Opinion & Analysis

An extraordinary 24 hours in Malaysia

Former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad returned from retirement at the age of 92 to turn on his own former party in the 14th general election. (Photo: Mahathir Mohamad/Twitter)

Despite seemingly every dirty trick in the book used, something extraordinary unfolded on the night of the Malaysian general election, writes Natasha Hamilton-Hart.

In the morning of 10 May in Kuala Lumpur, it seems no one has slept much.

It’s hard to absorb the events of the last 24 hours, as Malaysia’s short but heated electoral period culminated in the country’s 14th general election on 9 May.

Now the results are in: The ruling coalition, known as the Barisan Nasional, has been swept from the government benches. For the first time since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, the dominant United Malays National Party (UMNO) has lost its grip on power. To say this is historic is an understatement. That it happened at all is extraordinary.

The events leading up to the election had taken a somewhat surreal turn even before the results started coming in.

High-level defectors from UNMNO joined hands with Malaysia’s battle-hardened opposition parties. Most prominently, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad returned from retirement at the age of 92 to turn on his own former party, leading the charge against a government tainted not just by years of incumbency but also gross financial scandals, rising inequality and increasing hardship for many who were squeezed by rising living costs exacerbated by the introduction of an unpopular GST.

Other former UMNO heavyweights came out in support of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”) coalition. One of them was Malaysia’s former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, who wrote for the independent online news outlet Malaysiakini that she never thought she would live to see this day. Despite the optimism and high hopes of the opposition, many others would have shared her sense of disbelief.

“To say this is historic is an understatement. That it happened at all is extraordinary.”

The groundswell of support for the opposition parties and anger directed at the ruling BN had been very obvious. But blatant gerrymandering and malapportionment of electorates by the government-appointed Electoral Commission promised to rob the opposition of victory. Opposition strongholds in some cases had more than four times as many voters registered as seats considered safe for the BN. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified. The longstanding opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, had been returned to prison.

Ballot papers arrived late in some locations. On polling day, there were reports of voters queuing for hours as election officials appeared to deliberately slow the voting process. There was at least one death of a voter who was waiting to vote in extreme heat. Other voters were reportedly turned away for appearing in shorts. Many complained online of their votes having been taken, or their names being missing from the electoral roll despite having registered.

The election day itself was, unusually, a weekday, making it hard for many Malaysians to return to their home electorates where they needed to physically cast their votes.

Yet despite seemingly every dirty trick in the book being used, as the evening wore on and unofficial vote tallies appeared online and circulated through Twitter and WhatsApp, it appeared that something extraordinary was under way.

The official results coming from the Electoral Commission were slow. Slower than ever before.

Mahathir accused the Commission of holding up the process, charging officials with refusing to endorse the vote counts. Online and social media rumours circulated of military and police on standby (denied by officials), of voters being called to defend polling places from attempts to manipulate ballot boxes.

All the while, the man who had ruled Malaysia as prime minister, Najib Razak, remained unseen.

Missing a scheduled press conference and refusing to meet journalists all the through the night, the absence of any concession by the leader of UMNO became increasingly glaring. The field was left to Mahathir, who declared victory in the early hours of the morning.

An opposition alliance that attracted support from every ethnic and religious group, from nearly every region, from across socio-economic divides, had prevailed. 

Natasha Hamilton-Hart is Director of the New Zealand Asia Institute and Professor in the University of Auckland Business School. Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre