Lessons for Australia in Malaysia election shock

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Malaysia, a country ruled by the same party since independence was won six decades ago, has never been looked to as a regional leader in democracy. This changed on 9 May when a historical opposition win shocked Southeast Asia to a grinding halt.

Mahathir MohamadFormer prime minister Najib Razak and Barisan Nasional did not want to take any chances this year and every effort to stem a fair fight was rolled out. Cynical redelineation of electorate borders meant previously competitive seats were tightened up to be solid wins for the government. A law forced through the legislature at the 11th hour aimed at stamping out 'fake news' effectively made reporting on the massive 1MDB corruption case illegal and further tightened media restrictions.

Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the political party that current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (pictured) created, was briefly deregistered and his face was not allowed to appear on election material. The very date of the election was blatantly planned to disenfranchise as many voters as possible by being on a weekday. In a country where voters must return to their home states to vote, for many working in Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere this became a near impossible feat.

If the intention was to strongarm Malaysians into complacency it clearly failed. The story has become the triumph of Mahathir Mohamad, himself part of the political elite as a former prime minister for two decades, and his opposition coalition. This is wrong. The real story of the historical change of government isn't the endorsement of the now governing Pakatan Harapan coalition, it is the mass-mobilisation of Malaysia's civil society in the face of anti-democratic moves at suppression.

Malaysia's formal politics is not something Australia should replicate. A focus on ethnicity within parties is a feature which, thankfully, Australian politics is moving away from. But the movement, from anti-corruption groups, community organisations and particularly millennial and Gen Z activists, ought to be a lesson to democracies across the world. Australia has a lot to learn from the month of flurried, self-motivated organising within the country and by the diaspora.

Before the vote, much of this organising focused on ensuring voters were able to return home for poll day. Malaysians took to crowdfunding online for plane and bus tickets for working class voters, successfully pressuring airlines to lower prices and suspend fees for flight changes, and organising diaspora to meet up abroad in departure terminals for postal votes to make it back before the cut-off.

In this respect, Australia's electoral institution is a world leader and something of which all Australians ought to be extremely proud. Still, despite best efforts to bring the vote directly to older Australians, open pre-polling to ensure those who can't make the date can still vote, and postal votes for all who request, some Australians still find themselves disenfranchised. Each election is followed by reports of regional communities unable to access their ballots.

 

"Malaysia has shown the world what a bloodless and effective people's movement looks like and is an example to the rest of us."

 

We must take this lesson from Malaysia, where the question of voting intentions never even arose. As Malaysia has shown us, the duty to vote is not just to show up and mark off a name, it is also to make sure every eligible voter is enfranchised.

As reams of opinion pieces over the last few months have shown us, Malaysian voting motivations resemble that of swing voters in Australia. The 'lesser of two evils' thinking prevailed. In Australia, this invites a degree of apathy and a guarantee that once the governing side is seen to be sufficiently 'evil' the opposition will regain government. In Malaysia, however, an excitement of the first ever 'lesser evil' to win has created a vocally critical electorate from the outset.

Election promises that were forgotten as soon as government was won, such as Mahathir indicating he would take a position within the cabinet in addition to the leadership, have been met with fierce criticism and immediately dropped. Failures to ensure enough women MPs in high profile positions has prompted campaigns both online and off. Much of this is in part to a sensation of freedom not previously seen. Politicians seen as too vocal of the Barisan Nasional governments had been blacklisted from media and are now taking to television and newspaper profiles with enthusiasm to meet these criticisms.

The predictability in Australian political life has meant accountability is forced to the sidelines, something to be championed only by minority parties and activists. With few notable exceptions, mainstream mass movements are uncommon and often ineffective. Malaysia's ability to create critical mass while acknowledging that different motivations will see disputes further down the road of how to address key issues has piled the agenda with questions long ignored; particularly difficult, existential questions about the place of Islam in politics and the role of women in public life.

It's early days for Malaysia. Fears still linger that Mahathir will resume his old ways or that change won't come quickly enough. But no matter what happens from here on out, Malaysia has shown the world what a bloodless and effective people's movement looks like and is an example to the rest of us.

 

 

Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad

 

 

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Existing comments

I can remember Paul Keating, then Prime Minister, getting into a bit of hot water for calling Mahathir a "recalcitrant". This term was mild compared to some of Keating's other utterances, especially towards fellow parliamentarians! I note also Keating's great speeches in our democratic forum - part of why I admire him. It's heartening that politics in Malaysia is now more vital and the people are mobilising for a renewed political landscape.
Pam | 01 June 2018


An interesting read. I'd like to think that we will learn, but I suspect we are far too convinced of our own superiority for that. Your name is new to me. I'll remember it.
Bev henwood | 01 June 2018


An excellent analysis to highlight the real significance of Mahathir's victory (read civil society's victory). Clearly the level of awareness, and therefore concern, in Malaysia about the rampant corruption and intent to retain power by the Barisan Nasional, was more widely spread than awareness and concern about any aspect of Australian politics. Despite the problems experienced by Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers, people on New Start and all the homeless, such widespread activism is not likely because the great majority of us live comparatively comfortable lives. For this we can be thankful, but it does not hold out much hope for change in the circumstances of the minority doing it tough.
Ian Fraser | 01 June 2018


As someone who worked in Malaysia in the early 1970s and who has followed its politics for many years, I was interested to read Erin Cook's article on the recent election results Dr Mahathir has certainly played a very skillful and enigmatic role in Malaysian politics for many years. In the 1970s, he was persona non grata with UMNO (the United Malay Nationalist Organisation), the major party of the Barisan Nationalis (BN) – the ruling government coalition from independence until now.The reason was that he wrote the book "A Malayan Dilemma", which was full of racial stereotypes of Malaysia’s races including his own - the Malays.. Despite this, Mahathir was able to become the leader of UMNO and the country’s longest serving PM. Then, he was able to reinvent himself as the leader of the opposition and become PM again at the age of 92! Many non-Malay Malaysians did not expect the BN to ever lose leadership and I suspect that it was only beaten because the former PM Najib Razak presided over great corruption, which many believed that he was involved in and because a former UMNO/BN PM stood as leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. I suspect that many Malaysians will not be expecting great change with Mahathir as PM. After all, he was responsible for many unfair decisions as PM – including the harsh and shabby treatment of Anwar. He is a very healthy, but he cannot be expected to hold power for very long and then Anwar is expected to take over. Who would have thought that the only hope of Anwar becoming PM was his old nemesis? The question now is can Anwar lead Malaysia to being a truly multicultural society where the people of all races are treated equally and have the same opportunities? Let us hope so.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 05 June 2018


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