Beyond the Malaysian political tsunami
The stunning victory of the opposition in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary elections, led by former strongman Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has left people ecstatic, bewildered or anxious.
Mahathir’s victory, which gave his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition more than a simple majority in parliament, has many Malaysians crossing their fingers that things will indeed be better after the scandal- and corruption-wracked government of Najib Razak.
Ironically, Mahathir himself once led Razak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance, which had controlled Malaysian politics since its independence in 1957. Razak was a Mahathir protégé, along with eventually jailed opposition stalwart Anwar Ibrahim who was Mahathir’s deputy prime minister before their falling out in 1998. Anwar was imprisoned under contested sodomy charges instigated by Mahathir. After he was released in 2004, Razak detained him again under the same charge in 2008.
Mahathir aligned with a coterie of opposition parties, some of which were powered by former human rights activists and democrats whom he incarcerated and incessantly quarreled with during his era. It is perhaps their presence in the consortium with Mahathir—a fact that initially raised eyebrows among human rights denizens—that has raised expectations that the former strongman would deliver on his promised reforms.
The 92-year-old politician had sought to oust Najib from BN over the latter’s corruption record. Failing that, Mahathir resigned from the coalition he helped cobble together, led by his United Malay National Organization (Umno) party, and declared that it was “no longer the party he knew and led.”
The most sensational charge against Najib is related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) project. More than $3.5 billion went missing from the state development fund, and close to $700 million allegedly ended up in Najib’s bank accounts. He has denied the charges, claiming the money found on his accounts were personal gifts from Saudi Arabian royalty. His appointed attorney general exonerated him from the charges.
Other issues such as a shady French Scorpene submarine deal also hounded Najib, along with the gruesome death of a Mongolian woman in 2006 who was allegedly his paramour and knew details of the anomalous deal.
Mahathir, however, is not above controversy himself.
He was a dominant political figure, winning five consecutive general elections and fending off a series of opponents for the control of Umno. However, his accretion of power came at a price: the independence of the judiciary and the customary powers and rights of Malaysia’s royalty. He used racial politics to firm up his base among the majority Malay population. He employed the controversial Internal Security Act to detain activists, religious figures and political opponents, including Anwar.
As prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir oversaw the transformation of the country from an economic backwater to one of the region’s leading economies. He then became the galvanizing figure of the disparate opposition forces while the charismatic Anwar was in jail. Mahathir claimed in a 2016 Al Jazeera interview that Najib had “gone off track,” and that if he remained in power, Malaysia was “going to the dogs.”
But that was also the accusation leveled at him by Anwar and a lot of human rights activists when he ruled with an iron fist amidst charges of cronyism, nepotism and racial politics during his time.
Indeed, there are no permanent friends, or enemies, in politics.
Thus, some democracy and human rights activists in the country and the region cannot help but be wary. It seems that Malaysians, like some of their counterparts in the region, have resorted to recycling leaders of a bygone era. Never mind that these leaders also ruled with a massive democratic deficit during their time. Now that they have repackaged themselves as either populists, statesmen or remorseful democrats while in the company of genuine ones, they seem to have clinched anew the imagination and trust of their public.
Mahathir has a rare second chance to make things right, and prove that he has truly converted into a “compassionate” statesman.
He is now the oldest elected prime minister in the world—though with his vintage acerbic tongue and autocratic tendencies apparently still going strong. He warned at the first press conference after his victory that Malaysia would bring back the rule of law, including “arresting journalists” if they broke the law. It sounded like a return to an olden yet familiar era.
But the change in Malaysia is also an opportunity for democratic forces to consolidate their ranks. Perhaps Malaysians can show the way in harnessing and strengthening their second whiff of democracy, the same way Filipinos inspired the world in 1986 when they ousted the corrupt and brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos and ushered in a new era of democracy. (What the Philippines became after that is another story.)
Unhappily, the region is confronting the backsliding of democracy all over. Cambodia’s opposition has been emasculated, its leaders imprisoned and the independent press muzzled. Thailand continues to be ruled by a military junta. Burma is controlled by its military despite the veneer of civilian rule led by the erstwhile democracy icon and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Thousands of Rohingya have fled the country in the face of what the United Nations have called a case of virtual “ethnic cleansing.”
A spike in religious and ethnic hate crimes is also testing Indonesia’s democratic credentials. Recently, families of suicide bombers blasted themselves in Christian churches in Surabaya, killing innocent churchgoers. Laos and Vietnam continue to be closed societies, while Brunei and Singapore remain practically under one-party or one-man rule.
How, then, can we bring about a strong and vibrant democracy in the region? How can we establish a government and an Association of Southeast Nations founded on principles and policies, not personalities? How do we reclaim the billions of dollars stolen by former leaders like Marcos and Najib and return them rightfully to the people?
Only when we persist in building an open, vibrant, multicultural and respectful society, where truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law are upheld for all, will we be able to achieve these ideals.
The Malaysian people may yet show us a way to do it.
Gus Miclat is the executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue, a regional advocacy, peacebuilding and solidarity NGO based in Davao City. He is also the chair of the East Asia Democracy Forum, the secretary general of the Mindanao Peaceweavers and a convener of the All-Out Peace Movement.
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