The Return of Dr. M
The opposition's victory in Malaysia ends Barisan Nasional's reign in the country. Corruption and economic strife were key contributing factors.
AFTER securing victory for opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan in Malaysia's general election last Wednesday, Mahathir Mohamad still has a long road ahead of him. "This will be a busy week. I won't be home at four in the morning. I usually come home at six in the morning. But maybe I will extend that to seven," the former Malaysian Prime Minister joked to reporters and his supporters assembled at Sheraton Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, at midnight last Thursday.
British newspaper The Telegraph calls Mahathir, whose age is inching closer to one century, the world's oldest prime minister. Although he prefers to remain seated on various occasions, Mahathir was still well capable of delivering his speech while standing. At times he appeared to have trouble hearing questions from journalists. In the speech after his swearing in as Prime Minister, Mahathir mistakenly said that during election "there was increased support for BN (Barisan Nasional). He immediately corrected himself: "Apologies, I meant Pakatan Harapan."
Mahathir expressed his joy at seeing many people lining the road that he passed on his way to the State Palace for the inauguration ceremony. The people sounded their horns, waved the Pakatan Harapan banner, and yelled "Tun Mahathir." "This is something never seen before in Malaysia's history of politics," said Mahathir.
People's Justice Party (PKR) Youth President Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad compares Malaysia today to Indonesia in 1999, when the country had a new president after the fall of the New Order. "We're experiencing it 20 years later," he said.
Dr. M, as Mahathir is often referred to, first became Prime Minister through the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 1982, with support from Barisan Nasional, a coalition of parties led by UMNO. He resigned in 2003 and was replaced by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
After 15 years in retirement, Mahathir returned to the political arena. In last Wednesday's election, he competed against his former party. Mahathir was nominated by the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, made up of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), PKR, Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the Parti Amanah Negara. Mahathir became Prime Minister once more after Pakatan won 113 out of the total 122 seats in the parliament, far above Barisan Nasional's 79 seats. Pakatan's victory ended Barisan Nasional's 62-year reign.
Mahathir has set a number of priorities for his new government. He will process the release of Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition figure currently behind bars on sodomy charges. The case against Anwar was meant to silence and defeat the opposition, said Pakatan. Another priority is dealing with economic issues responsible for high living cost in the country, which, along with corruption, eventually led to Barisan Nasional's downfall. "The economy and finance will be the focus of this new government," said Mahathir in his first speech as Prime Minister, accompanied by PKR President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Amanah President Mohamad Sabu, and DAP President Tan Kok Wai.
In another speech the following day at the Albukhari Foundation, Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir detailed the new Malaysian government's plans, saying that he will focus on stabilizing the country's economy, exchange rate, stock exchange, and investigating responsible actors behind the country of 31 million's economic woes.
The government is also committed to investigating corruption cases, including the scandal surrounding state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) implicating former Prime Minister Najib Razak, although the Malaysian Anti-corruption Commission (MCA) says there is no indication of corruption in this particular case. "We will also check whether or not the MCA has performed a fair investigation," said Mahathir.
As for Anwar, according to Mahathir, Malaysian Monarch Yang Dipertuan Agung XV Sultan Muhammad V has signaled that he will grant full pardon. Mahathir refers to Anwar Ibrahim as the "Prime Minister in Waiting." As he previously mentioned prior to the election, Mahathir will likely not be in office for a full term. Upon his release and restoration of political rights, Anwar will replace Mahathir as prime minister. When he was asked when Anwar would be released and returned to politics, Mahathir replied, "This requires several steps and takes time."
According to Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, in the scenario devised by Pakatan, the process would begin with Anwar's release. After that, Pakatan would request for the Monarch's pardon, although he may actually be released on good behavior in the coming month of June after two and a half years in prison. The former deputy prime minister would either compete in the legislative election or another legislator would give him his seat. Finally, after becoming a parliament member, Anwar could then become prime minister.
Mahathir says 10 ministerial positions have been prepared for coalition parties. "I hope all parties will have equal opportunity to occupy these ministerial positions," he said. He is scheduled to meet party leaders this week to discuss minister candidates. An insider from the PKR says the party's president and parliament members were invited to Kuala Lumpur last week to discuss the cabinet's composition so that it may be announced this Monday.
Merdeka Center Research Coordinator Tan Kiat Sang points to economic issues as the key factor behind the fall of Barisan Nasional, clearing Pakatan Harapan's path to victory. A survey by his institution reveals that most voters considered the problems of inflation, jobs, and income (around 43 percent) in determining whom to vote-a greater percentage than those who considered corruption (21 percent) and leadership as well as government issues (8 percent).
The new Pakatan government, said Tan, must take a long, hard look at the issue of economy. He recalled the turn of events in Japan when, after reigning for over 60 years, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was defeated by the opposition Democratic Party in 2009. The new government, however, became too preoccupied with internal conflict that it failed to resolve the country's economic issues. Consequently, public support returned to LDP in the next election. "Do not repeat Japan's experience in Malaysia," said Tan last Thursday.
Although Barisan Nasional seemed to maintain their power in prior elections, Merdeka Center has observed a different trend since the 2013 election. At the time, the research institute held a survey when parties nominated their parliament member candidates in early May. They contacted 1,579 voters above the age of 21 via telephone. "After the nomination, support for Barisan Nasional showed a declining trend, mostly because of internal frictions. One day before the election, support for Barisan Nasional also dropped by two percent," Tan said.
There were a number of factors behind the waning support for Barisan Nasional. The most crucial among these were high prices of goods, the declining value of the ringgit, and the imposition of the six-percent Goods and Services Tax (GST). The GST replaced the sales and services tax of 5-15 percent, which had been in effect since 2015, and represents the government's effort to raise income in order to compensate for a budget deficit as well as to reduce reliance on income from oil.
The GST became a serious concern for voters. Rosli, a Pakatan supporter in Setiawangsa, Kuala Lumpur, says the GST caused living costs to rise because it increased prices of almost everything, including homes. "Many young people are unable to afford housing because prices rose to over RM300,000 (Rp1 billion). In Kuala Lumpur prices went above RM400,000 thousand (Rp1.4 billion)," he said at a voting site in Setiawangsa, last Wednesday. Zainal, also a Setiawangsa resident, shares a similar view. "People are mostly upset about the GST. Even the children are now paying taxes."
Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad says the GST became an important drive for voters. "This year's election was like a referendum for the GST. If you support the GST, you'd vote for BN. If you're against it, you'd support the Pakatan."
Another source of discontent is corruption. "Firstly, the 1MDB corruption has caught the public's attention, followed by the GST. The general public thinks that money from the GST is being used to bail out the 1MDB," said Rosli.
According to Mohamad Sabu, economic issues and corruption are interrelated. Corruption leads to an increase in price and economic downturns. "Najib made many mistakes in dealing with these economic and corruption issues," he said. "The people's rejection is rooted in economic problems and hardships in life."
Another factor behind Pakatan's victory was Mahathir. Bahar, a lecturer at Universitas Islam Antar Bangsa in Gombak, believes that Mahathir was the determining factor in securing Pakatan's victory. Mahathir was able to mobilize the public in Johor, Kelantan, and Negeri Sembilan and get the people to vote for Pakatan Harapan. These three states are Barisan Nasional stronghold that began to sway toward the opposition recently. "He has the presence and charisma," said Bahar.
Mahathir also contributed to Pakatan Harapan in other ways. DAP politician Tony Pua says because the DAP was in the opposition coalition, Barisan Nasional tried to spread fear among Malays that the country's ethnic-Chinese would rise should Mahathir won. "By bringing Mahathir to the fore, the Malays were assured that their rights would be upheld," said Tony. "So they ended up supporting the Pakatan."
Pakatan not only relied on economic and corruption issues to snatch support away from the Barisan Nasional. According to Nik Nazmi, Pakatan mapped the entire country to determine which territories to defend and which to contest. They focused on "hot zones"-states dominated by BN or states that Pakatan aimed to take over.
Among these contested states were Johor and Kedah. Johor is the birthplace of UMNO. "Najib once joked that Johor was the strongest BN in the world," said Nik Nazmi. Kedah was also a hot zone because it was a BN stronghold.
Pakatan treated these regions with special care. Among others, the coalition sent party leaders to campaign in these hot zones. PKR sent Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin, former PPBM President and deputy prime minister in Najib Razak's government. Both are also former UMNO leaders.
Another strategy, according to Nik Nazmi, was to appoint figures popular in the contested states. PKR appointed Mahathir and his son, Mukhriz Mahathir, in Kedah. Pakatan chose Nik Nazmi, a young figure from PKR, to take over Setiawangsa. Nik Nazmi himself has spent two terms as a parliamentarian from Selangor.
When attacked with economic and corruption issues, BN attempted to reassure the public to continue supporting it. One day before the election, Najib delivered a speech from his home in Pekan, Pahang, broadcast live via Facebook and television. Meanwhile, Mahathir delivered his speech from Dewan Ho Ping in Kuah, Langkawi, in front of the public and broadcast live through Facebook.
In his speech, Mahathir called for the people to not only vote, but also to give their votes to Pakatan. Najib expressed a similar call, but he added a promise to eliminate toll road fees during the five days before and after Idul Fitri.
Zulkifli Abdullah, a Kuala Lumpur resident, says Najib's offer was not appealing enough. "He promised five days of free toll road. The Pakatan manifesto, on the other hand, plans to erase toll road tariffs altogether," he said.
Najib also promised to exempt citizens below 26 years of age from income tax. Current income tax exemption applies only to citizens whose salary exceed Rp10 million. "The promise had little impact because there are only very few people in that age group who are working and likely to enjoy the tax exemption," said Nik Nazmi.
Results from the Wednesday election in Malaysia were quite surprising, even for Nik Nazmi. Pakatan's efforts to take over a number of hot zones paid off. Nik Nazmi took over Setiawangsa, Kuala Lumpur, with 34,471 votes, defeating Zulhasnan bin Rafique from Barisan Nasional who obtained 20,099 votes. Johor, previously in UMNO's grasp, also fell into Pakatan's hands. Pakatan won in Kedah as well, securing 10 out of a total of 15 parliament seats.
In his speech last Thursday, Najib Razak seemed to be aware that Barisan Nasional is no longer appealing to voters. "We struggled to build Malaysia's economy and created three million jobs, housings, and others. But it's clear that what we did was less interesting compared to what the opposition offered," he said.
During the 10-minute speech, Najib was accompanied by former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, former Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, and UMNO Youth President Khairy Jamaluddin. There was no question and answer session at the end of the press conference. As he walked from the room to the car, Najib did not utter a single answer despite the shower of questions from journalists.
This election does not spell the end for Barisan Nasional because they still own 79 seats in the parliament. For Najib, however, there may be a slightly different turn of events. The new government under Mahathir plans to reexamine the 1MDB case, and Najib will certainly be affected. From within Barisan Nasional itself, calls for Najib's resignation have begun to surface. "We need a new chair as soon as possible," said BN Pulau Pinang Secretary Datuk Omar Faudzar, as quoted by Berita Harian.