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Takeaways from the Malaysian GE

So the Malaysians have spoken. And we should congratulate them…for what exactly? That they have effected a change of government? That’s not really our business. Or that they have managed it peacefully through the electoral process?

It’s easy to be caught up in the Malaysia Boleh frenzy of the past 48 hours or so, to look admiringly at the chanting and clamour and to get absorbed in the twists and turns that led to the swearing-in ceremony of Dr Mahathir Mohammad as Malaysia’s comeback prime minister. So exciting! Even inspiring! Historic! Epochal!

At the back of our minds, there is this little voice which asks: “Can the same thing happen here?’’ I have no doubt at all that the Malaysian example will inspire the opposition politicians and supporters here to up the ante in the run-up to Singapore’s own general election due by January 2021. In fact, the 3G to 4G changeover in the G presents an opportunity for the opposition to call in the votes, because by the 4G leaders’ own admission, they haven’t earned the right to lead.

But I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There are other significant takeaways from the Malaysian GE, beyond demonstrating that a political party that has been in power since 1957 can be felled at the ballot box.

  1. If voter discontent is widespread, no amount of re-drawing of boundaries or denial of political party registration because of “lack of documentation’’ is going to help the incumbent.
  2. Implementing fake news laws, especially right before an election, isn’t going to intimidate people into sticking with politically correct speech and behavior. In any case, the campaign period is too short for any executive or judicial intervention to sway the votes.
  3.  Racial politics is not bigger than national politics. I am guessing here that Malaysians of all races were more upset at the IMDB scandal which had reached the international stage, than tempted by any appeal to racial loyalty.
  4. That populist promises, such as the abolition of the Goods and Services tax, the re-introduction of fuel subsidies and the rise in minimum wages, might have something to do with the opposition’s win. Perhaps, they counted for more than the money that the BN was throwing at different segments such as the civil service.

What I found interesting also is what happened post-election, that is, the frantic hours before Dr M was sworn in, particularly the reading of the Federal Constitution, the role of Malaysian royalty and members of the establishment.

It seems clear that the institutions of the State weren’t prepared for the scenario of the BN actually losing. Hence, some people hit the books and came up with Article 43 of the federal constitution which  states “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) shall first appoint as perdana menteri (prime minister) to preside over the cabinet a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgement is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House”.

The constitution makes no mention of political parties or political coalitions, allowing ex-premier Najib Razak to report initially that the polls have resulted in a “hung’’ Parliament. By his reading, it should be Madam Wan Azizah heading the government because her Parti Rakyat Keadilan  had the most number of seats, or the Barisan National could still entice some elected MPs to switch-over to its side. It was not to be.  The PKR and the three parities behind the Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Dr M made sure that they threw their support behind Dr M. They cited “the letter of the law’’.

This is when the cynic in me wondered why Mr Najib didn’t consider the step of changing the constitution while he was still in charge to ensure his longevity. Or why he didn’t get his legal team to get all legalistic over constitutional interpretation. I suppose he decided that even if the “letter’’ of the law was in his favour, its spirit was not, as the people of Malaysia had demonstrated.

The Malaysian royalty, always a political force to be reckoned with, had to come out to deny that it was delaying Dr M’s swearing-in. The royals and Dr M have had a rocky relationship, with Dr M trying his utmost to clip their wings in his previous tenure as PM.

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The King and the sultans are a foundational pillar in the country. Their roles are largely ceremonial, but highly influential. Who knows what would have happened if they dragged their feet given such a split in the vote. It made me wonder about similar foundational pillars in Singapore. Would this be akin to the “unifying’’ role of the elected president should the country be placed in a similar position?

What was intriguing was the role three people seemed to have played in tipping the royal scales in favour of Dr M. The Straits Times reported that the Chief Secretary of Government, Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, who heads the civil service, Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Fuzi Harun and a senior member of the Armed Forces met with the King to impress on him the need to get Dr M sworn in quickly.

Are our institutions similarly independent enough to hold the line to see to the fulfilment of the people’s wishes? The answer must be yes.

But while the Malaysian election offered some insights on the workings of democracy, as citizens of a sovereign country, we should be more concerned with what the change happening in our next-door neighbor means for us.

This phrase pops into my mind – better the devil we know, than the devil we don’t – except that we’ve had some bilateral experience with Dr M’s leadership. We must hope that our 4G leaders are up to the challenge of handling our neighbor, and ensuring that our national interests are protected. They must keep in mind that they are dealing with a  man from the Lee Kuan Yew era – even if he is 92 and is going to be prime minister for just two years.


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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