When The Air Is Pregnant In Malaysia and Asia

Thus, the air is pregnant with the exercise of one final democratic push, invariably, the collective choice of 15 million voters, to ensure the emergence of a new Malaysian democracy that is not stillborn.


By Mustaqim Abdullah

The birth pangs of any democracy are never easy. Not unlike any biological birth, it is marked by the usual dread and unnerving moments. On May 9, Malaysia will have its 14th general election, although one no less dramatic than an actual birth.

To be sure, the labor pains, and the breaking of the water, began as early as March 2008. That was when a motley crew of opposition parties banded together under Anwar Ibrahim’s vision and showed the country, against all odds, that a two-party system was possible.

The second phase culminated in May 2013 when that once motley crew now shocked the world by winning a majority of Malaysian hearts and minds – proving to people (and also to BN) that they could win, even an unfair election.

May 9 2018 is, therefore, the near equivalent of the third trimester of the Malaysian pregnancy. Do we have a new democracy or a continuation of a kleptocracy, May 9 would mark the delivery?

But in a world of democratic recession, where democratic governments seem to be falling like bowling pins, the electoral results of Malaysia does matter to Asia at the very least.

To begin with, Asia is a diverse collection of different regimes, none of which can be declared an actual democracy, with the exception of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. If one enlarges it to include Australia and New Zealand, the democratic sample still holds. These are the five countries that have allowed some transitions of power to happen.

To the degree India is included, no one is certain if India’s democracy may be considered too flawed to be ranked, since it hasn’t produced the desirable economic equity, and is itself succumbing to forces of racist chauvinism. The Philippines, too, cannot be included since President Duterte has rode roughshod over it.

With such a small collection of actual, and functional democracies, one where the opposition leaders are not intentionally sued to bankruptcy—-as is the case in Singapore—what happens in Malaysia truly matters to the rest of the world.

As things stand, the ground is filled with hopes of a new democracy. One that can allow others to breathe not merely a sigh of relief but practically free air. If Najib wins the election on May 9, especially with a 2/3 super majority, his ruling party UMNO and coalition, would have seen it fit to redraw any electoral boundaries, or, add to the current 222 to make it impossible for the opposition leaders to have a second chance.

Age is not on the side of all of the opposition leaders now, including Anwar Ibrahim, who will be 73 this year, and if banned another five years after his release cannot seek any public office until he is 78.

Even Dr Mahathir Mohammad, the leader of the opposition coalition, otherwise known as Pakatan Harapan, is an oddity in motion. At 93 this July, he cannot feign any more stamina than what he has already shown through the length and breadth of the country.

Lim Kit Siang, an opposition stalwart, is in his mid 70s too. Another five years he would be an Octogenarian. Dr Wan Azizah, the wife of Anwar Ibrahim is well into her late 60s, and understands the urgency of this election like no other. Mohammad Sabu, a former Islamic leader, is in the same league of Wan Azizah too. If the opposition coalition loses, all these leaders would be staring at the prospect of Najib, who is now 65, leading Malaysia well beyond 2023.

That being said, Malaysians are waiting with bated breath to ‘kick’ him out. Income has been stagnant, while the chasm between the rich and poor continues to grow; on top of which the national debt has risen to USD 155 billion, with the likelihood to pass the threshold of USD 250 billion in a few years at current spending trajectory, with no indication that a more prudent economic plan is in the works.

Thus, the air is pregnant with the exercise of one final democratic push, invariably, the collective choice of 15 million voters, to ensure the emergence of a new Malaysian democracy that is not stillborn.

The heart is willing, so is the mind of the Malaysians. But the body is in the control of Najib, as he holds all the levers of ensuring a fair and clear election. If Malaysians don’t appear in droves to phase Najib out, which essentially means a voters’ turn out of nothing less than 85 per cent, Malaysia is a goner, and so is Southeast Asia’s experimentation with democracy.

One could of course point to the existence of Indonesia. But with Prabowo Subianto, the former son in law of President Suharto, poised to challenge President Widodo Jokowi, no one is certain if what is witnessed in the West, where the democratic order kept failing away, will not be a pandemic in Asia too.

If the world isn’t watching Malaysia carefully, it should: it is the barometer of the things to come in Asia and the rest of the world.