Our Black Book usually covers events around the region that we feel are interesting, unique and not your business as usual event. Essentially, we want to create a photographic time capsule capturing the times that we live in, and the moments we celebrate.
In 2018, there was not one single event that was more nail-biting than the General Election in Malaysia. It ran the gamut of all emotions – joy, tears, disappointment, relief, jubilation and commiseration.
History was created not just in Malaysia but on a global level when Malaysians elected a 92-year-old to office, making him the oldest Prime Minister in the world. For the country, to witness the defeat of the juggernaut that is Barisan Nasional (The National Front) which has been in power since the inception of the 61-year-old nation, was a moment of shock and awe.
It was at this moment that the “RAHMAN” prophecy came to pass, that an UMNO-led government would be led by leaders in the exact order of letters in our first prime minister’s name (to wit, Rahman, Abdul Razak, Hussein Onn, Mahathir Mohamad, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak), ending with Najib. The eeriness of the prophecy echoed silently with some Malaysians as Najib conceded to the loss.
Since 1999 Parti Keadilan Nasional (forerunner of Parti Keadilan Rakyat) under de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, has tried to seek a place to govern the country. For nearly 20 years and through three general elections, PKR failed.
And it was with the biggest irony that the man who would lead them to victory, was the same man PKR reviled at their party’s birth. Anwar’s incarceration was their cause celebre and reason for being.
Politics is rife with betrayals from Gordon Brown challenging Tony Blair, to Suharto deposing Sukarno and Brutus stabbing Caesar, but history has never witnessed a reconciliation of such epic proportions.
That Tun Mahathir could forgive Anwar for his ‘Et tu, Brute’ ‘moment during an UMNO general assembly in 1998 or that Anwar could forgive Mahathir for accusing him of sodomy and jailing him for it, was once considered an impossibility.
But on the night of May 9th 2018, the heavens conspired to give these two men, that which they most desired: the unseating of Prime Minister Najib. The multiple bêtes noires of the 1MDB financial scandal to the flagrant extravagance of his First Lady, to the murder mystery of Mongolian national Altantuya, were his undoing in the eyes of the public.
Despite rumours of rampant gerrymandering (as there are every election year), democracy prevailed.
As voting results came streaming in, the excitement of a prospective new government was dampened by unusually prolonged periods of silence: between the vote counting and declaration of winners by the Election Commission, to the King who deliberately deliberated the unusual coalition whose candidate for Prime Minister was not the leader of the majority party, yet leader of the opposition. The wait seemed interminable before Mahathir was sworn in yet again as Prime Minister.
Whilst voters fretted on social media, there were also voices that cautioned patience, advising against high emotions and giving any excuse to the outgoing government to declare a state of emergency.
Whilst foreign media such as the Daily Express in the UK incorrectly exaggerated the police dispersing a swelling crowd as a “riot”, tensions ran high and there was fear that a single incident could blow up at any time.
It is interesting to note here that the phrase “to run amok” – meaning “to go berserk, rampage or riot”, comes from the Malay language and implies an anger that comes after a long period of brooding.
Certainly, passions were high late that night and people were brooding over the delays. Memories of May 13 1969 served as a reminder that history must not repeat itself.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and peace was maintained as the nation waited patiently, albeit with trepidation.
In the aftermath of the results, a peaceful transition of government was achieved.
In the days following the election results, a frenetic wave of activity ensued. Criminal investigations began without delay into the former Prime Minister’s alleged (mal)administration of 1MDB.
Anwar was granted a full pardon by the King and released from jail amidst much excitement. Traffic jams were reported in the capital as supporters gathered to welcome him home. Anwar announced that his only plans were to go on the lecture circuit and travel.
Mahathir revealed the much-anticipated Cabinet positions, whilst in the background Rafizi Ramli of PKR grumbled on Facebook that Cabinet positions needed PKR approval. This prompted a slew of comments from Malaysians across social media whose sentiment was, enough of the campaigning and politicking.
Internal issues and bickering within the party should remain private and not aired on social media – it seemed the public just wanted delivery on promises with good governance and stability so that their lives could go on. However, Rafizi’s public annoyances are probably an element of the New Order, where leadership can be questioned or challenged if need be.
Overseas, The New York Times quoted Ren McEachern, a former supervisory special agent with the FBI specialising in international corruption, who said: “Now that he’s out of office, there could be an appetite for criminal charges”. It goes on to state that “Mr Najib’s removal from office is bringing new vigour to efforts by the Justice Department to pursue him, according to a person with direct knowledge of the investigation but who is not authorised to speak publicly.”
Most remarkable about news about Malaysia across the world, since the tragic day of doomed flight MH370: the country made the news for all the right reasons. Our nation was heralded as a people who were celebrating a brand new day in democracy.
It will be interesting to see how the Mahathir/Anwar relationship plays out. As popular a figure Anwar is, some voters were reticent to vote for the party as they were unclear what it truly stood for other than justice for their leader, coupled with the disastrous marriage of convenience to PAS.
The lack of clarity comes from his political history – early on in his career, Anwar was leader of ABIM, an Islamic youth movement and naturally allied with PAS. PAS took much inspiration from the mullahs of Iran, and their main agenda seemed to be introducing Hudud law (Islamic criminal law) into Federal Law, political anathema to most Malaysians.
Some sources claim that at a critical juncture for PAS, Anwar became friendly with Tengku Razaleigh who brought him into UMNO, and from whom he later disavowed to take Mahathir’s side when there were power struggles within the party.
Finally his famous leadership challenge and attempted coup against Mahathir in the late 1990s led to his arrest and subsequent jailing on charges of sodomy on Mahathir’s orders.
It has led journalists such as M. Morgenstern from The Economist to characterise Anwar as a “silver tongue chameleon” and in the same article he asked: “Who and what exactly does he stand for?” This may explain in part why PKR struggled in the last two decades to get the simple majority needed to govern. People just didn’t know where he truly stood.
The final question remains whether Mahathir has truly mellowed over time, whether his forgiveness of Anwar is unconditional and if these two, quite possibly the most influential and charismatic leaders Malaysia has ever seen, can really steward the country together despite their differences. So far, their adventures together have played out like a Greek drama.
In the meantime, the hopes of a nation rest in their hands.
For Barisan Nasional, the loss was a cataclysmic event. However, it required a resounding and bitter loss for the party to realise that self-examination was critical, and to search for the possibility of rebuilding the party.
What stands out about this momentous event and the players that dominated were the qualities of courage and conviction. It took courage and conviction for Anwar to challenge Mahathir 20 years ago, and persist as the opposition leader withstanding prison time and abject humiliation, where political party Semangat 46 flailed after only one attempt at the general elections in 1990.
It took courage and conviction for Mahathir to come out of retirement at 92, to be subject to ridicule, forensic investigations and questions on his past to stand for what he believed would make a better Malaysia.
It took courage and conviction for the people and journalists of Malaysia to stand up for freedom of speech and inclusiveness and vote for a better future. And probably these are the same two qualities Barisan should have had to challenge the leadership when it was clearly teetering before the elections, and moving forward will need to have in spades as they set about rebuilding the party and with no small dose of irony, be an effective opposition party to The Government.
Courage, conviction, the need to balance short-term gains with long-term benefits and the ability to make and stand by a decision, yet allowing for inclusiveness and challenges to that same decision, are the hallmarks of any effective leadership, be it in governing the country or managing a company.
Malaysia Inc has a lot of work to do moving forward.