A peaceful revolution in Malaysia

Democratic change has finally come to Malaysia, though paradoxically, through the intervention of a former strongman.

Mahathir Mohamad
Decades from now, Malaysia's 14th general elections will likely be remembered as a peaceful revolution, which altered the Southeast Asian nation's history, writes Heydarian [Reuters]

On May 9, Malaysia shocked the world via a stunning electoral outcome that saw a nonagenarian return to power. Similar to the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential elections, most observers falsely predicted a narrow victory for the losing side. 

Yet, only hours after election booths closed down, it became clear to everyone that the impossible had happened. At the age of 92, a remarkably robust and fiery Mahathir Mohamad, the former strongman of Malaysia, led an energised opposition against the formidable machinery of outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak.

With legendary conviction and swagger, Mahathir braved the sweltering summer heat, a battering campaign schedule, and endless mudslinging by his critics, who mockingly claimed he was just “too old” to run for office.


The newly minted Malaysian leader isn’t, however, expected to stay in power for long. As part of a grand bargain, opposition groups adopted Mahathir as a transitional leader to shepherd the country towards a new era of democratic dynamism and clean governance.

Last century saw Mahathir build the foundations of an economically dynamic Malaysia. This century may see him paving the way for the creation of a robust democracy in Asia.

The ultimate winner of the elections is long-time democracy activist and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently in jail on sodomy charges. Having just secured a royal pardon, Anwar is slated to become Malaysia’s prime minister for the foreseeable future.

After decades of sterile authoritarian politics, Malaysia has become, almost overnight, a beacon of democratic hope in a region troubled by right-wing populists and military regimes.

A revolt against corruption

At its very heart, the latest Malaysian elections reflected a nationwide rejection of corruption and impunity among the entrenched elite.

In many ways, the electoral outcome was tantamount to regime change, as the Mahathir-led opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan ended the six-decades-long rule of Barisan Nasional (BN), formerly the Alliance Party. 

It marked the first interparty transition of power in post-independence Malaysian history. The outgoing prime minister and his associates were desperate to stay in power amid a massive corruption scandal, which could see him and his associates end up in jail.

Mr Najib and his coterie have been accused of looting as much as one billion US dollars from the state investment fund, also known as 1MDB. As a result, governments around the world, from the United States to France and Singapore, have launched investigations or frozen accounts associated with the 1MDB fund.

Yet, the Najib administration showed little interest in accountability and reform. If anything, it chose to dig in. Over the past two years, Najib mercilessly purged all critics within the government, including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, in order to stave off any internal political coup.

In a direct assault on state institutions, the embattled leader went so far as firing the attorney general investigating the 1MDB corruption scandal. 

After leaked confidential papers alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen funds ended up in his bank accounts, Najib astonishingly claimed that they were just “gifts” from the Saudi royal family.

But a majority of Malaysian people were sick and tired of painfully watching state institutions decaying under the punishing weight of widespread corruption and outright decadence among the ruling class.

Father of a nation 

The upshot was a political tsunami that saw no less than Mahathir, an ultimate insider and long-time mentor of Najib, joining forces with the opposition. 

For two decades, Mahathir led with an iron-fist, muzzling the media, jailing rivals, including his former deputy-turned-ally Anwar, and overseeing draconian laws, which heavily marginalised ethnic minorities (ie, Chinese and Indian) and the liberal intelligentsia.

He also became a leading voice behind the so-called “Asian values” paradigm, self-interestedly claiming that civil liberties and individual freedoms are alien principles that run counter to the communitarian fabric of Eastern civilisations.


But Mahathir is also credited for turning Malaysia into a manufacturing hub, with a world-class infrastructure and a booming middle class. It’s precisely this commendable legacy that has won him supporters across generations. 

After stepping down from power in 2003, he quickly turned from a king to a kingmaker, engineering the ascent (and later dismissal) of his two successors, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak.

Najib would have lost power as early as 2013, if not for heavy gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, systematic intimidation of opposition media, and large-scale patronage of favoured and heavily rural constituencies,

Back then, the opposition, led by Anwar, won the popular vote but was heavily underrepresented in the parliament. This time, however, Mahathir managed to split the rural, Malay base of the ruling party, while rallying the more urbanised and ethnically diverse opposition groups under his charismatic leadership. 

The road ahead, however, is challenging. Mahathir has promised to retrieve stolen funds from the state coffers, hold corrupt officials to account, and even review the country’s major infrastructure deals with China, which heavily invested in Malaysia during Najib’s reign.

Moving forward, he will have to reform state agencies, including the judiciary and internal security services, which are still populated by holdovers from the previous regime. Otherwise, any anti-corruption initiative will likely provoke a backlash from within the state apparatus. 

Overhauling Malaysia’s heavily damaged democratic institutions, however, will be a long-term project that will fall under the responsibility of Mahathir’s successor, Anwar, and the country’s new generation of progressive, young leaders. 

For now, boundless hope is in the air. Democratic change has finally come to the Southeast Asian country, though, quite paradoxically, through the intervention of a former strongman.

Decades from now, Malaysia’s 14th general elections will likely be remembered as a peaceful revolution, which altered the Southeast Asian nation’s history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.