I’m not sure if I am living in Malaysia. Let me rephrase that: I’m not sure if I am watching Malaysian television.
Yesterday, I was watching some of the commentary on the 14th general election results over Bernama and mainly Astro Awani – while waiting to listen to announcements by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and word of the swearing-in ceremony – and I was amazed.
Most, if not all, of the commentators and anchors, it seemed to me, were delectably discussing 1MDB, including the possible fate of former prime minister Najib Razak and allegations or facts uncovered by investigators in other countries about 1MDB. It appeared as if the dam had been broken, and the water was gushing out.
Until May 9, most mainstream media resolutely kept away from linking the word “1MDB” to the word “Najib”. Even if they did, they quickly mentioned that he had been cleared by Attorney-General Apandi Ali or that it was all a trick of the opposition or foreign agents to smear Najib’s name.
As I watched, it dawned on me that these academics and commentators and show anchors were finally finding space for expressing their thoughts openly. And it was due to the fact that Barisan Nasional (BN) had been defeated; that Najib no longer held power.
Most of us had been living in a climate of fear. We feared that if we criticised the government or Najib, or even the police, in our social media posts, we might be visited by the police or the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission officials. We feared that we would be arrested under any number of laws and dragged to court.
But most of us, unlike people such as Rafizi Ramli and Ambiga Sreeevasan, did not have the guts to fight back. Mahathir put it well at his press conference after being sworn in last night: “Guts is a scarce commodity in Malaysia.”
We had seen laws being abused; we had seen enforcement officials trampling on individual rights in enforcing some law or other. We had seen former Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli being harassed, prosecuted and jailed for coming forward to reveal details of a scandal or two. We had seen former Bersih head Maria Chin Abdullah being detained and forced to stay in the lockup over some allegation that most, if not all, people did not believe.
Yesterday, it was not just those guys on TV who were talking about it openly and honestly; even ordinary people were posting stuff or sending WhatsApp messages with candour, even abandon.
Isn’t this a sign of democracy, I thought as I answered a message from a friend who said he felt good about having voted for change in GE14. It takes guts to ditch a party that has formed the government for 61 years and which may victimise you if you don’t play along.
Yes, it is a victory for democracy, as citizens have finally witnessed their own power and how, working together, they can change their destinies and even that of their nation.
They have been energised and now know that if the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government forgets its pledges or begins to stifle their freedoms, or oppresses them or disregards their rights and needs, they can rise up again. They have got back their guts.
To me, this is the real victory in GE14. Voters now know that politicians cannot ride roughshod over them and that they have the power to teach any party a lesson. If they allow an oppressive climate to prevail, it is only their fault and if they so decide, they can remove the powerful politicians who make their life difficult.
Democratic norms, which were struggling under BN, now have a chance for growth. And I can already see the beginnings of it on television and social media.
Social media seems to be full of people in a cheery mood. And almost all the posts that I have read seem to be outpourings of joy, of expectation, of achievement.
There is no doubt that Malaysians, at least those who have voted, feel they have participated in a historic moment, and are relishing the moment.
As I read the comments, I begin to feel that Mahathir – who was sworn in last night as the seventh prime minister – is not the winner. Neither is PH the winner. The real winner is the ordinary Malaysian. Or at least, that is how many are feeling.
Mahathir is getting a second shot at prime ministership because of the Malaysian voter; PH has been given an opportunity to rule because of the Malaysian voter; and all those leaders who have languished on the opposition benches for ages – such as Lim Kit Siang and Mohamad Sabu – get a chance to taste what power feels like because of the Malaysian voter.
I sincerely hope Mahathir and the rest are aware of this. Mahathir has said that looking back, he had come to realise why, when he was prime minister, he had been described as a dictator. “There were many things I did which were typically dictatorial.” At last night’s press conference, he even joked over the word “dictator”.
The hope of all Malaysians is that he does not go back to his “typically dictatorial” ways this time around. He has been given a second chance to put things right and he should use this opportunity well. I was glad to hear him say, last night, that his government would review or repeal oppressive laws such as the anti-fake news law.
Also, many are waiting with bated breath for Mahathir and PH to fulfil the promises they said they would in the first 100 days, including stabilising fuel prices and getting rid of the GST. This is what the real winner – the voter – expects of the new government.
Probably the most important outcome of GE14 is that finally, the Malaysian voter – the young graduate, the home maker, the harried office worker, the hawker, the civil servant, the retiree – realises that he or she wields the real power.
All these years, the Umno-led BN had kept the Malaysian voter in thrall – with handouts for support and rewards for loyalty, and also by encouraging feudalistic attitudes. The voter, so used to calling the elected representative Yang Berhormat and bowing to those with titles, lost all awareness of the fact that the elected representative is, in fact, his or her servant.
Now, voters, or at least a substantial number of them, have broken out of this thraldom and it feels good, as evidenced by the social media messages.
I think this breath of fresh air is marvellous for the nation. I only hope that the new PH government works for the people. It has to keep in mind that Malaysian voters now know their power; if they can say “bye” to the BN juggernaut, they can say “bye” to PH – five years from now. They’ve found their guts.
A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.
The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of FMT.