The momentous events of 9 May 2018 will be etched in the annals of history as one of those “where were you when it happened” moments. Generations of future Malaysians will be told the story of how on 9 May 2018, Malaysians rose above their fears and proved that changing governments through the ballot box is possible. I confess that I was one of the many who did not see such a resounding victory coming. The odds were stacked against Pakatan Harapan (PH) from the very beginning, with the redelineation process, the midweek polling day and the threats of de-registering Bersatu, the light at the end of the tunnel seemed too elusive to reach. Perhaps not this election, I thought.
As it turned out, it was unwise to underestimate Malaysians’ desire for change, and their willingness to reach out for the ballot to effect that change. Understandably, a blanket of euphoria has engulfed Malaysians since, and already this change of government has brought with it newfound freedoms we forgot we had. There have been robust, ongoing discussions and scrutiny on everything from the swearing-in process for the new Prime Minister to the cabinet appointees and whether members of the old regime will be punished or forgiven. I was on a live interview on a radio station owned by the former government a few days ago, and the glee on the producer’s and presenter’s faces were too much to contain. They have been so accustomed to self-censorship, that even the freedom to mention the name of former Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim felt liberating.
Such is the significance of what happened on May 9th. In my previous article in this column, I questioned why, despite the sense of renewal offered by the PH coalition, there is still a dearth of dynamic new leadership across all their component parties. This remains to be the case now that the elections are over, with many of the senior leaders from the PH component parties occupying many of the Cabinet positions that have been announced so far. But now, more than a week after the elections, it has become clear to me that the victory on May 9th was not really about the leaders we elected into office. May 9th belongs to the Malaysian people, whom after six decades of living under the rule of one party, decided that the time for change is now.
The Atlantic, in its piece on GE14 wrote that,
“Malaysia offers a reminder that there is no substitute for this most essential of democratic functions: the chance, even if it often resides on a theoretical plane, that political outcomes are not permanent.”
Democracy needs to be viewed as a value in itself. It is easy for sceptics to say that we elected more of the same people into government, that there is little point in voting as we are giving power to a former alleged dictator. While I do not disagree with these points, I have also come to realise that this victory is less about those currently in power, but more about the Malaysian people. Understandably, for a people who have never known what changing governments feels like, Malaysians have always been fearful of the consequences of such change. We are also reminded off and on about the violence and instability that might occur if we protest, resist and question too much.
Undeniably, many examples from around the world demonstrate devastating consequences of democracy, or the desire for democracy. The Arab Spring which started off the Syrian civil war and the victories of Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte were events that have shown how democracy does not always mean that good, rational people get into power. Democracy never promised reasonable outcomes, what it does promise is that if undesirable characters get elected, the people are given the choice to resist, scrutinise, protest and choose different leaders through the ballot box. It is true that democracy is chaotic, but only because there is competition between ideologies, beliefs and ideas – the result of which could be loss of life, but that is an issue that each society needs to overcome on its own. Neighbours Indonesia, for example, allowed democracy to flourish after the 1998 fall of Suharto, but continue to face problems to this day, particularly in matters of religion and extremism. At the very least, because of the democracy they have enjoyed for the past 20 years, Indonesians have the space they need to freely contest the different ideals they have for their nation.
Malaysians proved on May 9th that the democratic process, however imperfect, is capable of being conducted peacefully and sensibly. Overnight, Malaysia transformed from a “flawed semi-democracy” into a shining beacon of light in the region and across the world – ironic considering that we also now hold the record of having the world’s oldest Prime Minister. A flurry of criticism has already been thrown at this new government for public disagreements on Cabinet positions and not staying true to the promises in their manifesto. But democracy is not at fault for these problems. Democracy is the condition that allows us, as citizens, to question oppression and injustice when we see them – and this is the true victory we achieved on May 9th. It is an achievement that the Malaysian people must guard very jealously from the current and future powers that be.