Rosmah Mansor, the wife of Prime Minister Najib Razak, caused a ruckus when she allowed others in the government to address her as the “First Lady” as early as 2009.
Malaysia does not have such a concept, unlike countries with Republican traditions such as the United States or France. Nevertheless, the honorific stuck.
While controversial to some, it barely merits mention on a list of unusual factors as voters prep for the next general election in uncharted waters, filled with anomalies that could cause headaches for ruling and opposition parties alike.
To begin with, the opposition coalition, otherwise known as Pakatan Harapan (PH), will have a common logo when it registers as a formal coalition of four parties. Prior to PH, a common logo had been deemed unnecessary, or inappropriate, as the opposition front had failed time and again to coalesce into a united body.
Somewhat ironically, Nurul Izzah, an opposition member of parliament, averred in an interview with The Malaysia Insight that PH is not so much a “coalition” as it is a “common front”. Still, it is a first to see a de facto “common front” going into the electoral battlefield as one and the same.
There is another first in Malaysia on the Eastern front: renegade vice president from the United Malay Nationalist Organization (Umno) Shafie Apdal will make his electoral assault against the old party, with the help Warisan (Heritage Party), which Shafie Apdal had just formed.
Warisan and Bersatu are led by a former prime minister, deputy prime minister, a full minister in Consumers Affairs, and two chief ministers from Johor and Kedah. If one includes Sanusi Junid in Bersatu, he is a former chief minister of Kedah as well.
And, though no one knows the leanings of Tun Daim Zainuddin, he was the former Minister of Finance and the Treasury General of Umno, potentially one of the richest political parties in Malaysia.
There are other firsts as well. Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad will compete against Najib as the leader and chairman of PH. Neither has gone head-to-head against Najib before, making this contest both unprecedented and unseen.
Indeed, never before in the electoral history of Malaysia (since 1955 at least), has the country had a former president of Umno – Mahathir – working side-by-side with a former deputy president of Umno – Anwar – to bring down the Umno president.
More interestingly, all their wives are active in politics. Rosmah is widely known in Malaysia as the one who wields the real power, while the wife of Mahathir, Dr Siti Hasmah, is widely respected in and out of Umno and has joined forces with Dr Wan Azizah, the wife of Anwar.
Just as exceptional, the eldest daughter of Anwar, Nurul Izzah, has formed an alliance with Mukhriz Mahathir, the youngest son of Mahathir, to form a joint assault against Najib and his ilk.
In the Democratic Action Party (DAP), stalwart Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, will lock hands with Mahathir, Anwar and the family of the late Fadzil Noor and the late Yusof Rawa, both of whom were the presidents of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Also, the second term MPs of PKR, DAP and Amanah have never worked with Mahathir before, let alone Muyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir.
Yet, through the tactical genius of Dr Rais Hussin in Bersatu, widely known to be the former adviser of current Umno Chief Minister Dr Zamry Abdul Kadir in Perak, all are working hand-in-hand to unseat Najib.
But this will not be an easy task. The National Security Council Act of 2016 has empowered the prime minister as well as the deputy prime minister to declare an emergency in the event of any life-threatening situation on the ground that is potentially caused by the attack of the Islamic State in Malaysia.
Economically, this is also the first election where Malaysia’s fiscal condition is in the red, after the mismanagement of nearly US$11 billion in and through 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). The election – a date has not yet been set but it will be before August 2018 – will be a litmus test on the popularity of the goods and services tax which stands at 6 per cent.
One might recall that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was herself unseated in 1989 by the “poll tax”. The vehemence of the “poll tax” was so pervasive that Thatcher had to hand her reins of power over to John Major, a mere bank clerk who worked his way to the top.
The Malaysian government, having dabbled in numerous corruption scandals ranging from the National Feedlot (NFC), to Port Klang Free Trade Zone (PKFZ), 1MDB and Felda Global FGV, is about to get its first verdict from the voters.
Four million youth voters still have time to register. If the youth votes swing completely to the opposition, the government of Najib will be in a death spiral.
There are three million members in Umno, of which 1 million are active card-carrying members. If they cannot mobilise the rest, the inert Umno members could find themselves overwhelmed by the youth vote.
More ominously, this is the first election where the top issues are almost all centred on the economy, ranging from corruption cases in the 1MDB scandal to the increased cost of living that has affected rural and semi-rural constituencies.
Race, religion and the place of royalty still matters, but are only secondary concerns compared to the pressing issues of dollars and cents. In such a political atmosphere, any further dip in the Malaysian economy will generate a swing to the opposition.
It has been more than 60 years since the Malaysian opposition has held power. But with the experience of Mahathir, Anwar, Muyiddin and Mukhriz in finance and trade, the time for change may be near.