Now when it finally happens, it seems to have been inevitable all along, and only a matter of time. But let’s be honest. It certainly did not feel that way, not even when polling day began. For most Malaysians, toppling the Barisan Nasional (BN) was simply not possible.
BN had after all ruled Malaya/Malaysia since independence. It started out as the Alliance in its first nationwide elections in 1955, expanded to become BN for the 1974 elections, and has remained the central power ever since.
And for a large part of that period, Mahathir Mohamad was its president.
It also had the undying loyalty of many in the Malay community, and could count on the over-represented East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak to stay in power at the federal level.
What nobody on Earth could have imagined was that the finally successful attack on the BN would be led by Mahathir himself. In giving credit to him for this historically stunning achievement, one should not for a second diminish the resilience and courage of so many now grouped under the banner of the Pakatan Harapan that now takes on the exciting but daunting task of reforming Malaysia.
These people include most notably Lim Kit Siang, the supremo of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the only major party that refused to join the BN in the early 1970s. This refusal saw it becoming more and more of a Chinese Malaysian-based organisation over time despite its official ideology of being multicultural. This was a condition that was effectively used against it by BN leaders, and a fate that hung like an anchor around its neck for more than four decades. But it survived and could, when the time was ripe, help form the new coalition that now sends BN packing. Lim’s political fervour obviously inspired his son, Lim Guan Eng, who was jailed twice by the BN regime, but who against all odds became the frontman for DAP and the chief minister of the rebel state of Penang since 2008.
Then there is Anwar Ibrahim of course, the deputy prime minister sacked and persecuted in 1997-98 by then-prime minister Mahathir. His continued struggle to topple the BN saw him jailed again, and now he watches his coalition triumph from within prison walls. Using the rallying cry of “Reformasi”, he galvanised a generation of young Malaysians who were too idealistic to deem it impossible to topple the BN and all that it had come to stand for – racialism, corruption, arrogance and generally bad, short-sighted policymaking.
Over the many years during which he suffered persecution, his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and his daughters, such as the eldest Nurul Izzah, suffered in desperation along with him, and fought the political battle for him alongside his many followers, such as Mat Sabu and many others. They formed Parti Keadilan Rakyat, fronted by the watchful-eye banner that so faithfully represented Pakatan Harapan at the 2018 polls.
The brave generation that came of age when the Reformasi movement was in full swing provided the persistent support that helped Pakatan Harapan reach its major goal – becoming the government of Malaysia.
A page turns, and BN as it has existed for so many decades is in deep crisis. Without the power of patronage that was its lifeblood, it is unlikely that it will remain in its present form. Splits should be expected, especially when member parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and Parti Gerakan Rakyat have all been practically wiped out. The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), though still a formidable party, cannot but go through a period of serious soul-searching during which many younger leaders will seize the chance to push aside the older generation that they must now blame for the party’s debacle.
The BN’s greatest challenge now is to study the Malaysian political landscape as if it were an alien planet. After all, the electoral results do show it to be badly out of sync with popular sentiments. It will have to seek new relevance and go beyond despair, defensiveness and resentment. Intuitively, making things difficult for the new government will be the most attractive path for it to take. After all, it has no experience with, nor will it have the right attitude for, opposition work. That is unfortunate, but unavoidable to a large extent.
As a new day dawns in Malaysia, much of the planning, rebuilding and reforming by the new government will rely on Mahathir. In deference to his age and his experience, his coalition partners will watch and learn. At 92 years old, he may be the oldest newly elected leader in the world ever, but his understanding of Malaysian governance is unmatched. In fact he is to blame for the compromised machinery of state that his erstwhile protégé Najib Razak took full advantage of. His promise now is to correct his past mistakes and to put Malaysian nation building onto a new and more promising track.
The rise of China, India, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations offers no more time for mistakes and introverted governance.
Brought to power this second time around by a coalition created in painful opposition to an Umno and BN that he had fostered, Mahathir will be closely watched by all for any signs of a return to authoritarian ways. His age makes such behaviour unlikely, however, as does the fact that he now so strangely symbolises reform, and runs a government with Anwar’s wife as deputy and Anwar supporters as members of his Cabinet.
Furthermore, Anwar will be out of jail next month. Though banned from taking public office for five years, he will have to be offered some position of influence, if only as an adviser. A more likely scenario is that a royal pardon will rid him of the ban.
A reform movement is not a revolution, and one should not expect the Pakatan Harapan government to reboot the whole nature of governance and political consciousness in the country. A country is not really something one can reboot. Instead, what awaits is a process that sees changes coming sometimes in a rush, as should be the case in the first few months Pakatan Harapan is in power, and sometimes perhaps imperceptibly. It will undoubtedly be a hopeful and exasperating process.
But it is a democratic movement, and it will therefore follow a trajectory drawn by contests and compromises between parties, coalitions, and most notably between the government and the governed. The world will be watching, and a lot of hope will be placed on Malaysia by other societies in the region that still believe that democracy can actually bring personal freedom and national fulfilment.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, a think tank funded by the State of Penang