A new dawn for democracy?

THE ninth day of May 2018 will be etched in the memories of those who enabled and witnessed Malaysian political history.

The initial stirrings of concern and caution unfolding to emotions of sadness and/or euphoria; the disbelief evolving to acceptance; the hope transforming to jubilation – these stories will be passed on for generations. No longer will the 13th have a monopoly of notable dates in May.

Everyone will have their own memories of results day. Mine began when PH leaders expressed concern about the turnout: I hypothesised that many traditional BN voters were staying home. Then the early results out of Sarawak showed PH wins, heralding a dramatic night. Soon after, I received news that Negeri Sembilan had been won by PH, though even unofficial results were absent.  Finally seeing the Chief Secretary to the Government officially declare the public holidays indicated to me that change would be accepted peacefully, as the Malaysian tsunami pushed the PH tally past 112.

As Thursday progressed, incessant screen-refreshing gave way to broader observations.

Firstly, the majority of pundits and pollsters got it wrong, whether because of bad methodology or as a result of ‘experts’ relying on the same other ‘experts’, thus creating an echo chamber. In this regard, we join a worldwide phenomenon in that the traditional methods of predicting voter intentions seem to have failed.

Secondly, while there were praises for Election Commission personnel and volunteers in the polling stations, the EC failed miserably in many respects. From not stamping ballot papers, voters in queue by 5pm being disallowed from voting, being slow in announcing the results – and of course the re-delineation exercise condemned widely (including by our own Human Rights Commission to which the EC denied observer status) – the EC chairman Tan Sri Hashim Abdullah has a lot to answer for.

Thirdly, the official media outlets refused to report anything apart from what the EC had confirmed, thus limiting the scope of any analysis. However, there was a moment when the anchors realised that they could not conceal what they knew any longer (even on RTM!); and with some unprecedented courage, they crossed the Rubicon.

Fourthly, there was a welcome lack of racial and religious rhetoric throughout the evening’s speeches.

Fifthly, rumours of attempts to usurp the result – whether through enticing crossovers or fomenting disturbances in the streets to declare emergency rule – were believed enough to indicate how much work there is to restore faith in our institutions.

Sixthly, many firsts were achieved. Kedah has become the first state to produce a two-time (not counting consecutive terms) Prime Minister – after it became the first state whose Sultan became Yang di-Pertuan Agong twice. Of course, Kedah also provided our first Prime Minister whose name, RAHMAN, prophesied the next five.

While it is undoubtedly a new dawn for Malaysian politics, I hope that it is also a new dawn for our democracy. This begins with the new government acting on all those apologies about the mistakes of the past, and delivering on the promises made to restore the rule of law and strengthen our independence of check and balance institutions. This includes the Election Commission and other constitutional and statutory bodies, freedom of the media, police and security forces, but also the judiciary and parliament itself. Over the past few years, civil society organisations have produced stacks of research and policy proposals and these should be actively assessed for adoption by the new government. One quick way to gain trust on delivering democratic reforms is to repeal draconian legislation – particularly the National Security Council Act and Anti-Fake News Act – as soon as possible.

I hope that those dealing with defeat do so gracefully and contribute positively to the democratic health of our nation. Political parties who now understand that power can be taken away from them need to rejuvenate and offer something better to the people the next time round.

I hope that the people who knowingly aided and abetted theft, corruption and kleptocracy – and this includes civil servants, captains of industry and even religious leaders – do some soul searching and consider their value systems.

I hope that those newly in office exercise their power with humility. They will have to balance the demands for revenge and the imperative of applying the rule of law with the wider needs of healing the nation with minimal recrimination and animosity.

And finally, I hope that however bad this new government might turn out to be, the politics of fear and division will nonetheless consistently lose to the politics of hope and unity in our country.

If we pull that off, then truly, as a Prime Minister once said, Malaysia Boleh!

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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