“This is the time”: how Malaysians toppled the government after 61 years in power

The internet generation and a retired politician proved a lethal combination for a government that thought it was invincible. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The streets are still lined with the banners, flags and campaign slogans of multiple political parties’ banners, two days after the conclusion of what was deemed to be the “Mother of all Elections” in Malaysia. The mood is festive. Cars drive by with the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) flags stuck onto bonnets. Motorcycles swerve in and out traffic, with the turquoise, red and white flags attached.

On a normal day, this would have been an outrageous sight, not least due to the motorcyclists' general disregard of road rules. But not today. The car drivers honk in solidarity and celebration. People wave at strangers. There is laughter and hugs and tears of disbelief. It is the kind of joy that comes after fighting for so long, and finally winning.

The rakyat, a Malay word for “citizens” commonly used by former government, Barisan Nasional (the National Coalition), is finally free.

Malaysia, a small Southeast Asian country, is not very well known on the global stage – a common peeve of Malaysians travelling abroad is having to describe the country as “the one in between Thailand and Singapore”. Perhaps its biggest recent moment in the international spotlight was the disappearing plane MH370 in 2014, which was not exactly something to be proud of. Now, however, Malaysia is in centre stage again, not for missing flights but for peacefully toppling the world’s longest ruling political party.

Under the former Barisan Nasional prime minister, Najib Razak, morale had been low. Although the BN government had successfully held onto power since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957, it seemed increasingly out of touch. BN parliamentary members and ministers alike openly mocked the hardships of the rakyat, most specifically the rising cost of living, the stagnating wages and the unchecked rising house prices. Until 9 May 2018, it was common for these BN political warlords to declare: “If you don’t like what we’re doing, then leave Malaysia.”

In Malaysia's 24-hour eateries known as “mamaks”, angry discussions about the BN government became commonplace. While the conventional media shied away from criticising it, in fear of losing their publishing licences, political bloggers hiding behind pseudonyms called a spade a spade. 

As the rakyat grew distrustful of conventional media, they relied on these bloggers and social media users more and more for information. Forwarded WhatsApp messages became the preferred vehicle of news. For many, it did not matter whether or not the messages were true, so long as they said something negative about the ruling coalition. The rakyat were angry, and they wanted to stay angry.

Their anger reached a boiling point in 2015, when news broke of the misappropriation of funds at state-owned investment vehicle 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) totaling billions. Set up by the then prime minister, it was in theory designed to stimulate the economy, but a significant chunk of the money went missing. The growing outcry led to thousands of Malaysians marching in protest on the eve of Malaysia’s 58th Independence Day in 2015. Yet Najib (Malay politicians are known by their first names) remained stone-faced.

Next, America’s department of justice (DoJ) waded in, when it brought forward “the largest single action ever brought under the US Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative” to discover what had happened to the missing funds. According to the DoJ, over US$3.5bn in funds had gone missing. 

The extent of the wrongdoing was so huge that it annoyed Malaysians regardless of their age groups, socioeconomic standings, race or religion. Even those unaware of the intricate details of the 1MDB story were convinced that the prime minister had stolen from them, and his continued role in office made a mockery of democracy. (Najib has admitted lapses in governance but denies wrongdoing). A storm was brewing that could spell the end of BN.

Still, the storm might not have broken if former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad hadn’t stepped into the fold.

The 92-year-old Mahathir, or Dr M as he is fondly known, was the BN prime minister for 22 years, up until his retirement in 2003. Retired life suited Mahathir: he has written books, blogs and posts pictures of his wife and grandchildren on his Facebook page. However he was troubled enough by the disappearance of state funds to quit the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in February 2016, the political party that makes up a huge chunk of the BN coalition. Mahathir’s son, a senior politician, also questioned 1MDB and was unceremoniously sacked by Najib.  

After that, it seems, the political became personal. 

On his blog and on social media, Mahathir’s sharp-tongued attacks on Najib increased by the day, which is exactly what the rakyat wanted. In a country where BN and Najib was seen untouchable by the law, one man had immunity to say what everyone was thinking. In his 90s, Dr M was reborn as the hero of the rakyat against the tyrannical Najib and his arrogant cabinet.

In late 2017, Dr M announced that he will be competing in the upcoming general election with the aim of becoming prime minister, with a plan to then relinquish it to former protégé and arch nemesis, but current ally and friend, Anwar Ibrahim (the latter is currently jailed for sodomy charges that are still a crime in Malaysia). Despite multiple imprisonments, Anwar, who was the president and founder of the opposition party People's Justice Party (PKR), remains popular among the rakyat. It was the combination of the public's fondness for Mahathir and Anwar, coupled with their hatred for Najib, that spelled the end for BN.

Sensing trouble, Najib resorted to dirty tricks. First, he ordered an unprecedented redelineation of constituency borders, which pulled his supporters into opposition-heavy areas. Next, he got the Election Commission (EC) to announce a mid-week polling day on Wednesday 9 May so that there will be lower voter participation.

All these tricks did, however, was enrage the rakyat further. 

Pakatan Harapan lacked the funds of the government, and yet people came to its rallies. In the rain and heat, they came to hear promises of a new future. Those who were at the rallies spoke of “chills and goosebumps” when Dr M took stage. At 92, he was electrifying and charismatic. Social media was riddled with Pakatan Harapan’s battle calls of “Ini kali lah” (This is the time) and the hope for a better tomorrow. Almost no one turned up at BN rallies to hear the rather alarmingly familiar cry of “Hebatkan Negaraku” (Make my country great).

When D-Day finally came, and the votes came piling in, it became clear that a new dawn had arrived. At first, it was surreal. Unthinkable. Even Pakatan Harapan's staunch supporters were shocked to learn that BN had been kicked out. After 61 years, BN had built a facade of political invincibility that even they themselves believed. With hindsight, it led to their demise. Journalists who were there at 4.35am on 10 May 2018, the moment Pakatan Harapan’s win became clear, described it as “surreal and shocking”. BN was not invincible after all. 

The rakyat had spoken. As the dust settles on Dr M’s appointment as the seventh prime minister of Malaysia, the BN’s battle cry of “Hebatkan Negaraku” seems faintly ironic. Yes, the country will be greater again now that BN has been ousted and a new government led by Dr Mahathir is in the driving seat. 

And “Ini kali lah”, the time, is finally a reality.

Lidiana Rosli is a financial journalist based in Kuala Lumpur. She has been selected for two press fellowships: the Wolfson Press Fellowship, Cambridge University, United Kingdom (2017) and the World Press Institute Fellowship in America, to begin in August 2018.