Malaysia’s Historic General Election: A New Chapter, Led by an Old Face


9th May 2018 was groundbreaking in Malaysian history. For the first time since gaining independence from Britain in 1957, an opposition party has won an election.

In a remarkable series of events, the country’s fourth Prime Minister returned from retirement to take down both the sixth Prime Minister and the party he once led – and all on behalf of his former Deputy, who he jailed in the 1990s.

This represents an unprecedented new chapter in the history of the Southeast Asian nation and demonstrates democratic process in the face of regional authoritarianism.

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The basics

Malaysia is a diverse multicultural society, where the largest ethnic groups are Malay Muslims, Malaysian Indians and Malaysian Chinese citizens. However, racial politics have been ubiquitous since Malaysian independence. Echoing the ‘divide and rule’ practice from Malaysia’s time as a British colony, tensions and inequality between these ethnic groups have always been highly contentious topics in Malaysian society.

The Malaysian electoral system is based on and works in a similar way to the UK’s – victory in 112 out of a total 222 constituencies is required to form a government. Political parties from different areas of Malaysia’s diverse racial, religious and ideological melting pot generally form coalitions.

Barisan Nasional (BN) had been the dominant coalition for over 60 years, its largest political party being the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). BN and UMNO politicians have long galvanised support from the Malay Muslim majority by guaranteeing Malays’ favouritism throughout Malaysian society, and voting often splits along racial lines. BN have also been accused of gerrymandering, corruption and persecution of political opponents. Malaysian media is also strictly controlled by the government.

The key players

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Dr Mahathir Mohamad (pictured above) is Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister, holding this position from 1981 until his retirement in 2003. He was a key figure in Barisan Nasional, overseeing a boom in economic development. However, critics suggest aspects of his leadership were authoritarian, including the limitation of press freedom and political opposition, and that he allowed corruption and cronyism to flourish. Many believe Mahathir’s leadership created the infrastructure for these practices to continue after him.

Najib Razak, son of second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, had been the Prime Minister since 2009. Holding various positions in government for the last four decades, Najib was elected on promises to reform economic and racial policies. However, living costs in Malaysia have skyrocketed under him and despite efforts to better accommodate ethnic minorities, he later reverted to Malay nationalism to regain support following a mediocre 2013 election performance. Najib was once a favourite of Mahathir’s, who acted as his mentor.

Anwar Ibrahim was Dr Mahathir’s former Deputy Prime Minister in BN. Anwar’s calls for reform during the 1998 Asian financial crisis prompted his sacking by Mahathir, and his attempts to spearhead an opposition party have encountered fierce hostility from the government.

He’s been in and out of prison since 1999, following accusations of corruption and sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia. Anwar maintains his innocence. Many saw this persecution, under both Mahathir and Najib, as politically motivated.

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Money and scandal

Since 2015, support for BN, and particularly Najib (pictured above), has fallen. Najib introduced an unpopular 6% tax on goods and services in April and Malaysia’s cost of living has continued to rise.

Additionally, the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) corruption scandal has dogged Malaysian politics since revelations arose from online newspaper Sarawak Report in 2015 (which was promptly blocked in Malaysia). This state-owned investment fund became implicated in using public funds for politicians’ private use, with Najib himself accused of embezzling £520 million, reportedly a ‘donation’ from Saudi royalty.

An investigation by the US Department of Justice estimated that £3.3bn of state money was misappropriated by 1MDB. This money was spent on various lavish purchases and the financing of Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street, of which Najib’s stepson was an executive producer. Transactions and laundering relating to 1MDB are currently under investigation in the US, Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Following these accusations, Malaysia’s Bersih (‘Clean’) movement culminated in annual mass protests across the country calling for free and fair elections and Najib’s resignation. The use of tear gas was deployed against protesters and several campaigners were detained.

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A political tsunami 

Outraged by 1MDB and what he saw as the corruption of Najib, Dr Mahathir left BN in 2016, returning to politics in 2017 to spearhead opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (‘Alliance of Hope’). He stated that if elected, he’d ensure Anwar was pardoned and released from prison, and step aside within two years to allow him to become Prime Minister. He also promised to crack down on corruption and investigate 1MDB.

Campaigning was fierce. Mahathir called Najib a ‘monster’ and warned of BN’s ‘dirty tricks’. The electoral map was redrawn, seemingly to more accurately represent the nation’s demographics, but the opposition accused BN of doing this to create guaranteed seats in their favour.

Despite this, the transition of BN’s normally guaranteed support from ethnic Malays to the opposition, described as a ‘tsunami’, and young people’s desire for change, led to BN’s definitive defeat. Dr Mahathir was sworn in late last night, now the world’s oldest sitting head of government, at 92, and marking the first transition of power in Malaysian history. On Friday, Mahathir stated that King Muhammed V would give Anwar a royal pardon, and is committed to having him released ‘immediately’. Meanwhile, Najib has been barred from leaving the country by immigration officials.

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9th May was a landmark in Malaysian history, with celebrations across the country during a three-day public holiday. Unanswered questions remain as to which direction the new-old Prime Minister will take, and whether some of the more dubious aspects of his previous leadership will resurface. However, revitalised belief in their democracy has provided Malaysians with tremendous hope for the future of their country.

Editor’s Note: The writer would like to thank Tasnem Aljoffery and Sara Trett for their advice on this article.


Masters student, Biology & Marine Biology. Interested in tropical ecology, palaeontology and mass extinctions, and music and international politics on the side. Lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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