It was coming all along. This chart, courtesy of political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu, clearly shows how the ‘tsunami’ started building up two decades ago in the post-Reformasi general election of 1999.
And when it finally swelled to a tipping point in 2018, the deluge swept BN away. Notice that even in Putrajaya, that BN bastion, 51% of voters did not vote for BN.
The only blip in that 20-year period occurred in 2004, a false dawn when many fell for the promise of a bright new era under Abdullah Badawi. Otherwise, the rise in the popular vote against BN has been steady and relentless since 1999.
The comprehensive nature of BN’s defeat can be shown by the chart (above). In my book, Power Sharing in a Divided Nation (ISEAS, 21016), I had used path dependence analysis to suggest an observed trajectory toward two-coalition politics. Simply put, progressive steps along the way on a path valourised by institutional, ideological and programmatic developments will lead to increasing returns on the path.
I have argued that the Reformasi agenda represented such a path. The line graph shows how popular votes against the BN have progressively reached an unprecedented level, yet predicated on previous gains. Thus in political science jargon Malaysia has achieved the first crucial step of a ‘turnover’ electoral system. We need another election, following Huntington, to confirm that we have a ‘consolidated democracy’ i.e. the two-turnover test.
Furthermore, a consolidated democracy also implies that the BN in reconstituted form could regain power but essentially PH has to win twice. Exemplars are not that many in Asia – India, Taiwan and S Korea.
Of course, we could go further back, well before 1999 to, say, 1947, when the multi-racial pact between Pusat Tenaga Rakyat and the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (Putera-AMCJA) captured the imagination of many Malayans, who participated in a nationwide hartal.
But there were also false dawns in the general elections of 1969 and 1990, when BN prevailed despite opposition pacts scaring the daylights out of the ruling coalition.
While Mahathir played a crucial role in the victory over BN in 2018, it would not have been possible without People Power ie Malaysians coming together since 1999, and especially since 2008.
Witnessed how the Rakyat mobilised themselves, throwing their support for civil society initiatives and opposition parties. Look at how stoically they reacted each time the Electoral Commission and the Registrar of Societies threw a cangkul into the opposition works.
Of course, the last 20 years also coincided with the internet era. People Power used the internet to their advantage, always keeping one step ahead of BN – through the Sang Kancil email list, anonymous reformasi websites, NGO websites, Malaysiakini and other news portals, sms, Facebook and Twitter and finally, to great effect, WhatsApp.
I would go so far as to dub the 2018 election The Whatsapp Election. BN, though it ran an expensive ad campaign on social media, simply had no answer to the reach of WhatsApp, which enabled the opposition to penetrate rural areas in ways that normal ceramah wouldn’t have been able to.
Even WhatsApp groups that were devoted to non-political issues were suddenly inundated by mostly pro-PH messages in the last few days before polling day. Group admins simply gave up and joined in the opposition frenzy. Voters who were not politically inclined or fence-sitters were exposed to the bombardment of pro-PH political messages.
The BN simply had no answer to that and the rest is history.
But WhatsApp was just a tool, an enabler. The real issues were the higher cost of living, which many attributed to GST, and rampant corruption. But then again, these were possibly symptoms of a more deep-rooted structural problem in the economy: the neoliberalisation of the economy in favour of Big Business and the wealthy.
That is why we see the international business media, presumably reflecting the interests of wealthy fund managers, reacting with alarm at even the slightest attempt to erode the neoliberal model (through the removal of GST).
The other structural problem in our neoliberal model is the relatively small share of national income going to labour as opposed to Big Capital. No wonder we see a gulf between the wealthy and less well off.
So you see it is not just GST, part of a regressive taxation system that has seen tax rates for companies and the wealthy lowered, that is making ordinary people feel worse off. Low wages, partly due to a preference for cheap labour, is a major contributor.
The 20-year tsunami of a growing public clamour for far-reaching reforms explains the blistering pace of reforms the new PH government is unleashing. The new administration fully realises the high expectations placed on it – and it knows it must live up to them and minimise selfish power-struggles and divisions. So far, so good.
But let’s see if the new PH government has the stomach to reverse the neoliberal trend and improve the lot of workers in the face of possible opposition from multinational corporations, large firms, the foreign business media (which have already fired opening salvoes) and rating agencies (witness Moody’s ongoing horror over the removal of GST, a key component of the neoliberal project). [That explains why Najib was the darling of a significant segment of the foreign media, including the business media, despite the 1MDB allegations, and many of these analysts refused to see the tsunami coming ahead of the general election.]
Still, within the PH government, there are a few known ‘free market’ neoliberal ideologues. The irony is that it was Mahathir who first introduce Thatcherite privatisation as part of the neoliberal trend in Malaysia. Will he continue along that same track?
So the Rakyat must exercise eternal vigilance and ensure that PH does not go off track with its reform agenda – it must favour the ordinary people rather than MNCs.
Meanwhile, we have already been warned about what happened in India in 1997 (when Congress lost power after 30 years) and in Japan in 2009 (when the LDP lost power) only for the old order to bounce back shortly after.
In our case, as Clive Kessler warns, if PH fails to live up to expectations, the alternative could be dire – an Umno-Pas pact tapping into ethno-religious sentiments (that is, if no new multi-ethnic opposition party emerges).
Malaysia has a golden opportunity to showcase itself as a progressive Muslim-majority nation upholding diversity, democracy and human rights while at the same time promoting economic and environmental justice. [Still waiting for a Ministry of the Environment though.] Let’s keep up the vigilance and ensure that the tsunami does not end up as a false dawn.