ON 9th May, 2018, the Malaysian people surprised the world – and themselves – by voting out a ruling party, UMNO and alliance, the Barisan Nasional (BN) that had held power in one form or another for almost sixty-one years.
While a cocktail of abuses from gerrymandering, malapportionment, stringent media controls and lavish monetary inducements had delivered victory for the BN in the past, this time around the mood was different.
With a “world-beating” 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, a nonagenarian but iconic prime ministerial candidate, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and a formidable opposition alliance in the form of the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or “Pact of Hope”), six decades of political history was swept away.
This upset marks a major reversal of the seemingly global march towards authoritarianism and strongman rule – coming from Southeast Asia, of all places.
Weren’t we supposed to be a byword for abuse of power, corruption and cronyism?
So how will the Malaysian vote – if at all – impact the region?
In Indonesia, the PH victory has generated excitement amongst the opposition in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.
With incumbent President Joko Widodo leading (and by a significant margin) in all the polls, Dr. Mahathir's shock win has presented a tantalising prize to General Prabowo Subianto's moribund campaign.
Meanwhile in Thailand, oppositionists are saying that former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s expected prosecution for alleged corruption means that Thailand’s current leaders (most of whom are ex-military men) must also be tried in court. Needless to say, this has sent a chill through General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s establishment.
Moreover, Dr Mahathir’s re-emergence briefly prompted speculation that another retired premier (and former Democrat Party leader) Chuan Leekpai – who is pushing 80 – would throw his hat in the ring.
Then there’s Singapore, Malaysia’s self-important sibling to the south. Formerly the bailiwick of Dr Mahathir’s life-long adversary, Lee Kuan Yew, the island nation has been ruled (if not browbeaten) by his People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959.
Despite running Singapore competently enough in economic terms, the PAP has not been immune to heavy-handed tactics to ensure its continuing success. These may have worked in the past, but perhaps not in the future.
At the same time, ordinary Singaporeans – much like their counterparts north of the Causeway – are struggling with stagnating salaries and ever-higher costs.
The inability of the PAP’s elite cadre of scholar-bureaucrats to connect and “feel the pain” of the people makes them as vulnerable as UMNO’s infamous warlords.
Last year’s unseemly family squabble over Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road residence has further tarnished what was for many a flawless brand.
Furthermore, the September 2017 presidential election – unlike the seminal 2011 polls – was highly polarising.
Tan Cheng Bock, former PAP stalwart turned inveterate critic, was barred from standing, leaving only the PAP-anointed candidate, current President Halimah Yacob, on the field.
Despite her being a trailblazer – Singapore’s first female and second Malay head of state – the walkover was a cause for division.
The lesson here is clear: elections matter.
Governments – in Southeast Asia and elsewhere – must take them seriously, meaning they must hold themselves to a higher level of accountability.
And yes, that includes you, Hun Sen.
Of course, it will take many more electoral surprises before we can say that the culture of impunity and abuse that has characterised the region is no longer dominant.
However advances in technology and social media have flattened the political terrain and strengthened the hand of the man (or woman) on the street.
Leaders who can’t, or won’t learn this lesson will be kicked out, sooner or later.
It’s that simple. *The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.