Inside Story

Malaysia’s amazing political rollercoaster

Books | Winning elections in Southeast Asia is tough — and then what do you do?

Graeme Dobell 12 May 2020 2029 words

Down but not out? Mahathir Mohamad as interim prime minister on 29 February this year. Next week he plans to move a motion of no confidence in the new government. Vincent Thian/AP Photo

Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope on the Road to New Malaysia
Edited by Kean Wong | Strategic Information and Research Development Centre | $25 | 212 pages

Voters remade Malaysian politics in May 2018, sweeping away the sixty-one-year-old ancien régime. The people of Malaysia were amazed at what they’d done. The region was agog.

Yet an old leader was the face of the revolution. Mahathir Mohamad was back on top. Across the causeway, in Singapore, this was the joke of the times:

A Singapore man goes to bed in May 1988 and sleeps for three decades. In May 2018, he awakes to be astonished by the length of his beard and the age of his wife. His grown children are called and the grandchildren introduced. Then he asks, “Who is Singapore’s leader now?”

When told that it’s Prime Minister Lee, he muses: “I knew Lee Kuan Yew would never go away. What about Malaysia?”

Malaysia’s leader is Dr Mahathir.

The awakened one shakes his head: “Still Lee and Mahathir! I’m going back to sleep. Wake me up when something changes around here!”

One version of the joke has a coda:

The eldest son steps forward and says, “Don’t go back to sleep, Dad. Everybody else has just woken up too!”

Would Malaysia’s election be a political tsunami that changed everything, or merely a giant version of political musical chairs? Was this a passing moment or a rearranging of how history is understood?

Dr Mahathir’s place in history was suddenly in flux. Malaysia’s fourth and longest-serving prime minister (1981–2003) had become Malaysia’s seventh PM as well. And the seventh PM had pledged to undo much of the fourth PM’s institutional legacy while trying simultaneously to defend his personal legacy.

The sleeper joke chimed with me because when I arrived in Singapore as the ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent in January 1989, there was a lot of speculation about the leadership succession timetables for those two entrenched leaders, Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew.

In 1989, Dr M had just had a heart-bypass operation. Leaving aside wry surprise in KL that Mahathir actually had a heart, how much longer could he go? Well, that bypass lasted eighteen years before another was needed. He’s also had a few heart attacks.

Whatever the state of his heart, the defining feature of this elder elder-statesman is his will to power. That iron will was a feature Mahathir shared with Paul Keating, which makes it hardly surprising that they clashed over conflicting visions of Asia. The system-level difference is that in Australia, losers go to the opposition benches but in Malaysia they can go to jail.

Part of the sharp point of the Singapore joke was the role of political dynasties. Back in 1989, Lee Kuan Yew had a succession plan for his son, Lee Hsien Loong, and for the country. He stepped down as leader in 1990, handing the prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong, but stayed in cabinet — and stayed as the power monitoring the power. In 1990, LKY’s agonising choice between beloved country and beloved son was made in favour of the beloved country. The beloved son had to wait another fourteen years before he became the country’s third prime minister.

Today Prime Minister Lee, like his father, is edging slowly towards that moment when he hands control of the family business to someone who isn’t a family member. The choice of Singapore’s fourth prime minister will be made, as always, by a Lee.

Dynasties and democracies, though, are a volatile mix. Asia well understands that dynasties in business or politics can be a major force multiplier — until that moment when the dynastic line falters or overreaches.

The case in dramatic point in 2018 was Najib Razak, the prime minister Mahathir overthrew. Najib, too, is the son of a prime minister, so the born-to-rule sensibility of dynastic inheritance was added to the hubris of leading the party in power for sixty-one years.

In taking up the reins again, Mahathir gave Singapore some characteristic flicks along with the same lashing he administered to Malaysia’s establishment. The sharpest reminder of Mahathir’s sardonic force, delivered via a Financial Times interview, was his taunt about what Malaysia’s revolution would mean in Singapore: “I think the people of Singapore, like the people in Malaysia, must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence.”

Part of the uneasy symbiosis of Malaysia and Singapore had been that neither democracy ever voted to change its soft-authoritarian government. Now that mirror image of a party holding permanent power had been shattered.

We were asked to junk memories of Mahathir as the champion of distinctive Asian values, of strong government based on hierarchy and respect. That was all so last century. The 2018 Mahathir was the champion of democracy in all its glorious unpredictability, promising to dismantle much of the history he created.

Now those great hopes have been dashed and Mahathir is again a departed leader. But the meaning of Malaysia’s great political experiment is still to be written.

Malaysia is one element of Southeast Asia’s wondrous experiment in comparative politics. Perhaps a galactic professor peers down, testing a spectrum of political systems, from the Malay Muslim monarchy of Brunei to the world’s largest Muslim democracy in Indonesia.

The Universe Uni professor mixes in variations on monopoly themes, from one-party communist (Vietnam, Laos) to one-party democracy (Singapore). Intrigued by the intimate dance between democracy and dynasty and authoritarianism, the professor pushes to see whether regimes can become more responsive and more repressive at the same time.

The variations produced by a system combining soft authoritarianism and electoral authoritarianism make Malaysia a special study.

A simple lesson — taught again by Malaysia — is that ballot-box revolts can change governments, but changing a regime is a tough task needing much time. Kleptocracy takes a lot of killing. The 2018 electoral revolution was overturned this year by an old-politics counterrevolution.

As seen in the distinctly different cases across Southeast Asia, powerful elites have many ways to play elections. Add in the combustibles of individual ego and ambition and you have the drama that this year remade Malaysia’s government again.

Before dwelling on the disappointments, underline the achievement of that seminal election of May 2018, when Malaysia ceased to be a one-party democracy. After having won thirteen elections in sixty-one years, Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu (the United Malays National Organisation, or UNMO) and its Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition were cast out by the people.

It was morality play as Shakespearean drama, with tragedy lurking just offstage. Surely only a great bard or a bizarre galactic professor would dare to create a character like Mahathir Mohamad, now a ninety-four-year-old who puts the noise into being a nonagenarian.

The man who made and remade UMNO during his twenty-two years as prime minister returned to cast it from the citadel at the head of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, the Alliance of Hope. The alliance joined Mahathir with Anwar Ibrahim and other politicians he’d previously jailed. Then, in in February this year, Dr M brought the alliance crashing down.

Mahathir, the master manipulator, masterminded his own downfall. He’s played many Shakespearean roles: Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and several of the ghosts. Finally, he was Falstaff.

To understand these tumultuous years, turn to Kean Wong, a fine journalist and editor who can be claimed by both Malaysia and Australia. Kean — as he’s known to all — qualifies at all levels for an honoured title of Oz hackdom: an old Asia hand.

As contributing editor for the Australian National University’s web journal on Southeast Asian politics and society, New Mandala, Kean brought together a range of writers to describe the 2018 revolution. That coverage is now published in a book, Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope on the Road to New Malaysia.

The book poses a poignant question: “Was Malaysia saved from kleptocracy by the world’s oldest prime minister, and does it finally transform itself into a sustainable democracy with another longstanding putative leader? Is there a younger generation of Malaysians with the gumption to make that difference?”

The unfortunate answer is in: not yet, professor, not yet.

Editors have many nightmares. One is publishing a book overtaken by events — bringing out a tome on a revolution as the counterrevolution arrives. Kean’s response is to do what journos always do. When the facts change, they file anew. So the book now has update chapters, carried by Melbourne University’s Asialink. The book captures the excitement of the new Malaysia. The updates describe problems confronting its birth.

In his introduction to the updates, Kean comments: “[O]rdinary Malaysians did the extraordinary thing in Asia of using the ballot box and voting out a government in power since 1957, only to see a return in 2020 of its modern cabal, many of its current leaders still facing the courts for grand corruption charges.”

The book carries excellent on-the-ground descriptions of that ballot-box moment. Among the gems, see Dina Zaman’s piece, published just before the 2018 election, on life in one kampong in Sabah — a village facing the push and pull of modernity and the stricter teachings of freshly minted Islamic scholars.

Greg Lopez sets the scene for the cabal comeback by arguing that the 2018 result didn’t amount to regime change. The rules of the game for Malaysia’s competitive authoritarian regime haven’t altered, he writes, because there were “no fundamental alterations in the institutions that constitute the regime.” Nor was there “substantial movement to establish free and fair elections and broaden civil liberties.”

Another gem is a chapter by Clive Kessler (a grand Oz warhorse who has spent more than fifty years studying Malaysia) pondering why he got the 2018 election wrong. As he wrote before it happened: “Democratic transition under electoral democracy is not easily achieved in Malaysia. The bar is set very high. Inordinately high. The bottom line here is that, while it is not easy for an opposition to win an election in Malaysia, it is far harder for them, even having done so, to assume power and rule.”

Those truths about ruling and regime change were played out as political musical chairs in February when Mahathir tore apart the governing coalition.

The aim was to cement Dr M’s hold on power and ditch his promise to hand the prime ministership to Anwar Ibrahim. The personal struggle between Mahathir and Anwar has run through Malaysian politics for three decades. Dr M botched the coup against his own government — Machiavelli meets the Marx brothers — and ended up stabbing himself in the front. Tragedy and farce, treachery and infighting.

Mahathir’s party deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, was appointed prime minister by the king at the head of a new Perikatan Nasional “national alliance” government. Anwar is opposition leader. Mahathir lurks, promising to rise a third time. The Covid-19 crisis has, for the moment, frozen the players in place.

Muhyiddin’s PN government, Kean writes, “is widely cast as a dubious coalition of parties mostly underpinned by a politics of race and religion, untested in and perhaps saved from parliamentary legitimacy thanks to the postponement for a few months of parliament amid the pandemic.”

Hew Wai Heng writes that Mahathir’s government was partly undone by “Muslim majoritarianism,” the always potent claim that “Islam is under the threat” and “Malays are being sidelined.”

In an update essay on politics in a parlous time, Meredith Weiss notes that Malaysia’s political system sets it apart from the rest of Southeast Asia because the parties are “coherent, enduring, distinct, and allowed to contest.” Yet the parties are also prone to fracture under the weight of heavy egos.

The short-term costs of Mahathir’s debacle and the rise of Muhyiddin’s PN government, Weiss judges, will be “institutional reforms and political house-cleaning foregone, likely investments diverted, and general frustration,” while the long-term costs “could be citizen disillusionment and disengagement, should votes seem not to matter and other institutional checks to be ineffective.”

Galactic professors and venerable warhorses understand that winning elections in Southeast Asia is tough. Then, having got the power, to actually govern… •

Copies of Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope on the Road to New Malaysia can be ordered by email in Australia for $25 each, postage included.