A year after Malaysia changed government: A messy democracy but necessary — Khoo Ying Hooi

MAY 8 — Just a year ago, Malaysia faced challenges ranging from the absence of state legitimacy, fragile institutions to corruption scandals that put the country in the international limelight for many wrong reasons. In a stunning result that made its political history, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition crossed the minimum threshold of 112 seats needed to form Malaysia’s new government. The result brings to an end to the ruling of Barisan Nasional (BN) that dominated the Malaysian politics for six decades since its independence in 1957.

The story of Malaysia’s transition to democracy is an inspiring one. It took the form of a combination between the two transition processes, from above and below where there are mounting pressures from the people as we witnessed in the five mass protests staged by the electoral reform movement, Bersih since 2007, and the negotiation pact between the opposition and Mahathir in the transformed PH coalition.

The change did not take place in one night but this hope for change is culminated since the Reformasi Movement in 1998 until the 2008 general elections that famously termed as the political tsunami. And, finally on May 9, 2018, Malaysia found its fame of its newfound democracy when many countries around the world are suffering from democratic backsliding.

Today, hope seems lost for many. In its first anniversary of regime change, criticisms have amounted to the new government over its failure in keeping its promises from the election manifesto. Various public opinion polls including the most recent one conducted by the Merdeka CenteR has shown that the approval ratings for the new government has fell from 79 per cent in August last year to 39 per cent.

Prior to the 2018 general elections, PH had made promises of reforms including strengthening the human rights and rule of law. But in a year, the new government has backtracked on introducing significant reforms including abolishing oppressive laws, ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), ratifying the Rome Statute and abolishing the death penalty in totality. It is further made worse with the Islamisation agenda pushed by right wing politicians and Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for political advantage.

Why the backlash?

Backlash by the people are a wakeup call for the new government. One prevalent explanation is the frustration of people towards the inadequacies of the current political model built strongly on ethnic politics, one that did not truly break with what had historically ailed Malaysian politics. All these have fragmented and polarized the country at the same time. The period of six decades under the suppressed BN regime had produced a broad-based popular demand of the need to share power and to have the ability to hold the government for their actions.

In the Malaysian society where it has inherited the ethnic politics, one way of overcoming the fear of transition is to instil a culture of tolerance through mutual recognition, consensus and compromise. But until today, there have been no significant policies by the new government to reconcile the ethnic and religion divides and human rights, and on how democracy can protect everyone including the minorities. A bargaining process would have to be established to recognize differences by striking a balance among groups in order to promote ethnic co-existence. Equal opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their ethnicity should be promoted. 

While efforts have been taken to be more inclusive by incorporating opposition parliamentarians in several parliamentary committees, the notion of winner-take-all practice in the past Malaysian political competition needs a re-examination. As negative values had been inculcated for too long in the society, it is also time for the new government to shift the approach by investing time to understand the masses, and to re-socialize to promote a positive political culture. While one cannot legislate political culture but the new government should start doing it by finding out ways to reduce fear that each group had of the other.

With Malaysian politics that has always described as a matter of personality, not programs, especially under two-coalition systems, it poses challenge on the people to be cautious with expectations as such feature can be used easily to manipulate the electorate. For instance, the images of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who is currently facing various corruption charges posing on a Yamaha Y150 motorcycle with the registration plate 8055KU (BOSSKU), accompanied by the tagline “Malu apa bossku” or “Why the shame, boss” have been actively making its rounds on social media and gains its popularity, in a rather peculiar way.

In the meantime, it is alarming that the education has become a fundamental divide in democracy in the Malaysian society. This is particularly significant when it concerns issues related to race and religion. While the effect is not direct, but there is likelihood where it points to a deep alienation that transcend both ways. Moreover, mass media now enhances these patterns. On one hand, the mass media is seen as a platform to disseminate information to produce informed citizens, but on the other hand, political knowledge cannot be guaranteed as equally distributed due to the different pattern of media consumption. Information does not circulate beyond a small portion of the population; for instance, the confusion surrounds the ratification of Rome Statute and ICERD. All these have its root of the problem not only in Malaysia’s education system where it has little approach in civic knowledge; the other factor is the quality of media reporting in the country. Apart from the need of educating the masses, the politicians should also be educated about human rights and respect for the constitution.

Has it failed?

It is a reality that it is easy to manipulate public opinion, where evidence means little to many and reasoned argument means even less. In order to help the transition process along, the society as a whole needs to be aware of the instrumental and intrinsic values of democracy. The uncertainties of democracy through the ballot box had to be understood and accepted.

The hard truth it, process of transition to democracy is often difficult and painful. In the case of Malaysia, it is going to be a long and bumpy ride as we are experiencing. Much success will depend on the quality of leadership at all levels operating as well as a vibrant civil society for the check and balance mechanism. The government should capitalize on the transition to address the country’s most urgent challenges quickly, in order to promote inclusive economic growth while at the same time, to foster enduring democracy.

Looking at the changes in the country in this first anniversary of political change, one may conclude that Malaysia needs to strengthen policies that would alleviate anxieties and lack of trust in politics that currently troubles the public. However for this to effort to succeed, we need to also understand that it is unrealistic to think that Malaysia can suddenly reverse course and institutionalize stable democratic government simply by changing leaders, legislations and institutions. It is crucial to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the challenge of transforming authoritarian system into an open society. If progress is made toward developing democratic government, it is likely to be messy and slow with many imperfections along the way, by having this in mind; at least, we will not forget the long struggle that brought to the changing of government on 9 May 2018 and becoming lost in democratic transition.

* Khoo Ying Hooi is Deputy Head and Senior Lecturer of the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.