How democracy is won
12 Dec 2018|

It is perhaps indicative of our times that the peaceful transition of power by means of a democratic election is a candidate for ‘disruption of the year’. The outcome of the Malaysian general election in May was the hopeful outlier to a global trend towards populist nationalism, engineered through fear of refugees, migrants and the ‘other’.

Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country where democratic values and collaboration between all groups made change possible. The electoral disruption was hardly what the world expected or what the pundits predicted, so we would do well to take careful note of what Malaysia’s voters cast their ballots to achieve.

For starters, Malaysians voted to end the rule of a coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had been in power since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1957. With the demise of BN came an end to the hegemony of communal race-based politics. Moreover, voters rejected a system of governance that was operating as a conduit for transferring public goods and opportunities to private individuals and groups.

Under the previous system, the government had become an omnipresent factor in business and all aspects of social development. In return for what it gave through transfers, it expected unflinching electoral support, regardless of the circumstances or the competence of its candidates. Electoral feudalism was essentially the Malaysian way for the long decades of UNMO rule: voters were tied to their political masters.

The great disruption of May 2018 was driven by popular revulsion at the flagrant corruption that had become endemic in Malaysian governance. The figures are staggering. Untold billions have disappeared from the public purse through the scandal at the state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, and nefarious spending practices across government ministries.

The arrogance and openness of corruption trickled down more effectively and extensively than the effects of any development program. When the rich lavishly reward themselves, it is little wonder that those further down the pecking order—whose living standards are steadily declining—are tempted to follow suit. The sense that the whole of Malaysian society was being corroded convinced voters that only radical change would do.

The roots of change, however, extend much deeper than one electoral cycle. The groundwork for Malaysia’s democratic disruption was laid during 20 years of campaigning for reform. It has been part of every election since 1998, when I was summarily dismissed from government and arrested on trumped-up charges.

The reform agenda, developed by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), gradually changed the political landscape. In the 2013 election, our opposition coalition actually won the popular vote but could not overturn the gerrymandered allocation of seats in Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system.

The decline in national life eventually brought Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, out of retirement at the age of 92. It is no secret that Tun Mahathir and I have had a stormy relationship in the past. So, when he came to visit me in prison to discuss joining our opposition coalition, it was clear that we had achieved critical mass.

Nothing would seem as disruptive (in the sense of unexpected) as two erstwhile political adversaries collaborating. It required genuine forgiveness and a radical change in personal perspective, so that politics could move forward for the sake of the country. The Pakatan Harapan coalition won the election, and after 20 years of effort, PKR emerged as one of the largest single parties. According to our pre-election agreement, Tun Mahathir became our new prime minister.

The new coalition government has committed itself to a reform agenda that envisions Malaysia as a fully mature, just, equitable and effective democracy. Ending corruption is but one item on our agenda. Establishing an independent judiciary, election commission and free press, and nurturing active civil-society organisations, are also necessary to ensure free, fair and open elections, deliver justice, and see that there is an equitable provision of public goods and services.

Another aspect of democratic maturity has been the move away from communalism towards genuine meritocracy, inclusive and just to all of Malaysia’s citizens. Affirmative action was introduced to help the Malay and the Bumiputera communities overcome the deficiencies they inherited as a result of intentional colonial neglect. But, over time, and under the UNMO, positive discrimination became an entrenched system of handouts treated as entitlements, which stultified enterprise and ambition. Affirmative action became a prop for complacency and corruption, rather than a helping hand.

Malaysia will now help the poor by offering assistance to those in need, regardless of their communal origins. The needs of poor rural Malays will in no way be favoured—or disfavoured. Need qualifies the needy. Making distinctions based on race, ethnicity and communal origins has nothing to do with fighting poverty.

Malaysia’s strength is its plurality, yet we have much work to do to restore the openness and genuine engagement of our multicultural society. There is much to be gained from sharing the richness and creative potential of our varied traditions, languages, cultures and ideas. Through reform and cooperation, Malaysia will become a more vibrant, productive society, and a model of peaceful, democratic coexistence that the world so desperately needs.

My perspective on the change that has unfolded so far is quite particular. At the start of 2018, I was still in prison, confined by the government’s determination to prevent my participation in the elections. So, for me, 2018 has been momentous.

The coalition we negotiated—even with me still behind bars—swept to a resounding and unexpected victory. Within days, I was released from prison and received a royal pardon. Within months, I had stood for and won a by-election that returned me to parliament. And now, I am working to ensure the implementation of the reform agenda and the fulfilment of decades of determination to effect real change.

If this is disruption, I look forward to more of it in 2019 and beyond.