What does Malaysia’s surprising democratic transition mean for the rest of the region?

Two years ago, Malaysia’s opposition leader was in jail, its independent media was being censored and shut down, and colonial-era laws were being used to jail activists. The idea that the country would see a democratic transition was one that few believed, even in civil society. Yet, this past May, that’s exactly what happened: the opposition Pakatan Harapan (the Alliance of Hope, or PH) coalition ended the 61-year reign of the Barisan Nasional (the National Front, or BN) coalition led by the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak. It was the longest continuous rule of any elected government in the world.

“Before the election, even the night before, nobody expected this result,” says Kuang Keng Kuek Ser, a former journalist and founder of DataN, a newsroom data journalism training program. “The whole discussion was more ‘how can the opposition can defend their current seats?’ There was never any thought of a change of government.”

It was a stunning victory because, in the lead up the election, BN had done everything it could to stack the results in its favour.

In March a controversial re-delineation of parliamentary seats that many felt would favour voters in BN’s rural Malay base was pushed through. BN had long been reliant on Muslim Malays, who make up about 68 per cent of the population (according to official government statistics) to win elections. This was followed by the passing of a broadly-defined ‘fake news’ bill in April which makes the creation or dissemination of disinformation punishable with up to six years in prison or fines of up to US$130,000. In addition to existing laws like the 1948 Sedition Act, many felt the new bill would further criminalise free speech.

“For too long the government has worked hand-in-hand with prosecutors to use these laws as weapons to intimidate activists. It has also filed charges to force them to run the gauntlet of multiple courts cases that makes it very difficult to continue their day-to-day work fighting for justice,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Regional context

Malaysia’s choice to overthrow the BN gives hope to other pro-democracy movements across the region, where the shrinking space for civil society coupled with attacks on press freedom and a rise in authoritarianism and nationalism are threatening civil liberties and political rights. For example, nearly every country in south-east Asia saw a decline in Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom in the World Report.

In fact, the situation Malaysia faced a few years ago closely resembles what other countries in the region are experiencing now. For example, opposition parties and independent media are being squashed in Cambodia ahead of its forthcoming election, while in Vietnam, an entrenched party is limiting freedom of press and assembly. Malaysia’s neighbour, Singapore, has a ruling party that has dominated politics since independence, and it continues to manipulate elections and suppress dissent.

“The political tsunami in Malaysia that resulted in the election of Pakatan Harapan is really important for the morale of rights and democracy campaigners struggling for reform in their own countries,” Robertson tells Equal Times.

Singapore is particularly worth watching due to its historical connections to Malaysia. They were, for a short time, part of the same country, and Singapore’s People’s Action Party has been in power continuously since 1966, just a few years short of BN’s world-beating record. Not surprisingly, Singapore is paying close attention to what’s happening across the border.

“Singapore’s government is looking at Malaysia with a great deal of angst and concern. It is working hard to try to figure out how to blunt democratic momentum from seeping across the border,” says Robertson.

Malaysia’s opportunity

Despite the fact that Malaysia has overcome such huge odds, the outcome of May’s election was not a fluke. The opposition, civil society and the media has been organising since the anti-corruption reformasi movement began in the late 1990s, and for them, this was the culmination of years of dedicated organising, despite several setbacks.

“At each stage there was progress,” says Bala Chelliah, the president of Global Bersih, an organisation of Malaysians in the diaspora that have been fighting for free and fair elections at home. “This whole movement progressed from one stage to another.”

It also means there is little naivety about the task at hand. Already civil society activists are calling for a wholesale reform of the country’s legislation, including the rescinding of the various laws and regulations that have been used to stifle public debate and human rights in Malaysia. This includes the Fake News Bill, the Sedition Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Security Offences Act, various provisions of the Penal Code, the Communications and Multimedia Act, and the Peaceful Assembly Act.

“The election of a reform government provides a golden opportunity to cut down repressive laws that have sparked fear among civil society activists for years,” says Robertson.

However, one election is not enough for Malaysia, as the cautionary tale provided by nearby Myanmar proves. Elections there in 2015 brought the party of Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, to power. Many expressed hopes that Myanmar would finally embark on a path to reform the country, which had been ruled by a military dictatorship for decades. Instead, Myanmar has seen such widespread ethnic violence against the minority Rohingya that many are calling it a genocide, the jailing of journalists, the repression of trade unionists and little meaningful change in reducing the military’s grip on the country.

For Malaysia to avoid Myanmar’s mistakes, the country will have to take the next step to fulfill its promise and become a genuine, multicultural, tolerant democracy. Only then can it truly be a symbol for south-east Asia.

“Absolutely Malaysia can [succeed],” says Bridget Welsh, an associate professor and Malaysian political expert at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. “Whether it will is another story. It is arguably the brightest light in the direction of democracy that the region has seen for a long time.”

The new government has taken one step many in Malaysia hoped to see, by formally charging the former prime minister Najib Razak with corruption in the recently re-opened investigation into the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal.

For Chelliah, the hope is not just that the new government will make changes on their own, but that the people of Malaysia will continue fighting for what they have been demanding for the past two decades: a government that respects free and fair elections, human rights for all and the use of state funds for the betterment of all its citizens and residents. And that, he believes, is the biggest lesson from the 10 May election result.

“We should never underestimate the capabilities of people,” says Chelliah. “If you give people the right message and hope, they will overcome any obstacles that governments or dictators may put in their path.”