Malaysia Baharu: Five Years On

When the May 9, 2018, 14th general election (GE14) results were announced (after delays and behind-the-scenes negotiations to accept the results) the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that had governed Malaysia since independence had been ousted. 1MDB scandal-tainted (now jailed) Najib Tun Razak had lost the election.

The seeds for government change had been planted decades earlier with a failure to respond to demands for reform, to address systemic problems of corruption and to effectively introduce policies to ameliorate the divisions in Malaysian society.

The move towards more autocratic rule after 2015, when 1MDB became public, and poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which contributed to rising inflation that hit vulnerable Malaysians hard, eroded support for BN, particularly among those who had long supported the now-no-longer grand coalition. A Dr Mahathir Mohamad-led (then more unified) opposition was able to tip the balance of power, helped by electoral gains in Sabah and Sarawak.

Sudah jatuh ditimpa tangga (Malay proverb meaning ‘After falling, the ladder falls on you’)

There were competing emotions on display in those days after the election — surprise and shock, elation and dismay, hope and unease. News reports focused on the former, embracing the idea of a “reset”, with the label “Malaysia Baru/Baharu” or “new Malaysia” taking root.

5 years on, there is indeed a new Malaysia, a Malaysia Baharu transformed, although it was not in the way many imagined.

Malaysian politics has endured a hard beating since 2018 — 5 prime ministers (including Najib), 5 different coalition governments (including the notorious Sheraton Move), persistent political polarisation with heightened mobilisation of race and religion, non-ending politicking and constant political noise.

Political instability and “fluidity” have normalised uncertainty and the unexpected. Political rumours continue to cause a stir, heightened by active social media and many imaginations.

The Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that led to over 37,000 recorded deaths (so far), lockdowns and economic havoc, compounded the political and social dislocation, enhanced the need for responsive government and contributed to insecurities. With losses in competitiveness and even greater losses in education and incomes, opportunism over harnessing opportunities, even recovery remains a struggle.

It is easy to focus on the negative, to see the fall of government in 2018 as bringing Malaysia down the ladder. Indeed, the political turnover since 2018 has shaken Malaysians.

Dayung sudah di tangan, perahu sudah di air (The paddle is in your hands, the canoe is in the water)

Yet out of the experiences of the last 5 years this new Malaysia is more democratic, more resilient and continues to offer promise.

The story of “New Malaysia” is not about its leaders, although they would like to think so. Too many of them continue to think Malaysia is about them, their power. One of the most important shifts in “New Malaysia” has been how leaders (and politicians) are seen.

They have fallen off their pedestal, a few very far and hard. While some in society continue to put their faith in particular leaders, the last 5 years have brought a dose of realism to public expectations. Leaders are no longer the “saviours” of Malaysia, as Malaysians have had to save themselves.

The story of “New Malaysia” is about ordinary Malaysians, their power in a time of crisis and transition. They have taken the paddle in their hands and directed the boat, over the waves of uncertainty.

This power has taken many forms, arguably most evident in elections. Since May 9, 2018, when the power of Malaysian voters was on display, there have been 4 state elections (Sabah, MelakaSarawak and Johor) and another general election last November (which included state elections in Perak, Perlis and Pahang). In each of these contests, Malaysians came out in high numbers and used their power to bring about change (or in the case of Sarawak, give a mandate to new leadership).

Even as the wishes of a majority of voters were disregarded in the formation of a new government in 2020, the 7-month suspension of Parliament during the tenure of former prime minister (now criminally charged) Muhyiddin Yassin, and the formation of another federal government in 2021, participation has remained high, with Malaysians repeatedly investing in bringing about better government, deeply committed to a better future.

There is a focus on the future, as technology-savvy younger Malaysians in particular are driving more demanding politics, one in which there are higher expectations for delivery, impatience, and a willingness to opt for political alternatives.

Umno’s electoral collapse in November’s GE15 speaks to how most Malaysians look forward, not past. Leaders living in worlds where they believe position equates with support are facing reality checks of their own.

Citizen power has been wielded in other ways since 2018 as well. Politics has become much more than elections, to include everyday narratives, local community mobilisation and lobbying legislation. The political noise speaks to the numerous voices discussing issues, with “sensitive” lines long crossed. The fear tied to speaking out has dissipated.

As distrust in politicians has increased, new leaders/influencers have gained power, adding to pluralism, yet simultaneously making Malaysia harder to govern. The political space since 2018 has been filled by those finding ways to harness that overpowering sense of the possible that May 9 embodied.

Kalau tidak dipecahkan ruyung, manakan dapat sagunya (If you don’t break the trunk, how will you get to the sago?)

Malaysia’s political transition is still ongoing, with the last 5 years combining binge-watching with being trapped inside the video game; with some Malaysians playing the game and others turning it off.

There have been important reforms since 2018 — to the judiciary, in the decentralisation of power, in the media space and more modest ones in electoral reform, legislation of rights and accountability. Unfortunately, too little progress has been made in areas of corruption, race-based politics, social distribution and strengthening the economy.

Yet, unlike in the past, before May 9, there is now open debate, mobilisation and review of different approaches to address these issues.

While many await meaningful new policies and mindsets, the last 5 years have seen Malaysia move beyond discussing problems, to seeking solutions. There is greater confidence coming from the testing times since May 9. Not easily or evenly, she has bucked pressures to turn inward.

5 prime ministers on, PMX Anwar Ibrahim faces a more complex, divided and less trusting Malaysian public that expects more complexities in policy, deliverables and less talk. There are higher expectations amid enduring hope.

Malaysia and Malaysians have a lot to be proud of in this Malaysia Baharu. The trunk is still standing, and the promise of the sago is still there.


First published on Between the Lines.