The match that set fire to the nation

A few months ago, a Pakatan Harapan (PH) victory seemed all but impossible. Change was just a wild pipe dream, unthinkable short of a miracle.

Compared to Barisan Nasional (BN), PH had limited financial resources and limited help on the ground. BN could call on its cronies for financial aid and use the state’s machinery to mobilise a slick, well-run election war effort. In the PH camp, however, most of the work was done by volunteers.

But even with all the resources at its disposal and enough cash to fill several tankers, BN still lost as over the past month, things came to a head for PH.

The catalyst was provided by the Registrar of Societies, which stopped Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s party, PPBM, from contesting the May 9 polls.

But it was perhaps the Election Commission’s (EC) censorship of Mahathir’s picture from posters and billboards which unwittingly lit the fire across the nation.

Those monitoring the sentiments of the electorate subsequently reported a large spike in support for Mahathir and PH, particularly from the Malay community.

The EC’s delay in sending out postal votes was the last straw for many. People flew home from as far as Canada, Australia and England to vote. They also carried in postal ballots for their friends as well as complete strangers who entrusted them with their votes.

The upshot of all this was that after 61 years, Malaysians finally managed to vote for change. The ingredients were all there: the frustration with a government which refused to acknowledge its corrupt acts; the delays in administrating justice; the warnings and the anti-fake news law to stop people from speaking up.

The people did not always have confidence in the opposition, especially after the break-up of the previous pact, Pakatan Rakyat. This was followed by the betrayal of PAS, a former coalition member.

When Mahathir was made the leader of the opposition coalition last year, many people had reservations. Some recalled the worst parts of his 22-year rule from 1981 to 2003: the affirmative action policies and the draconian Internal Security Act.

But in the 15 years since Mahathir left office, Najib and his Cabinet had ample opportunity to right his wrongs. Not only did they fail, they made things worse.

So Malaysians decided to take a risk. Mahathir was the architect of modern Malaysia. He had endeared himself to the people. He had apologised, several times, at public events. If Anwar Ibrahim’s family was prepared to forgive him, who were we to deny him the chance to rebuild the country?

Come May 10, however, the people were still unable to celebrate PH’s victory at the polls. Incredibly, by nightfall, Mahathir’s swearing-in ceremony had still yet to be conducted. The people began to fear a last-minute intervention by Najib.

But again, Mahathir saved the day. While tongues wagged about the alleged delay from the palace, he stepped in and joked that the wait was due to his waking up late and the tiredness of his team. His magnanimous, face-saving gesture helped calm a nation that was equally tired after jumping all the hurdles to get that far.

Today, we awoke to a new Malaysia. Let PH heal our fractured nation. It will not be easy to undo the many decades of misrule. But PH needs time and our patience. We can still play our role and keep it in check.

We have tasted change, and PH will know what to expect if it fails to perform.

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of FMT.