- Malaysia in 2018:The Year of Voting Dangerously
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And when I went in the room with all these thoughts of, okay, what I do next might actually change the nation, I started to shake.– Jean Vaneisha1
If a week is a long time in politics, what of an entire year? Malaysians embarking on an extended holiday at the beginning of 2018 would have returned to a deeply disorienting socio-political landscape at year's end. They would have had to absorb the fact that the once-mighty Barisan Nasional political alliance now lay in tatters, with former prime minister Najib Razak facing thirty-eight criminal charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. They would be reading newspapers filled with daily pronouncements from nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's now-returned premier, supported by a cast of political players mostly unused to wielding federal power. Their shopping and dining receipts would be marked by the conspicuous absence of the goods and services tax (GST). Their friends, families and colleagues might speak of new expectations, whether in terms of future livelihoods, educational opportunities, inter-ethnic relations, or the rule of law. This chapter will discuss how this situation came to be, as well as its deeper significance for Malaysians and their neighbours.
Politics: A Glass Half Full?
The road to Malaysia's political upset arguably began in September 2016, when Mahathir cemented his break with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) by founding Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) on the 8th of the [End Page 195] month, before literally joining hands with former political arch-rival Anwar Ibrahim the following day.2 Drawing in several disaffected Malay political heavyweights, including former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz Mahathir and former Negri Sembilan chief minister Rais Yatim, Bersatu acquired further mainstream credibility in March 2017 when the Pakatan Harapan coalition — with Anwar Ibrahim's approval — formally accepted Bersatu into its fold. Reconciliation was reinforced in July 2017 when Pakatan's leadership agreed on having Mahathir as its prime ministerial candidate, with Anwar as Pakatan's de facto leader and Mahathir's eventual political successor.
Notwithstanding these remarkable events, many Malaysians entered 2018 with little clarity regarding which party they should support at the ballot box. Each option had its drawbacks and potential dangers. Casting a winning vote for a Barisan Nasional component party could allow Najib and his allies to consolidate power, preside over deepening corruption, and even spell the end of cohesive political opposition in Malaysia.3 In contrast, a winning vote for a candidate affiliated with Pakatan Harapan — whether from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Keadilan), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) or Bersatu — might lead to a new dawn in politics, excising Barisan from federal power for the first time since 1973 (or 1957, if former incarnation the Alliance Party is counted). A sticking point in previous elections — the lack of a strong opposition leader to champion Malay-Muslim issues — was seemingly addressed by Bersatu's incorporation into Pakatan, with Mahathir at the helm.
Yet Malaysians nursing memories of authoritarian rule under Mahathir's first premiership often saw the purported rapprochement between Mahathir and his former enemies — including Anwar, then Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng and former DAP party leader Lim Kit Siang — as a deeply opportunistic arrangement geared at wresting power from Najib and transferring it back to Mahathir's own family and friends, with little hope for longer-term reforms in the public interest.4 Even those less sceptical of Mahathir's motives were concerned about how a future Pakatan government would be able to effectively govern, let alone restructure a system moulded to one dominant coalition's benefit for the past six decades.5
Such dilemmas bolstered the incumbent government's confidence of winning the general election in the months leading up to GE14, and even recapturing the parliamentary supermajority lost in 2008. For every critic pointing to the likelihood that the 1MDB corruption allegations surrounding Najib Razak would cost Barisan future votes, it could be countered that many...