THE GENERAL OUTSIDE THE LABYRINTH
The word ‘revolution’ is defined as a fundamental change in
political power and organisation which occurs relatively quickly against any
form of social, political, or economic oppression unleashed by an incumbent
government. In popular parlance, revolution implies a sudden and drastic change
in the social order and the political system, usually accompanied by violence and
An example that readily comes to mind is that of the French Revolution of 1789, which resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Louis XVI and replacement of the monarchy by a Republican form of government. Another iconic example is that of the October Revolution of 1917, which saw the removal of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and the formation of the world’s first Communist state.
The history of humankind is replete with instances where masses have risen against authoritarian regimes and replaced them, often amidst bloodshed. However, the evolution of the democratic form of government in the 20th century has led to the emergence of a new form of revolution where people vent their anger through the ballot against well-established and apparently invincible governments.
India was witness to one such transformation in 1977, when the Congress Party, which had held power since Independence was voted out by the public on account of undemocratic actions inflicted on them during the period of the infamous ‘Emergency’.
Malaysia, a fledgling democracy located in South East Asia, has scripted the latest edition of this ‘revolution by the ballot’ when the elections held in May 2018 saw the removal from power of the alliance that had governed the country for the past 61 years.
Malaysia has a form of government that can be described as democratic with a constitutional monarchy. In other words, the Head of State is the King, a constitutional monarch, who is selected from amongst the nine Sultans of the Malay states for holding office for terms of five-year duration.
But the real power vests with the Prime Minister, the Head of the Government, who heads the party or alliance that commands the majority in Dewan Rekyat, the Federal Parliament. Since winning independence from British rule in 1957, Malaysia was ruled by an alliance comprising political parties representing the three major races — Malays, Chinese, and Indians.
The Alliance Party, as this coalition came to be known, consisted of three political organisations — the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), representing the majority Malays; the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) for people of Chinese origin; and, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) representing the Indian community. This alliance was enlarged in 1973 to include other political groups making it more broad-based. This was born the present-day Barisan Nasional or BN.
Barisan Nasional had been winning all general elections held since its formation and thus UMNO, along with MCA and MIC, the major parties within the coalition, held on to power without a break since 1957. The presence of parties representing all races in the alliance ensured that it could sweep the polls bagging more than 60 percent of the total ballot.
However, from 2008 onwards, BN witnessed a progressive erosion in its support base. This was caused by the growth of new parties, such as People’s Justice Party and Democratic Action Party, as well as owing to erosion in the social base of MCA and MIC. This phase also saw the growth of a new rightwing party known as Patri Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu (PPB) within BN. In the general elections held in 2013, BN secured only 47 percent of the popular vote but managed to win 133 out of 222 seats in Dewan Rekyat.
However, what followed was a steep fall in the ruling regime’s popularity between 2013 and 2018, mainly due to allegations of corruption that reached the doorsteps of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s family.
In 2008, Najib had set up what was called the 1Malaysia Development Berhad(1MDB Fund) with the intention of attracting foreign investments to help convert Kuala Lumpur into a global trading hub and to give a boost to the country’s sagging economy. This fund came in for adverse attention when it reneged on payments it owed to banks.
Simultaneously, there arose allegations that around $700 million was diverted from the fund into the private accounts of Najib’s family members. The Department of Justice held that nearly $3.5 billion had been misappropriated from the fund. Though Najib claimed that he had nothing to do with the operation of the fund and promised a fair enquiry, he sought to remove the Attorney General, who had raised charges of misappropriation and replaced him with a pliable substitute and got a favourable report.
However, even as a clean chit was given by the new Attorney General, Swiss authorities launched criminal proceedings against 1MDB Fund for corruption and money laundering. Even neighbouring Singapore asked Swiss Bank BSI to close down operations on account of money laundering in 1MDB Fund.
Najib’s reaction to the mounting domestic and international pressure was to take stronger measures against those opposing him. He sacked Deputy Prime Minister Muhyuddin Yassin and tried to block news portals and websites that covered the scandal.
The administration also promulgated a series of measures that made it unlawful to watch the contents of websites, portals, and television channels that brought out news inimical to the interests of the ruling establishment. This only fuelled public anger. Meanwhile, Najib tried to initiate some populist measures like reducing tax rates and announced some big projects with Chinese participation.
It was at this juncture that Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister who was leading a retired life after being at the helm for 22 years from 1981 till 2003, decided to throw in his lot with the Opposition.
A strong administrator, Mahathir was credited with building modern Malaysia and had groomed young politicians, such as Najib Razak and Anwar Ibrahim, as his proteges. But Anwar Ibrahim, who had fallen out with his mentor, was thrown out of UMNO in 1998. Anwar went on to form the Democratic Action Party, which created a space for itself despite various difficulties, including the arrest and imprisonment of Anwar, ordered by then Prime Minister Mahathir himself. However, Mahathir, on his return now, made up with Anwar Ibrahim and took over the leadership of the opposition alliance named Pakatan Harapan (PH).
The elections held on 9 May saw PH being voted to power with a tally of 121 seats in Dewan Rekyat. Despite being 92 years old — he will turn 93 in July — Mahathir was elected as leader of PH and sworn in as Prime Minister of Malaysia. He immediately initiated steps for seeking a pardon from the King for Anwar Ibrahim, who is presently serving a sentence, so that he could be released immediately and be appointed to office. Mahathir has made it clear that sooner, rather than later, he would be stepping down after handing over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim.
What are the lessons that the electoral result of Malaysia carries for political observers and activist’s world over? The first is that all attempts to consolidate class or race groups for a favourable electoral verdict can only fail if discontent against a regime runs high.
People, particularly in developing countries, have a high tolerance for corruption but if they are convinced that it extends to the top leadership, they react strongly through the ballot box. Attempts made by incumbent administrations to muzzle the press and take retaliatory action against those fighting and exposing corruption would only serve to strengthen the determination of the masses.
Finally, this verdict also sends home a subtle message to Beijing. Earlier, Sri Lanka had voted out the regime of Mahinda Rajapakshe who had moved closer to China and had allowed huge investments by that country for developing infrastructure in the island nation.
Now voters in Malaysia have rejected the politics of Najib Razak, during whose regime Malaysia rose to become the fourth largest recipient of overseas Chinese investment, which included mega projects such as the Alibaba Digital Free Trade Zone and the East Coast Rail Corridor.
Mahathir, who understands people’s resentment against such extraordinarily large capital intensive ventures and shares their worries regarding repayments, has announced that he would renegotiate with China and scrap some projects.
This is a clear signal for the planners in Beijing to assess the need for such ‘projects’ and assuage popular sentiment rather than trying to inflict these projects on the public by the simple expedient of exploiting the natural vulnerabilities of discredited political leaderships in different parts of the world.