Laura Southgate and Tom O'Brien


Malaysia’s surprise May 2018 election result has paved the way for the introduction of social, economic and political reform. Further liberalisation will hinge on the new government’s ability to maintain stability in overcoming the legacies of the past while ensuring certainty around issues of leadership and succession.


Malaysia’s May 2018 election result represented a significant change on one level, as it ushered in a new governing coalition for the first time since independence in 1957. At the same time, it also represented a return to the past, with the reentry of long-time ruler Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to the political arena. The election was presented as a ‘victory for Asian Democracy’ at a time when authoritarian and illiberal regimes appear to be in the ascendance globally. There are therefore questions to be asked regarding whether the election truly represented a break with the past, or simply a reshuffling of personnel and party labels. This post attempts to review the change and highlight some of the perspectives of those on the ground, drawing on interviews conducted in Kuala Lumpur in August 2018 with academics, activists, and former officials.

The election saw the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) party defeated for the first time, winning 35.9% of the vote, against 52.5% for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Voter turnout was high, registered at 82.32%. Corrupt and oppressive practices displayed by the BN party had damaged its reputation and limited its ability to govern effectively. The success of PH represents an important change, as it is a smaller coalition of parties ostensibly lacking ties to the incumbent regime, with Mahathir’s support coming late in the campaign and giving it an important boost. Change was not guaranteed, as the restricted nature of Malaysian politics, characterised by a lack of transparency, accountability and infringement on civil liberties, had in many ways entrenched the political status quo. Mahathir Mohamad’s decision to join and lead the PH coalition gave an implicit guarantee to voters that they would not face reprisals for turning away from the BN. Our participants noted that the change was a surprise, rather than the shock alluded to by the media. The strength of frustration with the incumbent regime coupled with the changing political climate evidenced by the return of Mahathir Mohamad to the political sphere created a situation that was ripe for change.

Another important factor in shifting the regime and enabling a reordering the system was the role of civil society actors. Groups such as Bersih campaigned vigorously for clean and fair elections, with early voting monitored by Members of the National Patriots Association (Patriot), an organisation comprised of veteran members of the security services. Others such as SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia) actively campaigned for human rights. Together, these groups improved access to information, and helped create an atmosphere where individuals felt safe to engage in activism and vote with reduced fear of recrimination. Risks remained, as the legal environment was hostile to much civil society activity through the implementation of restrictive speech laws and politically motivated prosecutions. The spread of information through social media and the internet also facilitated greater awareness and fueled calls for accountability as the public found its voice. Civil society actors were able to capitalise on the liberalisation that has gradually been taking place in Malaysia over time, pushing more as opportunities allow. The promises made by PH in its political manifesto suggest that there will be greater space for civil society participation in the future if they are followed through. That the Malaysian Parliament has recently sought to repeal an Anti-Fake News law, implemented under the BN and widely viewed as a means to repress free speech, is testament to this change. However, it is still too early to tell whether all elements of the manifesto will be honoured as the reality of governing hits home. PH also continues to face domestic challenges, with an opposition dominated Senate capable of frustrating new initiatives. 

An important point of uncertainty surrounds the role of Mahathir as head of PH. Much will depend on his willingness and ability to forgo practices that had served him well in the past. Having served as PM and leader of the BN coalition from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir was in power at a time when many of the more restrictive policies were implemented. His role in the 1988 constitutional crisis, policies he enacted under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and the hand he has played in the appointment of successive Prime Minister’s demonstrate his enduring influence and raise questions about whether he has truly changed. Despite these uncertainties, there was a sense among the participants that Mahathir had re-entered the political sphere to guarantee his legacy and correct the mistakes of the past. Charismatic and popular with the electorate, he is viewed as somebody who has the strength of character and authority to implement the necessary changes at this critical juncture in Malaysia’s political development. On an institutional level there are also questions regarding the stability of the PH coalition, and its ability to persist after the departure of Mahathir from the political scene.

Issues of succession also generate uncertainty in the aftermath of the May election. Mahathir’s former Deputy and political opponent Anwar Ibrahim, as leader of the People’s Justice Party, is next in line for the role of PM. Anwar’s reformist past and popularity with the electorate suggest that he has the potential to win support after Mahathir steps down. However, concerns remain regarding his willingness to be swayed by differing viewpoints and the risk that he may provide an entry point for a more political form of religious practice. These concerns are genuine given the character of the state, where a growing racial and religious divide has been fomented by previous BN practices, in a region where such divisions have led to violence in the past. These tendencies should also be viewed in light of the history of strong-man rule and the uncertainty that may accompany liberalisation, as relationships and restrictions are renegotiated. 

Malaysia stands at a crossroads. The end of BN governance has introduced an opportunity for the country to take further steps towards liberalisation. In a region that has seen considerable instability, Malaysia has a chance to become a strong and positive regional role model. However, uncertainty over the ability of Mahathir to change and questions regarding succession highlight the vulnerability of the change process. The next few years of PH rule will prove crucial in determining which way the country develops.


The research reported in this post was funded by Aston University, Aston Centre for Europe (ACE). Laura Southgate is a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University. She tweets at @Laura_SouthgateTom O’Brien is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. He tweets at @TomOB_NZ.