BY UPAMANYU LAHIRI
Southeast Asia seems to have finally turned away authoritarianism. After years of challenges to democracy in the region, like the military coup in Thailand and the shenanigans of elected demagogues like Rodrigo Duterte in Philippines, last month’s Malaysian elections came as a welcome surprise.
The ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), led by incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak, lost power for the first time in 60 years. The elections on May 9 saw UMNO’s opposition, Hope Pact, win, with leader Mahathir Mohamad becoming the world’s oldest Head of Government at age 92. This is certainly good for democracy in Malaysia, which has been under Razak’s increasingly authoritarian and corrupt rule for the last decade. It also bodes well for the wider Southeast Asian region, where democratic norms have suffered a setback in recent years with the rise of leaders like Filipino President Rodrigo Dueterte.
However, a deeper look suggests that there may be less change and more continuity than meets the eye. The Pakatan Harapan (Hope Pact) alliance got a boost when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad defected to it from the ruling UMNO. Being a former Prime Minister and the Hope Pact’s only leader with nationwide name recognition, he soon became the face of the Opposition alliance and its de facto leader. This in itself not objectionable, particularly in developing countries where party allegiances are less consistent than in more established democracies. However, it is worth examining the past record of Malaysia’s new nonagenarian leader. During Mahathir Mohamad’s previous tenure from 1981 to 2003, his bold economic reforms rapidly modernized Malaysia and boosted its economy. But his record of respecting democratic institutions was abysmal. He often cracked down on media organizations critical of him, interfered, and threw political opponents in jail on trumped up charges. He set up the system of state patronage to the Malay population and engineered the authoritarian tools inherited, utilized and perfected by Prime Minister Najib Razak during his almost decade-long graft-plagued rule. His past remarks on Israel and Jewish people have prompted accusations of anti-Semitism. Given his past actions, concerns about Mahathir Mohamad being the harbinger of democracy in Malaysia are legitimate and understandable.
While it is wise to be somewhat skeptical of Mohamad as the restorer of democracy and rule of law in Malaysia, there is cause for cautious optimism. After all, some autocrats have in the past turned a new leaf to become democratic leaders in developing countries around the world like President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. There are similar hopes for Mahathir Mohamad. At age 92, he is unlikely to have the ambition or energy for another long term at the helm. In fact he has indicated that he will eventually make way for a successor, possibly as soon as next year. In a nod to such hopes, he released Anwar Ibrahim, his former rival, from prison, sentenced on falsified charges of sodomy. He is now reportedly being groomed to be his successor.
The Hope Pact had to overcome tremendous obstacles to deliver the UMNO its first defeat in over six decades. Despite Mohamad’s defection giving them a leader with nationwide recognition and the multi-billion dollar corruption scandal involving Malaysia’s “man of steal” Najib Razak leading to anger among people, the opposition was still not favored to win. The opposition was a disparate and fractious coalition of reformers, Islamists, nationalists and ethnic minorities, who all managed to unite as they sensed the public mood was the best possible in years to oust Najib from power. The system of state patronage corruption and intimidation that Razak had inherited and carefully built up further over the past decade seemed enough to see him through, as it had previously. Huge cash handouts were delivered at election time, journalists critical of Razak were shut down, political rivals were sent to prison – ironically much like how they were during the previous reign of his successor.
Despite Razak’s heavy handed tactics, it was clear that that the electorate had grown tired of the Prime Minister’s excesses. Details of the investigation by the Justice Department revealed corruption of epic proportions by Razak and members of his family. Around $7.5 billion from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund. Hundreds of millions of dollars of these funds are alleged to have appeared in Razak’s personal account and spent on lavish items like a 22 carot diamond necklace for his wife, works of art by Van Gogh, Monet and Warhol (worth over $200 million), luxury real estate in the U.S., and a mega yacht. Apart from the sheer breathtaking scale of such blatant corruption, another factor that led to Razak’s downfall was the rise of social media. While traditional news media outlets were muzzled, Razak underestimated and could not control the rapid proliferation of information on social media which is much faster than on traditional media. Accusations of corruption and outrage over them spread on social media, most notably on private Whatsapp groups. All the state muscle power at Razak’s disposal could not withstand the tidal wave of social media-fueled anger at the astounding extent of his corruption allegations and economic hardships and a united opposition that delivered his UMNO its first defeat in 61 years. Suddenly, Razak, who had for years seemed untouchable due to his control of Malaysia’s courts and media, appeared vulnerable as Mahathir promised to pursue investigations on various allegations of impropriety.
While the future for him seems grim, Malaysia hopes to move into a new era of hope and peace and leave behind his era as a thing of the past.