To say 2018 has been a momentous year would be an understatement. As we come to the closing days of the year, we know that we have lived in, and experienced, one of the seminal, defining years in Malaysian history.
It was the year of many firsts, especially in politics: A former prime minister became prime minister for the second time; at 93, Dr Mahathir Mohamad also became the oldest prime minister in the world; another former prime minister faced criminal charges; and a woman became deputy prime minister.
Also, the unstoppable Barisan Nasional (BN) was thrown out by an electorate seeking changes; Umno, MCA and MIC which had formed the government since the first general election in 1955, found themselves on the opposition bench; the DAP, which had been in the opposition since its founding in 1965, suddenly found itself in government; several top civil servants – including the attorney-general, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief, the chief justice and the Treasury secretary-general, were eased out or resigned; and while the Pakatan Harapan (PH) won control of the Dewan Rakyat the BN retained control of the Dewan Negara.
Who among the main players in this dramatic change has had the biggest impact on the nation’s direction in 2018? Is it Dr Mahathir, former prime minister Najib Razak, or PKR supremo and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim?
Is it Lim Guan Eng who became the first Chinese finance minister in 44 years? Is it his father Lim Kit Siang – a man who has gone through hellish situations, survived the turbulence of politics, and when his party, as a PH partner, finally formed the government, decided not to be a minister? Or is it P Waytha Moorthy, a rebel who led Hindraf to fight the Indian cause and who briefly fled the country to avoid possible arrest but is now a minister shouldering responsibility for the improvement of the Indian community?
What about Attorney-General Tommy Thomas who has unflinchingly gone after suspected wrongdoers and is working to improve the legal system? What about Bersih 2.0 which has played a pivotal role in waking Malaysians to their rights, galvanising them into action and taking on the might of the previous government to ensure free and fair elections?
Is it the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission that is relentlessly pursuing the corrupt after May 9? Or is it the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal that rocked the nation and led to probes in several countries, bringing in its wake unwanted and ugly attention to Malaysia?
Let’s take a look at Najib. Like his father Razak Hussein, Najib served as prime minister and Umno president. In 2009 he became prime minister and was going strong until the winds of change swept him out of office and into the court of law. He is the first former prime minister to be charged for criminal offences – in this case graft and money-laundering linked to 1MDB, which he set up.
In 1973, the father persuaded several opposition parties to join the Alliance and form the BN; in 2018, the son watched as the BN splintered and returned to the Alliance position with the three original partners – Umno, MCA and MIC – largely due to his failures.
There is no gainsaying the fact that 1MDB was a major reason for the fall of the BN. Although the 1MDB saga had been around since DAP leader Tony Pua raised it in 2010, it did not gain attention until 2014. However, Najib’s government managed to keep it under control by several clever moves, including replacing attorney-general Gani Patail with Mohamed Apandi Ali. The mainstream media buried news of 1MDB and only some news portals and The Edge Weekly carried criticism of the finance ministry-owned investment fund. But when Dr Mahathir entered the fray to openly oppose Najib and formed PPBM, 1MDB became a potent weapon.
What about Anwar, the prime minister-in-waiting, for Malaysian of the Year? The charismatic politician is back in action, holding the attention of his audience with his oratorical skills which he massages to suit the audience. He was jailed, a second time, on a charge of sodomy by the Najib administration but received a full pardon from the King after PH won the election. Even while in prison twice and even when he did not have power or money to offer his followers, his charisma, and a band of loyalists, kept his party, PKR, going. Today, PKR is the party with the largest number of parliamentarians. What a victory. It speaks well of his political canniness.
The DAP deserves to be considered for the title, too, because from a rank outsider, from a party whose leaders and members never really thought it would be able to form the government, it is today in a position to influence national policy. Despite all the years of suffering under a BN regime that was out to paint it as chauvinistic and anti-Malay, despite all the years of harassment by government agencies, it not only survived, it triumphed in 2018. Its perseverance, one-pointedness and organisational ability has seen it rise above the odds.
And what can I say about Dr Mahathir that hasn’t already been said? He is the comeback kid par excellence. At an age when most people would prefer to stay at home and spend time with great-grandchildren, he is directing the course of the nation.
He could have retired as prime minister and enjoyed the pensions and perks that come with it. But he didn’t. He felt the country was going in the wrong direction and that he was needed. When he formed PPBM and joined the PH alliance of PKR, DAP and Amanah, the voting public felt the nation needed him.
By leading the PH to victory he has changed the course of the nation. His motley coalition of parties unseated the Barisan Nasional behemoth which had been in power since Independence in 1957, first as the Alliance and later as the BN.
He has shown that bitter enemies can work together for a common goal. Three years ago, who would have believed that Dr Mahathir would work hand in hand with Anwar, the former deputy prime minister whom his administration jailed? Who would have believed that he could work with the DAP, which he had excoriated all his political life until 2017, especially its leader Lim Kit Siang, whom his administration also jailed at one time?
In the aftermath of the May 9 general election victory, he successfully manoeuvred the splintering of the BN coalition. Not only did he remove the threat of the BN’s fixed vote deposits of Sarawak and Sabah but also turned them around into supporting his administration. And he brought to heel the once mighty Umno, the party he helmed for more than 20 years.
There is generally greater confidence among people of a better future, although lately this has been waning. There is greater democratic space and a concerted effort to root out corruption.
While some older Malaysian’s are still skeptical about him, given the slide in democratic practices during his first stint as prime minister, many younger people see him as the only leader capable of bringing about a New Malaysia which practices greater democracy.
I find the pace at which he is going simply amazing. The oldest prime minister in the world has become an example not just for Malaysians to emulate but the world to follow. His sheer willpower and determination is unbelievable, and puts to shame many people decades younger.
As a look back, I can see that all the above are worthy of being named Malaysian of the Year, with Dr Mahathir topping the list by a long chalk.
However, there is someone else who has to be considered too. I am talking about you. Yes, you, the voter.
Malaysian voters struggled against impediments stacked by the machinations of the BN. Many NGOs and individuals called out the Election Commission for favouring the BN, especially in its electoral boundary redelineation exercise and imposition of certain rules to frustrate the opposition, which it denied. The services of several top civil servants and agencies were used by the BN to deny an opposition victory. Also employed was the usual scare tactic of racial riots if the BN were to lose.
Voters wanted change: a more democratic society where they could express themselves without fear of being detained or harassed; a more Malaysian government that would address the needs of all citizens; a proper separation of powers between the Executive, Parliament and the Judiciary; and a nation where racial and religious issues would not be used by the elite to stay in power. They also wanted better living standards and better control on the cost of living.
A substantial number of voters decided that enough was enough. Aghast at the direction the nation was taking, they decided to put a brake on it; they decided to be agents of change. Picking up courage, they threw caution to the wind as they trooped to the polling booths and marked the most important X in their lives. And in the process altered the fate of the nation – and theirs too.
For the courage shown in overcoming complacency and fear, for becoming agents of change and giving notice to politicians that they are asserting their right for a say in the nation’s direction, and for showing that change is possible if people act in unison, the Malaysian Voter is the Malaysian of the Year for 2018.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.