Watching Malaysia 2.0?

May 13 — Stunning. I catch glimpses of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (I was basically still in school during his last administration) on television and I am amazed.

Of course, millions of Malaysians are feeling something much more profound but even as a Singaporean I understand this moment is historic; it is emotive and hugely significant.

What the Malaysian people did on the 9th of May was quite extraordinary. They turned their backs on years of familiarity, handouts, authoritarianism, incumbency and propaganda.

The whole country watched Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad get sworn in as the seventh prime minister of Malaysia on May 10. — Picture by Bernama
The whole country watched Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad get sworn in as the seventh prime minister of Malaysia on May 10. — Picture by Bernama

After being told for decades that Barisan Nasional (BN) is the only possible government and that the alternative was chaos and a loss of opportunities, the Malaysian people took a great leap — into the unknown.

They made a bold choice and did so in the face of enormous odds. Their reward — an opportunity to redefine their nation.

It’s exhilarating but the country’s journey has only just begun. Taking the current euphoria, the sky-high expectations, the internal rivalries, the strong personalities and turning them into a story of success will be far harder than winning the election (which already wasn’t easy).

The various allies within the now governing coalition will somehow have to agree on power sharing — which ministries will go to who? Will Anwar Ibrahim succeed Tun M and when? A civil service almost entirely appointed by BN must now work with the new government, not against it.

On the most fundamental level, the country’s new rulers must resist — at all costs — the temptation to turn their new power into quick money.

This has been the undoing of so many reformers who have taken power around the world — the urge to grab a piece of the pie that was denied them during their years in opposition.

Of course, while avoiding corruption themselves the new bosses will be expected to prosecute those from the past administration who have taken from the people.

But again, if they really prosecute even a significant proportion of those who possibly enriched themselves illegally over the past few decades, the arrests and court cases will be in the thousands. Creating enemies where allies are needed.

So, the government will have to compromise; in some cases allowing known cronies to continue in positions of power and influence — raising the anger of those who elected them.

These are the sorts of deals, decisions and compromises that will define the next few months and years in Malaysia. To see this all through to a positive conclusion there will have to be a sustained effort by the parties who won the election, the media who supported them and crucially the people who elected them.

Supporters will have to temper expectations and be patient while at the same time ensuring the government doesn’t veer too far off course.

Literally every force in Malaysia — including even the defeated Barisan National — will need to contribute; an effective opposition will be needed.  This is a tall order.  Malaysians have proved themselves to be brave but do they have the stomach and the stamina to really see this through?

I like to think yes.

Congratulations Malaysia on a democracy, well-done.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.