of 9 May 2018, as the Malaysian Federation awaited the results of its fourteenth general election, 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was in the ballroom of a five-star hotel on Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts. Mahathir, who had already made history as the longest-serving Malaysian premier (1981–2003), had gambled his legacy on the outcome. In 2016, he resigned from the ruling party he had once led and joined the opposition in its efforts to topple sitting prime minister Najib Razak (2009–18), Mahathir’s own selected heir. As Mahathir entered the ballroom that had become the temporary headquarters of Malaysia’s opposition, the controversial leader brought with him an issue of the Economist whose cover depicted recently elected U.S. president Donald Trump against the backdrop of a U.S. flag.1 Playfully displaying the magazine to his advisors, Mahathir remarked: “Imagine . . . the flag is almost the same, just change the man”—an allusion to Malaysia’s national banner, which features red and white horizontal stripes as well as a blue rectangle (the backdrop for a gold star and crescent) in its upper-left corner. To Mahathir, Trump’s unexpected victory was a portent of his own remarkable political comeback.

When he made his break from the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Mahathir had vowed to wage political war on “kleptocracy” and to “restore democracy.” By this time, Prime Minister Razak had been caught up for six years in a massive imbroglio centering on embezzlement from the national trust fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB)—a corruption scandal that ranks among the world’s largest.2 To firm up his grip on power, Najib had embraced increasingly authoritarian tactics.

During his earlier stint in office, Mahathir himself had been no [End Page 114] stranger to authoritarian methods. His 2016 decision to take up the mantle of prodemocracy and anticorruption crusader, however, gave rise to an unexpected alliance that has transformed Malaysian politics. Within a few months of his defection, Mahathir had aligned himself with the reformasi movement—a reformist current dating back to 1998, whose leaders had once been his bitter foes. Under Mahathir’s government, the main reformasi leader Anwar Ibrahim as well as a number of his key supporters had been jailed before growing opposition finally pushed Mahathir to resign as prime minister in 2003.

In December 2016, Mahathir’s newly created Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) announced a pact with the troubled opposition coalition led by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife, and in March 2017 Bersatu formally became a coalition member. In January 2018, this “Alliance of Hope” (Pakatan Harapan, or PH) named Mahathir its candidate for prime minister, with Wan Azizah as his would-be deputy. Mahathir in turn promised to hand over power to Anwar—at this point serving a second prison term—following the latter’s release, and to do so within two years of the election.

At the time, few would have wagered on the success of the nonagenarian’s political gambit. Yet against all odds, UMNO collapsed on the eve of its seventy-second anniversary: Despite the attempts of Najib’s government to leverage its administrative resources, PH and its allied parties made history by claiming a majority of seats in the lower chamber (the House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat) of Malaysia’s bicameral Parliament. Mahathir’s overwhelming victory put an end to the monopoly on power enjoyed by the ethnonationalist party over the entirety of independent Malaysia’s 61-year history, a historic step away from semiauthoritarian rule and toward electoral democracy.

If UMNO’s dramatic loss came as a surprise, so too did the ensuing peaceful transition. Mahathir himself, as well as many observers, had expected a violent response from Najib, possibly involving the use of emergency laws. Instead, Malaysia experienced a peaceful electoral revolution. When he assumed office on 10 May 2018, Mahathir became the world’s oldest sitting prime minister. With the reformasi by then in the twentieth year of their political struggle, he had also taken the helm of one of the world’s oldest social movements. At a time of rising authoritarianism around the globe, the onetime UMNO leader became an unlikely icon of democratization.

How was this internationally recognized practitioner of authoritarian politics able to make a credible comeback at the forefront of a democratic movement, promising to dismantle a system he had created and to unseat his own designated heir? Part of the answer lies in the personalization of the political scene around three high-profile protagonists: Najib, Anwar, and Mahathir. The successes and failures of their respective narratives were crucial to the election’s outcome. [End Page 115]

Some striking new electoral dynamics emerged during the 2018 vote, with unprecedented opposition breakthroughs among rural voters from the ethnic-Malay majority, citizens of East Malaysia (the regions located on the island of Borneo’s northern coast), civil servants, and young people. The opposition was able to broaden its appeal thanks in part to the bargain between two political heavyweights, Mahathir and Anwar. Also at play were new trends in ethnoreligious rhetoric, a broader re-shuffling of the political landscape, and a nostalgic emphasis on the economic achievements of Mahathir’s former regime.

Observers have raised doubts about the credibility of Mahathir’s commitment to democracy. Yet the decisions made during his early days in office and the composition of his government suggest that the country has started down the road to reform. Uncertainties remain, however. These center on the fragile equilibrium of Malaysia’s new governing coalition; the sensitive question of the promised transition from Mahathir to Anwar; and the challenge of overcoming an entrenched culture of corruption, patronage, and Malay ethnonationalism after decades of UMNO rule.

The Colors of Old Malaysia

After achieving independence from the British Empire in 1957, Malaysia failed to make a full transition to democracy. Beginning in the 1970s, the country drifted into the grey zone of semiauthoritarianism, with its increasingly repressive regime buttressed by draconian laws and a racialized system of governance inherited from the British. Mahathir added to this inherited set of authoritarian tools as a result of a clash with the judiciary in 1987–88, which culminated in the gutting of judicial checks on the executive.

In the years leading up to 2018, Malaysian elections were shaped by the polarization dividing UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition from successive opposition coalitions (the Barisan Alternatif from 1999 to 2004 and the People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat, from 2008 to 2015). Ethnic divisions have been key to politics in Malaysia, where the majority of citizens belong to groups classified as Bumiputera, a politically constructed category comprising diverse indigenous groups and the Malay Muslim majority (painted as indigenous by the government’s version of Malaysian history). Of these groups, the ethnic Malays (estimated to make up roughly 55 percent of the citizenry)3 are the largest demographic. Non-Malay indigenous groups include the Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia and a variety of ethnic groups based in the states of Sabah and Sarawak, both on Borneo. Malaysia also has significant ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian minorities (constituting about a quarter and slightly over 7 percent of the population, respectively).

UMNO, created in 1946, is a complex political machine whose primary [End Page 116] raison d’être is securing the political dominance of ethnic Malays. Over the decades, the party slid toward an ultranationalist agenda that served to justify racist policies and tactics, while also offering Malays access to the country’s resources through a web of state-run or party-linked companies. The party built a strong system of patronage that fostered both feelings of dependence and a siege mentality among its Malay constituents. To legitimize its authoritarian grip, UMNO cultivated fears of various “others,” including non-Muslim minorities, non-Malays, the opposition, and the West.4

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Although UMNO has been the overwhelmingly dominant force within the Barisan Nasional, the coalition’s inclusion of parties representing minority groups (currently, the Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association) allowed it to serve as a multiethnic façade for the Malay-nationalist governing party. Meanwhile, the two consistent members of the successive opposition coalitions have been the pro-Anwar People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which draws its support mainly from the ethnic-Chinese community. Another key player is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), whose allegiances have shifted over the course of its long history.

A rationalized and systematic racism has long supplied the backdrop for Malaysian politics. State-promulgated ethnic and religious classifications reinforce social stratification, and a racialized administrative system inhibits socializing across ethnic and confessional lines. Religion also serves as a key marker of ethnicity: Indeed, Article 160 of Malaysia’s constitution lists profession of the Islamic faith as one of the criteria for identifying a “Malay.” Further cementing outwardly imposed identity categories are laws and state bodies—both religious and secular—that regulate matters such as sexuality, faith, religious practice, and education. Marginalization and punishment await individuals whose identities transcend preassigned categories or whose behavior challenges religious, social, or legal norms—including interreligious couples (when one party is a Muslim), members of the LGBTQI community, apostates from Islam, and Muslims who belong to sects other than the prevailing Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. Moreover, non-Malay [End Page 117] indigenous groups, the special status they nominally enjoy as Bumiputera notwithstanding, and the Indian minority have failed to benefit from the country’s economic-development policies, and at times have borne their costs.

Affirmative-action programs favoring Bumiputera are in theory intended to support upward mobility for disadvantaged populations, but in practice they have mostly benefited the Malay elite. Over its long rule, UMNO made strategic use of ethnic preferences to win votes, keep the population politically quiescent, and maintain a climate of fear and dependence. Najib in particular reinforced this patronage system through his “1Malaysia” policies (officially aimed at fostering national harmony), which included the establishment of state-owned grocery stores and the distribution of cash subsidies to low-income Malaysians under the BR1M program.5

Martyr, Messiah, and Fallen Hero

From 2016 to 2018, Malaysian politics more than ever revolved around three personalities: Najib, Anwar, and Mahathir. The resulting drama prominently featured three archetypes: those of the martyr, the messiah, and the fallen hero, with each politician taking on different roles depending on partisan perceptions and the particular context.

Najib rose to the top of Malaysia’s ruling party in 2009, following 2008 elections that delivered five state governments into the hands of the opposition led by Anwar.6 With incumbent prime minister and UMNO party chief Abdullah Ahmed Badawi in a weakened position, Najib, backed by Mahathir, took over both offices in rapid succession. The new political leader, son of Malaysia’s second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein (1970–76), at first positioned himself as a reformist and a liberal. He soon announced plans to modify certain affirmative-action policies exclusively directed at Bumiputera in the direction of a more balanced system inclusive of all ethnic groups, although he quickly backpedaled under pressure from his own party and emerging groups of Malay nationalists.7

Najib subsequently began to tack in a very different political direction. In 2010, the public got its first glimpse of what would grow into the mammoth 1MDB scandal. Intended to foster national economic growth, the development fund in practice became a cash cow for well-placed individuals: Recent estimates suggest that the scheme’s beneficiaries, notably including flashy 36-year-old financier Low Taek Jho (Jho Low), succeeded in siphoning off more than US$4.5 billion from the fund. Some bold political moves by Najib, including the swift sacking of high-level critics within his own government,8 helped to ensure that domestic investigations quickly came to a close—with Najib himself cleared of responsibility. By 2015, however, foreign authorities had [End Page 118] opened no fewer than nine investigations into the 1MBD affair, most of which identified Najib as one of the protagonists.

As attention to 1MBD grew, critics took aim not only at Najib but also at his wife Rosmah Mansor, known for her extravagant tastes and compulsive shopping. The wife’s supposed manipulation of her husband, as well as her alleged inclination toward mysticism, became the subject of widespread jokes and gossip. These rumors portrayed an emasculated, vile, and shameful Najib in thrall to the treacherous charms of his power-hungry wife. The famous political cartoonist Zunar did much to popularize these views, often depicting an oversized Rosmah together with a shrunken Najib. The government officially deemed Zunar, along with any other artist who dared to sketch the prime minister or his wife, to be a threat to the country’s stability, and in 2010 the authorities detained the artist and banned his books. In 2015, they formally charged him with no fewer than nine offenses ranging from sedition to defamation, which together could have landed the cartoonist in jail for as many as 43 years. In a sign of liberalization following Najib’s loss at the polls, these charges were dropped in July 2018.

In the years leading up to the 2018 vote, the popularity of Najib’s government plummeted. The reasons behind these political woes included the 1MBD scandal; the alleged misdeeds of Najib and Rosmah; suspicions of government involvement in the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian model and translator; and risky policies such as the sudden imposition in 2015 of a 6 percent tax on goods and services. This tax proved a hard sell among Malaysians in general and the UMNO’s ethnic-Malay constituencies in particular, in light of both the political culture of dependence historically fostered by UMNO and mounting resentment over the reputed misadventures of Najib and his wife. Public dissatisfaction grew.

Deepening factional tensions within UMNO, meanwhile, finally exploded in a rupture that shook the entire party. As a series of top-level politicians found themselves at odds with the UMNO leadership—in most cases due to frictions resulting from the 1MDB scandal—they sought new alliances with the party’s historic opponents. In February 2016, Mahathir resigned from UMNO. In September of that same year, the ex-premier launched Bersatu in alliance with several UMNO defectors who had run afoul of Najib (including former education minister and deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir’s son Mukhriz, previously chief minister of the northern peninsular state of Kedah). Like UMNO, this party targeted the ethnic-Malay demographic, offering full membership only to members of Bumiputera groups—but this did not prevent it from quickly concluding an alliance with the multiethnic Pakatan Harapan.

The following month Shafie Apdal, a former UMNO minister and leading politician of the eastern Sabah region on Borneo, formed the Sabah [End Page 119] Heritage Party (Warisan) together with former PKR leaders. Abandoned by these and other top politicians, UMNO was weakened as it entered the 2018 campaign.

A Surprising Reconciliation

The opposition to UMNO in its current form can be traced to a schism that took place in 1998, the starting point of the party’s longstanding conflict with Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar, previously the leader of the country’s main Islamist youth movement, had been recruited to UMNO by then–prime minister Mahathir in 1982, after which Anwar headed a number of ministries before claiming the post of deputy prime minister in 1993. When the rising political star and reform advocate clashed with Mahathir over the correct response to the 1998 East Asian financial crisis, the party’s leadership attempted to orchestrate his downfall. Anwar was removed from his position, publicly denounced as a “corrupted sodomite,” and arrested. Yet out of this rupture grew the reformasi movement, a new political force aligned behind Mahathir’s sacked deputy. In 2003, elements of this movement coalesced into the PKR, the first multiethnic and multireligious party to become a player in Malaysian politics since the Federation’s independence.

Since 1999, Anwar has faced a succession of politically motivated court cases. Following his initial arrest, he was sentenced to jail time in connection with convictions for corruption in 1999 and sodomy in 2000. Anwar was released in 2004, when the Supreme Court struck down the sodomy conviction, and he enjoyed a triumphant return to politics. In 2015, however, despite a lower-court ruling in his favor, the opposition leader was convicted on a new sodomy charge by the top court and jailed once more. In total, he has spent more than a decade in prison. Wan Azizah became his de facto replacement in politics: Since 1998, in tandem with her husband’s imprisonments and releases, the ophthalmologist-surgeon and mother of five has circulated in and out of parliamentary and party-leadership positions.

Anwar’s surprising reconciliation with his former nemesis began in September 2016. In that month, Mahathir appeared in Malaysia’s High Court in a show of support for a case brought by Anwar, who was seeking to halt enforcement of the recently passed National Security Council (NSC) Act.9 This authoritarian piece of legislation provided Najib’s government with a new means of muzzling opposition, making up for some of the powers that it had lost with the 2011 repeal of the draconian Internal Security Act. The meeting of archenemies, depicted in the press as “spontaneous,” in fact marked the start of an unlikely alliance carefully crafted by highly placed individuals from both camps. Mahathir and Anwar had not met or spoken since the first had sacked the second in 1999. By making this appearance, Mahathir was implicitly acknowledging [End Page 120] the political relevance of the reformasi movement that he had sought to quash eighteen years earlier.

This moment also signaled the launch of another dramatic political narrative, according to which Mahathir had returned to politics to rescue the Malaysian people from Najib and Rosmah’s evil. Ready to sacrifice his retirement, his health, and his family, the former leader was determined to make amends—and his record of success and proven leadership represented Malaysia’s only chance. “He came back to save us,” explained one of his supporters, a former journalist in the northern island district of Langkawi.10 “He has helped building Malaysia and he is seeing it destroyed,” argued his daughter, writer and activist Marina Mahathir.11

This messianic narrative emerges with particular clarity in a short film produced by Bersatu,12 which portrays Mahathir both as a strong, proven leader and as a man with human weaknesses who has become wiser with age. The film plays on nostalgia for Mahathir’s regime, but also stresses the subsequent degradation of the Malaysian economy and the burden that this has placed on citizens. The movie reaches its emotional peak in a scene where the grandfatherly leader explains to a little girl and her brother that he has made mistakes he must repair: “I am already old, I don’t have much time left, but within my means I’ll try my best to work together with all my friends to rebuild our nation.” Overwhelmed by his confession, Mahathir sobs.

There have been plenty of bumps in the road leading to Mahathir’s reconciliation with Anwar’s family and comrades from the PKR and DAP—a transition “from enemies to Valentines,” as Anwar’s daughter and PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar put it.13 Constant harassment by state authorities and UMNO leaders, however, helped to keep the motley coalition united in the interests of survival. The three parties eventually adopted the PKR’s emblem as their common logo for the 2018 campaign, leading to the singular oddity of Mahathir placing on his shirt a pin depicting the eye of Anwar—a symbol of the physical violence (a black eye) endured by the reformasi leader during his detention in 1999.14

Splits within Malaysia’s established parties reshaped the country’s electoral dynamics in the runup to the 2018 vote. By creating a second Malay party, the leaders of Bersatu hoped to provoke a swing in Malay voters’ support from UMNO to Pakatan Harapan. In previous elections, Chinese and Indian votes had provided the main pool of support for the PKR and DAP. Particularly with the departure of the PAS from the opposition coalition, the primary ingredient PH needed for electoral success was a new way of drawing Malay votes. Four parties competed chiefly for this demographic: the two ethnically defined parties (UMNO and Bersatu), as well as the Islamist parties PAS and Amanah.

The PAS, like UMNO, dates back to the preindependence period, and it has developed a strong network in rural Malaysia. In the 2008 [End Page 121] and 2013 elections, PAS competed as part of the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. But after the death of the party’s spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat in February 2015, and with its traditionalist faction ascendant under the exclusive leadership of longtime party president Hadi Awang, PAS broke off ties with its former partners in the DAP—and Pakatan Rakyat collapsed shortly thereafter. The moderate branch of PAS broke away to form another Islamist party, Amanah, which joined the new coalition Pakatan Harapan (and was in practice another alternative for Malay voters). Since the split, PAS itself has sided politically with UMNO on several occasions without formally joining BN. Instead, it has since 2016 been the lead actor in a new Islamist front known as Gagasan Sejahtera (Ideas of Prosperity).

In the absence of real ideological differences between UMNO and Bersatu, the election was more than ever a contest over narratives. This contest was held on new political terrain: In the 1980s and 1990s, UMNO and PAS had competed to show which party best embodied Islamic values. The 2018 campaign, by contrast, saw the odd spectacle of Najib and Mahathir, two leaders known for their authoritarian tendencies, each trying to prove himself more democratic than the other. The other parties of Pakatan Harapan, including the DAP and PKR, meanwhile worked to reassure skeptics of Mahathir’s commitment to reform.

Unofficially, the campaign started as early as 2016, with both Najib and Mahathir regularly using their public appearances to launch attacks on each other. Among other things, Najib attempted to showcase the purported achievements of Malaysian democracy with a highly publicized visit to the United States in September 2017. At the same time, Najib had not given up on more direct means of ensuring the election’s outcome. In the months before the vote, the government shored up its control with a strategic redrawing of electoral districts (a historically successful tactic for UMNO) and the promulgation of a vague law that allowed authorities to jail the disseminators of what they deemed to be false information—billed as an effort at countering “fake news.”15 Yet the tactics used by Najib, his government, and “independent authorities” under government influence (including the Electoral Commission) to tarnish Mahathir proved a failure, and to some extent even reinforced his iconic status.

In a country where creative districting and electoral irregularities had long sufficed to keep UMNO’s rivals shut out from power at the federal level, Pakatan Harapan’s electoral success amounted to a political earthquake. When the dust settled, the opposition coalition found itself in control of 116 seats in the 222-seat House of Representatives: Of these, 50 went to the PKR, 42 to the DAP, 13 to Bersatu, and 11 to Amanah. Through its alliances with two Borneo-based parties commanding a joint total of 9 seats, Pakatan Harapan in the end assembled a 125-seat majority. UMNO has ended up with only 52 seats, with three additional [End Page 122] seats going to its partners in BN; PAS obtained 18. Independent parties or coalitions from the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak made up the remainder of the new opposition. (In the initial vote totals, PH had claimed 113 seats and BN 79, but postelection loyalty shifts led to a dramatic swing away from the former ruling coalition.)

Figure. S G C M 2018 G E ( S T) Note: In addition to its 13 states, Malaysia has three Federal Territories: Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, and Putrajaya. Source: PRU 14, .
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Seats Gained by Coalitions in Malaysia’s 2018 General Election (by State or Territory)

Note: In addition to its 13 states, Malaysia has three Federal Territories: Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, and Putrajaya.

Source: PRU 14,!/home.

The opposition landslide occurred despite a decline in the share of the popular vote claimed by PH in comparison to its predecessor: In 2013, Pakatan Rakyat, at this time consisting of the DAP, PKR, PAS, and the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), won 51 percent of votes, whereas Pakatan Harapan in 2018 took only 48 percent. PKR vice-president Tian Chua ascribes this drop to the departure of PAS supporters.16 But these difficulties paled in comparison with those suffered by Barisan Nasional, whose vote share was 14 percentage points lower than in the 2013 election. After the postelection defection of its Sarawak affiliates, it managed to carry only two states, Pahang and Perlis (both in peninsular Malaysia).

The PAS, which wins its support from the segment of Malay voters most susceptible to religious rhetoric, emerged from the 2018 election in a strengthened position. It now holds a dominant position in two northern peninsular states (Kelantan and Terengganu). The PAS profited from conflicts among the other parties catering to Malaysia’s ethnic majority. [End Page 123] For Malay voters disaffected from UMNO who however took issue either with Mahathir’s politics or with his new ties to the predominantly ethnic-Chinese DAP, PAS offered an attractive alternative to supporting either major coalition. With UMNO struggling to rebuild its leadership, the conservative Islamist party is currently the sole credible and well-organized force in opposition to the new government. Its capacity to play this role effectively is yet to be seen.

Once the ballots were counted, it became clear that something like the “tsunami rakyat” (popular tsunami) that PH politicians had aspired to bring about indeed occurred. There were particularly striking swings away from BN among Malay voters and the inhabitants of Sabah and Sarawak, with the latter casting their votes for indigenous parties either allied with PH or independent of the two major coalitions. While analyzing these shifts with precision is a difficult task, Tian Chua has asserted that the hoped-for Malay swing from UMNO to PH did take place.

The largest vote swings in 2018 took place in the states of Kedah, Johor, Selangor, and Sabah: In these states, the share of votes going to political forces not aligned with BN increased by more than 20 percent relative to the 2013 election, yielding victories for PH or its allies. Some of these victories highlight BN’s decline among once reliable constituencies. Johor, which lies at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, was the birthplace of UMNO and has traditionally been a party stronghold. In northern Kedah, where Malays make up 76 percent of the population, dissatisfaction with UMNO led to a state assembly dominated by PH (18 seats) and PAS (15 seats), with only 3 seats going to BN. This state has been home to the Mahathir family, and Mukhriz Mahathir, ousted both from UMNO and from the position of Kedah chief minister in 2016, succeeded in reclaiming that post after the 2018 vote.17 In the wealthy western peninsular state of Selangor, internal contention within and among opposition parties did not prevent a powerful showing by PH, which won an additional 20 percent of the popular vote compared to Pakatan Rakyat’s 2013 result. This increase undoubtedly owes much to the popularity and strong economic record of Azmin Ali of the PKR, the state’s former chief minister (2014–18).

Another electoral surprise was the success of Warisan, the PH-allied party in Sabah. Malaysia’s Bornean regions, where BN had made strategic alliances with local parties and Malay ethnocracy became intertwined with local nationalism, had previously been a tough nut for the opposition to crack. A policy of naturalization of Muslim foreigners (mostly from the Philippines) promoted by Mahathir in the 1990s had shifted local demographics in UMNO’s favor, but also created strong resentments—making Warisan’s association with PH a double-edged sword. In interviews with the author, Warisan leaders emphasized the importance of guarding their party’s independence as an ally but not a member of the opposition coalition. As one such leader explained, “If Mahathir comes here, we will [End Page 124] not welcome him.”18 Despite these challenges, party founder Shafie Apdal was sworn in as chief minister of the state on May 12, following the defection of six state-assembly representatives from BN. In both Sabah and neighboring Sarawak, the 2018 results have prompted smaller parties formerly partnered with BN to rethink their alliances.

On the Road to Democratization

On May 10, there was a new atmosphere in the streets of Kuala Lumpur—as if suddenly, despite the racial, religious, and social divisions on which UMNO and other parties had long played, everyone felt themselves to be “on the same side.” Indeed, one might have imagined that the “One Malaysia” of which Najib had boasted, but which never materialized under his rule, had at last come into being. The transition from UMNO to PH rule was a peaceful one; the longest-ruling party in the world left power quietly.

Some election-night drama did, however, take place behind the scenes of the PH victory: Mahathir’s swearing-in as prime minister was delayed due to discussions between the PKR leadership and Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, Sultan Muhammad V. According to Wan Azizah, the king had offered first her, then Anwar the prime ministership in hopes of preventing Mahathir’s return to power.19 Mahathir has become known over the years for his lack of enthusiasm for royal privileges. In 1993, he implemented reforms to revoke the immunity of the sultans (men from traditional royal families who are the official leaders in nine of Malaysia’s thirteen states), and he also lowered royal allowances.20 Others claim that the initiative behind the challenge to Mahathir’s nomination came from Wan Azizah herself, who on this account feared that Mahathir might opt to keep Anwar behind bars, or release Anwar but hold on to power himself, or hand over power to an alternative successor (potentially Azmin Ali). In the event, Anwar was released on 16 May 2018.

The tensions over Mahathir’s return to the premiership and then over the government’s composition revealed deep factional struggles within the PKR. Due to a split in the party’s leadership, two main groups have emerged in recent years. The first is headed up by party vice-president Rafizi Ramli and his supporters, together with Wan Azizah, and the second by former Selangor chief minister Azmin Ali in alliance with a number of early reformasi activists. The recent appointment of Azmin Ali as economy minister, as well as some other key nominations, suggest that his faction currently has the favor of the Mahathir-led government.

On May 10, state media began embracing the messianic narrative promoted by Mahathir’s backers: Najib’s UMNO, a political monster deformed by corruption and racist politics, had been brought down by its creator. In the days following the election, a group of supporters started a petition to nominate Mahathir for the Nobel Peace Prize, and thousands of [End Page 125] Malaysians, from businessmen to schoolchildren, offered to make voluntary donations to pay off the national debt (a new national fund was created to receive these gifts). Mahathir, who has not forgotten the tactics of effective rule, has been politically hyperactive since his nomination. Yet his return to power has evoked anxiety—not only among international supporters of Malaysian democracy, but also within the ranks of the victorious coalition. Is Mahathir the democratic convert he claims to be? Is Anwar sincerely convinced when he argues that Mahathir has become a new man?

While these questions are hard to answer for certain, it seems clear that—despite some bumps in the road—democratization has gotten underway. When a public outcry arose over Mahathir’s decision to nominate himself as education minister (he had promised during his campaign not to take on any portfolio beyond that of prime minister), he announced the next day that he had made a mistake, apologized, and subsequently appointed an academic from Bersatu to the post. Mahathir has also proven to be very effective at creating levers of control without compromising his new democratic bona fides. He has made a series of ministerial appointments apportioned so as to avoid giving any one party the upper hand: Despite the fact that the PKR won the greatest number of votes, each coalition party received an equal number of portfolios. Further minimizing the chances for any one party to claim the advantage, Mahathir’s government has set up supervisory or advisory committees outside the ministerial framework to tackle various challenges. Among these bodies are a council of elders (including prominent economist K.S. Jomo and former minister of finance Daim Zainuddin) established to supervise the 1MDB case; a corruption task force whose members include civil society leader Cynthia Gabriel, founder of the anticorruption organization C4; and a committee for electoral reform that counts among its participants lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former chairman of the proreform civil society coalition Bersih.

The new government has begun work in a number of key directions, with efforts underway to reform the legal and electoral systems, restore financial balance, and investigate Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal (the former prime minister was arrested on July 3). On 16 August 2018, Parliament passed a repeal of the much-disputed anti–fake-news law. In the following days, the attorney general announced plans to rescind a controversial 2012 piece of public-security legislation permitting extraordinary detentions.21 The government’s intentions regarding ethnic preferences are unclear, but a review of the existing system is tentatively expected to conclude by the end of the year. While individual liberties seem to be a priority for the new government, certain minority groups have faced a stagnant or even worsening situation. Areas in need of improvement include child protection (especially for the vulnerable population of minor migrants) and legal provision for the rights of young women and girls. In July, a new controversy over child marriage arose following [End Page 126] the posting on social media of pictures from a 41-year-old-man’s wedding to an 11-year-old bride.22 Wan Azizah, who in addition to being deputy prime minister has taken charge of women’s affairs, said authorities could not void the marriage due to its validity “under Islamic laws,”23 but public outcry pushed the attorney general to take up the case. The LGBTQI community, meanwhile, is facing high levels of physical violence and discrimination. Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department (a possible target for reform by the Mahathir government) has been behind harassment campaigns against religious and sexual minorities, and the minister for religious affairs has claimed that officials can help guide members of the LBGTQI community to the “right path.”24 Such statements and practices greatly harm the image of the “New Malaysia.”

As Mahathir himself acknowledged in his campaign film, his days are numbered. The retirement plan of the veteran politician, now 93, remains unclear, as do the details of the promised turnover of power to Anwar. Mahathir has requested two years to set the country in order, and Anwar has expressed his readiness to give Mahathir the necessary “space” to this end. Yet since his release, Anwar has surprised many by his criticism of the government and other political moves, including private visits to the sultans and to former or current foreign leaders (among them Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). He has also stated his intention to return to Parliament as soon as possible, although as of this writing no seat has been offered to him. In view of these developments, his critics have raised doubts about the possibility of a smooth transition of power. After all, can there be two Messiahs?

Sophie Lemière

Sophie Lemière is Stanford-NUS Lee Kong Chiang Visiting Fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, and a fellow at the Ash Center for Democracy, Harvard University.


1. Economist, 1–7 July 2017.

2. Kerstin Steiner, “Economics, Politics and the Law in Malaysia: A Case Study of the 1MDB Scandal,” in Sophie Lemière, ed., Illusions of Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People (Kuala Lumpur: SIRD, 2017): 245–70; Cynthia Gabriel, “The Rise of Kleptocracy: Malaysia’s Missing Billions,” Journal of Democracy 29 (January 2018): 69–75.

3. Geoffrey Wade, “The Origins and Evolution of Ethnocracy in Malaysia,” in Sophie Lemière, ed., Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2014), 3–26.

4. Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

5. Hemananthani Sivanandam and Tarrence Tan, “BN Manifesto: Double Joy for BR1M Recipients,” Star (Petaling Jaya), 7 April 2018,

6. James Chin and Wong Chin Huat, “Malaysia’s Electoral Upheaval,” Journal of Democracy (July 2009): 71–85.

7. See Thomas Fuller, “Malaysia to End Quotas That Favor Ethnic Malays,” New York Times, 1 July 2009. On the ethnonationalist front see Sophie Lemière, “Gangsta and Politics,” in Sophie Lemière, ed., Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2014): 91–108.

8. Shannon Teoh, “Najib Sacks DPM, Four Ministers and A-G,” Straits Times, 29 July 2015,

9. See “Malaysia: National Security Council Act Gives Authorities Unchecked and Abusive Powers,” Amnesty International, 1 August 2016,

10. Interview with anonymous journalist, Langkawi, February 2018.

11. “On the Record: Marina Mahathir on Her Father Mahathir Mohamad’s Return to Politics,” Channel NewsAsia, 17 March 2018,

12. “Harapan—Filem Pendek Untuk Malaysia,” UbahTV, April 2018,

13. Nurul Izzah Anwar, “From ‘Enemy’ to ‘Valentines’?” TEDx Talks, 27 October 2017,

14. A video can be found in a 7 April 2018 Facebook post by Wan Azizah Ismail,

15. Hannah Beech, “As Malaysia Moves to Ban ‘Fake News,’ Worries About Who Decides the Truth,” New York Times, 2 April 2018.

16. Phone interview with Tian Chua, 12 June 2018.

17. “Mahathir’s Son to Return as Kedah Chief Minister, 2 Years After Ouster by BN,” Today (Singapore), 11 May 2018,

18. Interview with Darell Leiking, Kota Kinabalu, 9 March, 2018.

19. Interview with Wan Azizah Ismail, Segambut Dalam, Kuala Lumpur, 15 May 2018.

20. Charles P. Wallace, “Regional Outlook: A Battle Royal in Malaysia Turns Nasty: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed Is Determined to Strip His Nation’s Sultans of Their Legal Immunity,” Los Angeles Times, 2 February 1993.

21. Robin Augustin, “Sosma Will Go Soon, AG Reassures,” Free Malaysia Today, 25 August 2018,

22. Hannah Beech, “11 and Married: Malaysia Spares Over an Ancient Practice,” New York Times, 29 July 2018; Beech, “11-Year-Old Bride of Malaysian Man Is Returned to Thailand,” New York Times, 16 August 2018.

23. Syed Jaymal Zahiid, “DPM: Under Islamic Law, Marriage of Child Bride in Kelantan Still Valid,” Malay Mail, 10 July 2018,

24. Reuters, “A Brutal Assault and Rising Fear in LGBT Community,” Free Malaysia Today, 24 August 2018,; Bernama, “We Have Experts to Help LGBT Return to ‘Right Path,’ Says Mujahid,” Free Malaysia Today, 29 July 2018,

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