The 2018 Malaysian Elections: After the Shock, What’s Next?
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Tai Wei Lim

The 2018 Malaysian Elections: After the Shock, What’s Next?

May. 14, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The 2018 Malaysian general election was a watershed event in Malaysian political history. What were at stake: former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s political fight, newly-elected Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s revival, the survival of Islamic parties (like the Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS) in Kelantan, the future of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA, the ruling party’s Chinese counterpart), and alleged foreign influence (Saudi Arabia’s alleged “genuine donation” to PM Najib’s government) over Malaysia.


Accusations abounded during the election campaigning about the 1MDB scandal (1MDB was the state vehicle that received funding for state projects but had become loss-making and fallen into debt). Pro-Mahathir supporters argued that the Najib administration was scandal-hit over 1MDB. They demanded justice and accountability. Both sides have their own narratives and it will now be up to the courts to adjudicate the evidence to see which side is legally accurate. This was one of Mahathir’s election platform features. But pro-Najib supporters argue pro-Mahathir supporters were on a smear campaign. Najib was also involved in foreign affairs complications related to the Saudi source of funding.


Mainstream observers however highlighted similarities between the two veteran politicians in Malaysia. Middle-of-the road political observers argue that both Najib and Mahathir came with their own set of strongman inclinations and political scandals. Other than such similarities, there are united goals for all political factions in Malaysia. For example, all political factions in Malaysia are keen to stay on track for Wawasan 2020, for Malaysia to become a developed economy in two years.


In fact, Wawasan 2020 was an economic objective shaped by Mahathir’s government and continued during Najib’s tenure as Prime Minister. There is now only 2 more years to achieve this objective. Given the rise of Malaysia as a middle-income country, and the second most prosperous after Singapore in Southeast Asia, there is tremendous pride in Malaysia’s achievements and the political will to stay on track for Malaysia to become a developed and prosperous economy. This was the uniting factor in the election and all parties hope for a better economic future for all socioeconomic classes of Malaysia. Mahathir may have to continue with this economic track after he has formed the new government and cabinet.


Najib’s government, when it was in power, used gerrymandering (boundary re-drawing) to concentrate large masses of urban voters in designated metropolitan areas while favoring rural districts (traditionally perceived to the ruling Barisan Nasional, BN, strongholds) as their bases of support. However, during the election, the rural areas supported Mahathir’s party as much as Najib’s BN party. Government supporters and administrators argued gerrymandering techniques were well within their administrative purview. It is in fact a common feature of parliamentary system for incumbent ruling parties.


The opposition parties forged umbrella alliances, including an alliance between former bitter rivals Mahathir and his protégé Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar had once been handpicked by Mahathir as his successor. In fact, Anwar was the top candidate to succeed Mahathir but they fell out with each other politically. Subsequently, Anwar was jailed on sodomy charges while Anwar’s supporters (including his wife and daughter who entered politics) denied those charges and calls them trumped-up. During his jail term, Anwar attracted some support and sympathies when he spotted a black eye allegedly from an assault by the law enforcement authorities. Perception-wise, Anwar has since become a symbol of human rights activism in Malaysia and a symbol of resistance against the excesses of those in power. Since his imprisonment, he is also viewed as a liberal and democracy advocate, with some western human rights groups advocating for his release. Some are calling for a royal pardon, so that he can return to politics through normal election procedures to potentially assume the Deputy Prime Minister-ship.

It remains to be seen how inclusive and embracing Mahathir’s coalition government and cabinet will be.

During the election, the BN government tried to reach out to the heartland-based Islamist parties like PAS for political support. The PAS’s traditional strongholds are in the northern states like Kedah, Terengganu, and Kelantan where voters are generally more conservative and pious. Besides the heartlands and the political fringes, there was political drama amongst the political elites as well, and right up till the last phase of election campaigning. Nearer to the conclusion of campaigning, pro-Mahathir BN figures defected to a new coalition party (Pakatan Harapan) formed by Mahathir. This caused Najib to accuse them of betrayal. Some of them were and still are presently iconic heavyweights in the BN before their defections.


Before the results were out, most expected Najib to win. Some commentators and analysts opined that, if Najib had lost some percentages of the popular vote or seats in the Malaysian parliament, it would be expected that some senior BN party members may challenge Najib’s leadership of the party. But it became a shocking surprise for all observers that Mahathir won the election convincingly instead. In power since 1957, the BN, which comprises United Malays National Organization (UMNO), MCA and Malaysian India Congress (MIC), was badly defeated.


The opposition’s Chinese-led party came to victory in Penang. In fact, Penang was the political battleground in which Pakatan Harapan not only did well but in fact had the best showing in the entire election. This indicated that the ethnic-Chinese dominated Penang was very much against the policies of Najib’s government. Overall, Malaysians from the industrial heartlands to rural folks appeared to have rejected Najib’s government’s policies.


Najib was known as an economically progressive, somewhat liberal, but scandal-hit politician. In the past, Mahathir was a conservative, right-leaning, nationalistic strongman politician, with mixed human rights and business achievements track records. But Mahathir is widely credited for overseeing Malaysian industrialization, the emergence of the country as a modern nation (one of the most progressive economies in the Islamic world), and being the originator of national brands like the Proton Saga car project. Mahathir had past exchanges with the Malaysian monarchs (Sultans) and even curtailed their influence in Malaysian politics.


With 92-year old Mahathir (the world’s oldest Prime Minister) voted back into power, Anwar looks set to get royal pardon to get out of jail, something promised during the campaigning period and currently under application. Mahathir is likely to reach out to other opposition figures as well as anti-Najib factions within BN, as he pursues justice for the scandals plaguing Malaysian politics. It is also not known if there will be more defections from BN to Pakatan Harapan in the aftermath of the election. It remains to be seen how inclusive and embracing Mahathir’s coalition government and cabinet will be.


In terms of foreign policy, Najib was friendly to Beijing and had mixed relations (although mainly friendly) with the West due to the 1MDB scandal, and good relations with Singapore, and was also a pro-ASEAN advocate. It is unknown what Mahathir has in mind with regard to ASEAN integration/ASEAN Economic Community, relations with Beijing, the West and Japan. Some say that for the sake and purpose of Wawasan 2020 and for becoming a developed economy, he might have a pragmatic policy that will embrace external help, technologies, financing and funding from China, the US, Japan, EU and perhaps most importantly, fellow ASEAN members.


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