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What has changed in Malaysia?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

May’s general election in Malaysia has been hailed as a turning point in the country’s history. For the first time since it has gained independence from the British, the election returned a different party to government than the traditional rulers, the Barisan Nasional.

This was unexpected especially since the previous ruling party has had decades to entrench their power and gerrymander electoral districts, and was assumed to have both the motive and the power to corrupt the ultimate election result. After all, this was the government of Najib Razak of 1Malaysia Development Berhad fame, possibly the largest example of government corruption in history.

But in the end, democracy prevailed. And all the more, it has prevailed in a country where it was assumed it did not really exist in any but a purely formal sense. The election was won by the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, led by Mahathir Mohamad.

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All is not rainbows and unicorns though. The newly minted 92-year-old 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia, is also the former 4th Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 – when he was, of course, also leader of Barisan Nasional.

Dr Mohamad ran on a platform of anti-corruption, but also on the promise to release from prison and cede power to the country’s most popular politician, Anwar Ibrahim, one time Deputy Prime Minister with Barisan, in the 1990s.

The newly elected leaders may be “old guard”, but they are an “old guard” with a clearly new mandate to fight against and root out the corruption, which has become entrenched in the country in recent years

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The political mould

This is not just a case of a country breaking out of the political mould. Welcome to your new leaders: your old(er) leaders. Rather it is a democratic rejection of the same old ruling party.

Nevertheless, the buzz and excitement the election result has generated in Malaysia itself and the positive media coverage it has garnered in the international press is not altogether unjustified.

First of all, it is a matter of accepted fact, both by Malaysians themselves and by international observers, that Malaysia had become a cesspit of corruption under the previous incumbent, Razak.

And ordinary Malaysians went to the polls to deliver an unambiguous rejection to this state of affairs, giving the opposition a +20 percent swing and a total 14 percent lead over Razak’s Barisan.

The newly elected leaders may be “old guard”, but they are an “old guard” with a clearly new mandate to fight against and root out the corruption, which has become entrenched in the country in recent years.

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What is more, both Mohamad’s and Ibrahim’s records are not inconsistent with this new mandate. They presided over the country and are largely responsible for when Malaysia became an Asian Tiger economy in the 80s and especially the early 90s. An achievement that has endured to the present day, with Malaysia still being one of the most peaceful and prosperous large nations in South-East Asia.

And individually, the two leaders of the Pakatan Harapan coalition themselves remain free of the spectre of corruption which has tainted so many of their former political associates in the Barisan Nasional. Between themselves, they have decades of experience, decades of public service with great results for the Malaysian people, and little in the way of dark spots on their record.

The 2018 general election in Malaysia is thus not a completely “fresh” start in the country. But it was an unexpectedly assertive and unequivocal democratic choice by the people of Malaysia.

They have chosen a pair of trusted old hands to put their country on the right track once more. And they have every reason to expect that the new government will deliver. The future is looking bright for Malaysia, and that is surely reason for celebration.
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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.