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Overcoming gerrymandering, repressive laws, and state-controlled media, Malaysia’s tireless civil society advocates helped drive the opposition coalition to a stunning victory on May 9. Yet despite the new government’s vows to build a democratic Malaysia, activists say they are not resting on their laurels. For the first time in decades, the ruling parties' members of parliament met with civil-society activists late last month to discuss reform priorities. But Malaysian democrats admit they are confronting both a race against time and a legacy from a colonial past: race relations. The former ruling party often strategized to divide citizens along racial and religious lines, depicting ethnic Malays as under constant threat – despite their clear majority and disproportional representation in government. Pursuing public education and awareness, activists are working to expand their activities beyond liberal urban centers. “There is a risk if we push too fast and too hard – there will be a backlash,” says Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Bersih 2.0, a coalition of 92 Malaysian civil society organizations. “And if we have not made the needed institutional reforms before this happens, then we will lose what we have gained.”
After a surprise opposition win ended six decades of one-party rule in Malaysian general elections in May, civil-society activists are busy working to expand and protect their democratic spring.
Authoritarians are on the rise in Southeast Asia and beyond, and democracy advocates here are watching the resurgence of far-right groups and populist movements in liberal democracies in the West. But they say they are armed with vital tools that reformist forces in other countries lacked as they work to complete their democratic transition: foreknowledge and urgency.
Malaysia’s civil-society activists helped drive the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition to a stunning victory May 9 over the ruling National Front coalition and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party that dominated it, overcoming gerrymandering, repressive laws, and state-controlled media. Yet despite the new government’s vows to build a democratic Malaysia, the activists say they are not resting on their laurels.
The biggest threat to Malaysia’s democratic spring? Complacency.
“When we look at other countries, progressives didn’t finish the course,” says Jason Wong, an activist with Muda Malaysia, a youth democratic movement. He says liberal movements in Indonesia, Thailand, Egypt, and even the United States now face a backlash from reactionary forces. “They got complacent. They forgot about people’s socio-economic concerns – and then they lost.” Malaysia’s civil society is mounting pressure on the new government to fulfill its pledge to complete institutional and legal reforms in case the window for change closes once again.
The new government is a diverse coalition of opposition parties with different ideologies and bases, currently headed by Mahathir Mohamad, the 93-year-old former prime minister-turned-opposition figure. Pakatan Harapan has a detailed manifesto and a 100-day test to fulfill 10 of its promises, ranging from raising the minimum wage to investigating scandal-plagued institutions.
The new government has taken steps to curb corruption and investigate the disappearance of more than $4 billion in taxpayer money, this month charging former Prime Minister Najib Razak with corruption and freezing his assets. But Malaysia’s democrats are pushing for a greater focus on prevention of a return to authoritarian rule. Their own ambitious wish list includes an overhaul of security laws, parliamentary reform, separation of the executive and judicial branches, election of the partially appointed upper house, and an increase in Parliament’s oversight over government ministries.
“They are going to expect a lot from this government in terms of tackling corruption, the economy, institutional reform, and freedom of expression, but at the same time it is a very new government and a very young team governing for the first time,” says HuiHui Ooi, a Malaysia analyst and associate director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. “Everyone has to be realistic.... These laws have been in place since the 1980s or longer and are embedded in Malaysia, they cannot be reformed overnight.”
No pass for a ‘friendly’ government
Under the final years of UMNO’s reign, the government would push through bills several-hundred pages long to be put to vote the same day. Activists say simple reforms such as allowing more time for parliamentary discussion and procedure can go a long way toward building their young democracy.
“Just because we have a more friendly government in power does not mean their powers should go unchecked,” says Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Bersih 2.0, or “clean,” a coalition of 92 Malaysian civil-society organizations that has led the opposition and a drive for free and fair elections and human rights.
A top target of civil-society groups is the country’s Sedition Act, a 1948 law dating back to the British colonial government that outlaws any speech deemed by authorities to be sowing “strife.” In practice, it barred any speech critical of the ruling party. Another is reforming the judiciary, which is currently appointed by the chief justice – himself a political appointee and UMNO loyalist.
One key to maintaining their focus, Malaysia’s democrats say, is public education and awareness.
“If you are not vigilant on parties in power, you have abdicated your responsibility and surrendered your power – and your democracy,” says Zaharom Nain, an executive committee member of Malaysia’s oldest human rights organization, Aliran. “Freedom is a long process, it is not one result at the ballot box.”
In the transition away from “Get Out the Vote” campaigns to lobbying and advocacy, activists have drafted a strategy of pressuring the parties of the fragile coalition to ensure they follow through on campaign promises. For the first time in decades, MPs of the ruling parties met with civil society activists late last month to discuss reform priorities.
Meanwhile, Muda Malaysia is looking to overturn regulations banning political activity on university campuses. Youth activists believe they can also push for free assembly and mobilization of trade unions and labor, which have also been undermined, marginalized, and managed by the former ruling party.
But Malaysian democrats admit they are confronting both a race against time and a legacy from a colonial past: race relations.
Malaysia is composed of a majority of Malays, around 60 percent, and a mix of indigenous groups, ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Indians. As part of a legacy of affirmative-action measures taken by UMNO in the 1970s, Malays and some indigenous peoples receive some “perks.” They include access to zero-interest loans, discounts on housing and land, priority slots in universities, the Army, and security services, and laws requiring companies to be 30 percent owned by Malays.
UMNO often pursued a “divide and rule” strategy to separate citizens along racial and religious lines, depicting Malays as under constant threat – despite their clear majority and disproportionate representation in government.
“The one question we are all facing now is: How do we prevent identity politics from taking center stage again in Malaysia?” says Bersih’s Mr. Yap.
Malaysian democrats are well aware that UMNO and its supporters will attempt to go to the heartland and claim that the new government and liberal elites are “changing our way of life,” and are coming to “take away” their jobs and privileges. Already, opposition parties have attempted to paint the new government as anti-Malay.
Many decried the new government’s appointment of Tommy Thomas, an ethnic Indian, as attorney general as an alleged attempt to upend Islamic sharia, which is applied to Muslim Malays in the country. Another furor erupted after Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is ethnic Chinese, issued a statement in both Mandarin and Malay – with critics claiming that Malays’ “language and heritage” were under attack by the new government, which was no longer “nationalistic.”
“We are aware that these dark forces are already regrouping and looking for a way back in – there is no room for mistake,” says Mr. Nain.
The solution, they say, is outreach and patience.
“There is a risk if we push too fast and too hard – there will be a backlash,” says Yap. “And if we have not made the needed institutional reforms before this happens, then we will lose what we have gained.”
Civil-society groups are working to expand their programs and activities beyond liberal urban centers.
“What we really need to do is convince Malays living in rural areas that democratic reforms will benefit everyone,” says Nain. “It must be proved that it is not a zero-sum game; there is room for everyone in Malaysia, and the economy will grow for all citizens.”
Another threat to progressive reforms lurks in Malaysia: a resurgent far-right. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), hardliners advocating for an Islamic state, had one of its best turnouts in more than a decade in the May elections, securing a surprising 16.6 percent of the vote and 18 of the House of Representative’s 222 seats.
Activists remain concerned that an under-pressure UMNO may move to the right to compete for PAS supporters, or even merge with them. Such an alliance could further polarize Malaysian politics and bring ethnic divisions further to the fore.
“Even in established democracies such as the US and Europe, the far-right is resurging,” says Wong. “We know what is coming for us, and we have to work fast to prevent them from gathering their forces.”