Malaysia is no longer the country that we knew

Events in Malaysia over the past week amount to far more than a change of government. The fact the country has a Westminster political system seemingly similar to our own tends to obscure the profound change taking place.

At one level there has been the unexpectedly decisive rejection of a prime minister for whom many Malaysians once had high hopes. The son of one of the nation's founding fathers, Najib Razak is energetic and shrewd, and capable of using charm - including on foreign leaders. Gradually, however, tragedy developed as he became embroiled in scandals so serious as to damage the self-respect of large numbers of the Malaysian community. As the election campaign came to a close, Najib showered the voters with promises of material reward; his opponent, the extraordinary Mahathir Mohamad, offered dignity. We can only hope Australians, faced with such an alternative, would make the same choice.

The atmosphere in Malaysia over recent days has been euphoric - the surprise of the vote, anxiety about whether the Najib government would accept its fate, the cool confidence of a returning political leader in his 90s, the pride and enthusiasm of hordes of young people. "In that dawn", as William Wordsworth wrote in the early days of the French Revolution, it seemed a blessing "to be alive".

Potential destabilisation

Malaysia is experiencing not just the overthrow of an unpopular leader but also of the UMNO state. UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, has not just been the dominant ruling party of the country since 1957. Displaying great political skill, and bringing a range of benefits to the country, UMNO has also presented itself as the creator of the nation. This is an exaggeration, but it has long helped make a genuine change of government almost inconceivable.

The defeat of UMNO could be understood as a challenge to the fabric of the nation. The fall of UMNO Malaysia can be seen to destabilise the delicate balance between ethnic and religious groups - always a concern in a country which, at the end of the British colonial period, had a Malay community almost outnumbered by Chinese and Indians. The strongly Chinese DAP (Democratic Action Party) is a highly influential component in the new government; on the other hand, the Islamic Party (PAS) - which has sharply antagonistic relations with the DAP - did far better than expected in the elections, expanding the number of state governments it controls.

In the pivotal May 1969 elections, a dramatic fall in support for UMNO, accompanied by new assertiveness on the part on non-Malays, led to bloody race riots. UMNO's fate is immeasurably more serious today, and already there is commentary on social media that threatens its existence as a legitimate institution. As Malaysia embarks for uncharted territory, questions have even been raised about the future of the monarchy. The news that Anwar Ibrahim will soon be pardoned will thrill many Malaysians - but not all.

Reasons for hope

Two factors give hope that stability can be maintained in the months ahead. First, there is the political capacity and amazing vitality of Prime Minister Mahathir. Over the past few years, Najib's supporters have been consistently attacking Mahathir's record in government, and a surprising number of foreign analysts have proved gullible. True, Mahathir is not a saint - but he has had a long-term vision for his country and demonstrated tenacity and skill in implementing that vision. We Australians have sometimes clashed with Mahathir, but it could be argued we have not had a nation-building leader of his calibre, at least since Alfred Deakin a century ago.

In the election, Mahathir campaigned effectively in both rural and urban areas, speaking with moral power, and admitting past mistakes - and also conveying a confident authority in dealing with the bureaucracy and armed forces.

The police and military, as it turned out, performed well in a dramatic week. In fact, the institutions of the country are a second reason for optimism. We do not know all the details of the fall of UMNO Malaysia, but reports suggest the country's monarchy - particularly the King and deputy king - helped to facilitate the electorate's decision. Mahathir has clashed with the Rulers in the past, but it seems they worked closely with the police and other branches of government to assure orderly electoral process. Also, the formal transfer of power to Mahathir, executed by the King as a royal ritual, provided institutional continuity - a sense of stability which helped to disguise the fact Malaysia, in May 2018, is in many ways a nation transformed.

Professor Anthony Milner is the International Director at Asialink. This article first appeared in the Financial Review on 15 May 2018.

Photo by Marufish, used under Creative Commons licensing.

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