By The Nation
Malaysians woke up on Thursday to a new government after Mahathir Mohamad’s coalition defeated the incumbent Najib Razak, making history and setting an example for a region where democracy has been taking a beating for some time now. The election was historic because it marked the first time the opposition had overcome the ruling Barisan National (BN) party since Malaysia gained its independence from Britain six decades ago.
Some observers are saying the country has entered a new era, but caution is advised here. There are many questions still to be answered and, down the road, plenty of
alternative outcomes too. The poll opened a great bounty of possibilities for Malaysia, but what happens next depends on what Mahathir does with his victory.
The 92-year-old Mahathir is as veteran a politician as can be, having served as premier from 1981 to 2003, in the process adding his country to the roster of rising Asian economic tigers. But his administration was authoritarian and he was responsible for creating a political system that he subsequently accused Najib of exploiting.
As wily as ever even at his advanced age, Mahathir joined the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) just a year ago and wasted no time declaring publicly that his objective was to oust Najib from power. For all its boldness, the single-minded determination to unseat Najib and the BN should never have been an end in itself. Now, with his surprise triumph, Mahathir has the opportunity to redeem himself. Whatever he does in office in the coming years will shape how he will be remembered. His legacy is, once again, at stake.
Six decades in power is a long time for the BN or any other political organisation. In this respect, Malaysia has set sail into uncharted waters. Adding to the tremendous challenges ahead is the fact that so many citizens remain adamant in their support of the BN. Nevertheless, the election result was a rare item of good news for liberal democracy, especially in Southeast Asia, where governments, including Thailand’s, are becoming too comfortable with autocracy.
From Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”, which has claimed thousands of lives, to the suppression of civil society in Thailand and Cambodia, to the mass atrocities inflicted on the Rohingya of Myanmar, the region is mired in authoritarian muck. So the poll outcome in Malaysia felt like a breath of fresh air, bringing hope that democracy might yet prevail.
The election outcome is also a reminder that politics anywhere can create strange bedfellows. Mahathir has told his supporters that he wants to remain in power only for two years, during which time he will seek a pardon for his former deputy PM-turned-political rival Anwar Ibrahim, so that Anwar can take over as prime minister in his stead.
It’s a noble intention, and meanwhile Mahathir should also try and repeal the controversial and repressive law against “fake news” that Najib introduced earlier this year to shore up his chances in the election.
With its Malay majority and bumiputra (indigenous people), its sizeable Chinese and Tamil-speaking minorities, Malaysia is an extremely diverse society. The reincarnated Mahathir has an opportunity to reshape and update policy so that all of the country’s people can share in the benefits.