Malaysian voters chose to forgive Mahathir Mohamad his many authoritarian moves while he was in power last time. Adrian Hoe
For far too long, Malaysia and Singapore have been exceptions to the rule that rapid development tends to bring democratisation in its wake. Among their East Asian neighbours, as the economies of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan advanced, their political systems came under pressure to open up and democracy expanded a notch or two.
This did not happen in Singapore or Malaysia. While their economies expanded in leaps and bounds, both remained one-party states. The two share many other similarities. Both were colonised by the British and both have multi-ethnic and multi-religious populations. Their cultures are also very similar. Yet while every other country in the region (except for Brunei which is an absolute monarchy) have changed governments on a fairly regular basis, Malaysia and Singapore stubbornly kept the same political party in power since independence.
In Malaysia, this party was the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Until Wednesday, UNMO had won every election since 1955. By all accounts, it was on track to win the 14th general elections as well. In fact, Najib Razak, the prime minister and head of UMNO, was so confident that he told his inner circles that he hoped for a two-thirds majority in parliament. By midnight Wednesday, it was clear UMNO was in trouble and by 5am the next day it was out, its six-decade hold on power broken by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
In just about every way this was an incredible result. Not only is Mahathir 92 years old, his new political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (BERSATU) was suspended the same week Najib dissolved parliament. BERSATU was forced to use the logo of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Anwar Ibrahim's party. The victory was the result of an uneasy alliance between Mahathir and Anwar, who was sacked as deputy prime minister by Mahathir in 1998 and was jailed shortly after that.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will hand over to the so-called 4G (Fourth Generation) leaders at the next election – if the ruling PAP holds on to power.
Nobody gave BERSATU a chance at the start of the campaign, but the people have spoken. Even the old, simple kampong (rural village) folks knew to vote for Mahathir, whose win makes him the world's oldest elected leader. One of Mahathir's famous mantra is "Melayu muda lupa" or Malays forget easily, but it seems more likely they chose to forgive Mahathir his many authoritarian moves while he was in power. Najib and UMNO's brand had simply become too toxic.
The Malays' political psyche says you should not challenge your leader but the corruption allegations had become too big to ignore. The kampong folk may not understand the full machinations of the 1MDB financial scandal but they understood the spectre of grand corruption. Malaysians know UMNO is a business patronage machine but Najib's 1MDB scandal was just "too much". If there was no 1MDB and no $US680 million deposited into Najib's personal account, he would probably still be in power today.
Meanwhile Singapore has been ruled by the People's Action Party (PAP) since 1959, almost the same number of years as UMNO was in power. On the surface, PAP appears to be strong. In the most recent general elections, held in 2015, PAP's share of the popular vote increased by about 10 per cent, reversing after years of decline. Many would argue that the increased vote was primarily due to the death of Lee Kuan Yew six months earlier; Singapore's voters wanted to give LKY a last hurrah. The nation is due to hold its next general election in two years' time and Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, will hand over power to the so-called 4G (Fourth Generation) leaders. No corruption allegations akin to 1MDB have been made about the PAP leadership but there is persistent unhappiness among Singaporeans over the escalating cost of living and the paternalistic style of PAP rule. The standard joke is PAP actually stands for "Pay And Pay" party.
Given Malaysians and Singaporeans have a fairly similar political culture, the dismissal of UNMO by their Malaysian cousins may prove inspirational. As more and more Singaporeans associate PAP with surging costs – and a planned hike in the rate of GST confirmed earlier this year – the PAP brand may become toxic as well. Ordinary Singaporeans already have a negative view of the PAP elite, who graduate from the best-known universities, hold the most prestigious scholarships and serve in the Singapore Armed Forces before entering PAP politics. They are seen as totally removed from the hard lives of ordinary Singaporeans.
History has shown that once a ruling party's brand turns toxic, voters act. Japan's Liberal Democratic Party was in power for 38 years, a lengthy stint but one dwarfed by UNMO's and Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year span. These parties knew all the tricks of staying in power but eventually they were overtaken by longevity fatigue.