Malaysia shows the way towards a functioning democracy in South East Asia

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Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Malaysia’s peaceful polls and smooth transition of power without any untoward incident reflect the political maturity of its people, observes Benedict Lopez.

For the past 13 general elections, many Malaysians, including me, thought that the Alliance and its successor the Barisan Nation (BN) was invincible and it was highly unlikely that we would see change in our lifetimes.

The BN was so entrenched in the country’s political system that it was virtually impossible to unseat it from power.

Dwelling in its comfort zone for so long, the ruling coalition lost touch with reality, miscalculated public support, and failed to realise that the power of the people was much sturdier than the people in power.

BN felt that, come election time, all it needed to do was dish out goodies and depend on the three Ms: money, machinery and media. Nothing was covered in the mainstream print and electronic media about the Opposition’s success in the states it governed, Selangor and Penang. Instead, BN and its media continued to vilify the Opposition instead of trying to emulate it.

Events over the last three years opened the eyes of the people. But BN and its cohorts were unable to see the writing on the wall. Otherwise, it could have redeemed itself had there been dissenting voices within the coalition on crucial issues such as corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.

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BN also failed to address other critical issues facing the ordinary people like the escalating cost of living and the immensely unpopular GST. Even BRIM failed to appease the people. If changes had been instituted immediately, BN perhaps could have scraped through this time around.

The gerrymandering and redrawing of constituencies boundaries also backfired. For example, by including Bukit Aman under the Lembah Pantai parliamentary constituency, BN thought that they could easily win the seat as the former MP, Nurul Izzah Anwar had a majority of only around 1,800 votes in the 2013 general election.

But our men and women in blue and voters in other areas BN thought were its strongholds in Lembah Pantai voted with their conscience instead of feeling morally obligated to the powers that be. So it was not a surprise when PKR, represented by first-timer Fahmi Fadzil, retained the Lembah Pantai seat with an increased majority of 5,598 votes!

BN failed to anticipate and take remedial measures against its adversary’s ability to make inroads and spring a few surprises. It ran out of ideas on what to do against a rejuvenated opposition alliance led by a formidable personality, former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. BN thought he was a yesterday’s man who no longer wielded much influence anymore – a catastrophic mistake.

Many people still have considerable respect for the nonagenarian, remembering his significant contributions to the country during his 22-year tenure as prime minister. The deregistration of his party, Bersatu, and other childish, vindictive actions such as the cutting out of Mahathir’s image on billboards only earned more sympathy votes for Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Working in PH’s favour was the fact that for the first time, opposition parties had put up a united front, with all the four main parties contesting under a common logo, the PKR eye banner, allied to a new but formidable force in Sabah, Warisan. It was an enormous sacrifice for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) to discard its revered rocket logo for the sake of opposition unity.

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Higher internet and broadband penetration worked in PH’s favour. This allowed greater access to social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instgram), messaging apps like WhatsApp, and independent media websites (Malaysiakini and Aliran), which provided a balanced account of the news on both sides of the political divide.

So first-time voters, who are quite independent-minded and more educated, were besieged with a plethora of information, which caused considerable damage to the ruling party.

All these factors contributed to the ruling party’s defeat on 9 May 2018, which will go down in the annals of history for future generations to look back with awe.

International media organisations like the BBC and Australian Broadcasting Corporation wrongly forecast that BN would win the election. I don’t know on what basis they drew that conclusion when no in-depth analysis or survey was carried out by both media organisations. Did they even contact local opinion research firms like Merdeka Centre, which had projected PH would win at least 100 seats?

Despite much criticism levelled at the Electoral Commission, I must say that I did not observe any malpractices on polling day at the school where I was a polling agent.

After completing my duty, I took a senior citizen friend to a nearby polling station in Bangsar to vote. As soon as we arrived at the polling centre, an Electoral Commission official immediately brought a wheelchair for him. When I told the official that he was unable to walk-up to the first floor to vote, he immediately informed his colleague, and the ballot paper was brought to the ground floor for my friend to vote.

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Wastage of money was conspicuous in many constituencies, including Lembah Pantai, where I was. There were just too many posters and billboards of the BN candidate all over the constituency. If the poster war was any indication of the outcome, the BN candidate would definitely have won. But the result was the opposite.

The Election Act must be amended to regulate posters and billboards during elections and to strictly prohibit candidates from giving gifts and souvenirs to the electorate. Indulging in such practices is tantamount to bribery and if it occurs in the future, the MACC should investigate the candidates concerned. It should be a level playing field for all candidates.

The 2018 general election was a renaissance for the people of Malaysia and a signal to their government, whichever party is in power, that the people should not be taken for granted. With an increased level of education comes knowledge and wisdom. And with both come the ability to think and evaluate issues rationally and objectively. Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time. But you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Malaysia’s peaceful polls and smooth transition of power without any untoward incident reflect the political maturity of its people. Not many developing countries can lay claim to a political history like ours.

Malaysians can walk tall now, looking at the evolution of its democracy over the past six decades. Hopefully, this general election will lay the foundation for a vibrant two-party system in the country.

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Benedict Lopez
Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. During the course of his work, he covered all five Nordic countries. An eternal optimist, he believes Malaysia can provide its citizens with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime.

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