Malaysia Baharu: Five Years On

On May 9, 2018, the historic 14th general election saw the fall of the Barisan Nasional government that had ruled Malaysia for over 6 decades. Yet, the resulting “New Malaysia” turned out to be far different from what many imagined. DR BRIDGET WELSH reflects on Malaysia’s journey over the last 5 years.

Dr Bridget Welsh

When the May 9, 2018, 14th general election (GE14) results were announced (after delays and behind-the-scenes negotiations to accept the results) the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that had governed Malaysia since independence had been ousted. 1MDB scandal-tainted (now jailed) Najib Tun Razak had lost the election.

The seeds for government change had been planted decades earlier with a failure to respond to demands for reform, to address systemic problems of corruption and to effectively introduce policies to ameliorate the divisions in Malaysian society.

The move towards more autocratic rule after 2015, when 1MDB became public, and poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which contributed to rising inflation that hit vulnerable Malaysians hard, eroded support for BN, particularly among those who had long supported the now-no-longer grand coalition. A Dr Mahathir Mohamad-led (then more unified) opposition was able to tip the balance of power, helped by electoral gains in Sabah and Sarawak.

Sudah jatuh ditimpa tangga (Malay proverb meaning ‘After falling, the ladder falls on you’)

There were competing emotions on display in those days after the election — surprise and shock, elation and dismay, hope and unease. News reports focused on the former, embracing the idea of a “reset”, with the label “Malaysia Baru/Baharu” or “new Malaysia” taking root.

5 years on, there is indeed a new Malaysia, a Malaysia Baharu transformed, although it was not in the way many imagined.

Malaysian politics has endured a hard beating since 2018 — 5 prime ministers (including Najib), 5 different coalition governments (including the notorious Sheraton Move), persistent political polarisation with heightened mobilisation of race and religion, non-ending politicking and constant political noise.

Political instability and “fluidity” have normalised uncertainty and the unexpected. Political rumours continue to cause a stir, heightened by active social media and many imaginations.

The Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that led to over 37,000 recorded deaths (so far), lockdowns and economic havoc, compounded the political and social dislocation, enhanced the need for responsive government and contributed to insecurities. With losses in competitiveness and even greater losses in education and incomes, opportunism over harnessing opportunities, even recovery remains a struggle.

It is easy to focus on the negative, to see the fall of government in 2018 as bringing Malaysia down the ladder. Indeed, the political turnover since 2018 has shaken Malaysians.

Dayung sudah di tangan, perahu sudah di air (The paddle is in your hands, the canoe is in the water)

Yet out of the experiences of the last 5 years this new Malaysia is more democratic, more resilient and continues to offer promise.

The story of “New Malaysia” is not about its leaders, although they would like to think so. Too many of them continue to think Malaysia is about them, their power. One of the most important shifts in “New Malaysia” has been how leaders (and politicians) are seen.

They have fallen off their pedestal, a few very far and hard. While some in society continue to put their faith in particular leaders, the last 5 years have brought a dose of realism to public expectations. Leaders are no longer the “saviours” of Malaysia, as Malaysians have had to save themselves.