The recent election in Malaysia, nicknamed the "Malaysian tsunami," has stirred reaction in Singapore, where many citizens have vicariously rejoiced in the dumping of Barisan Nasional (BN) and its uninterrupted 61-year-long hold on power.

Like our Malaysian friends, we too have been laboring under one-party rule for more than half a century, and our yearning for a free and democratic polity has also grown in the absence of alternatives.

But this is where the similarity ends. The outcome of the so-called GE14 election polling, astounding as it was, did not come as a complete surprise. For years, Malaysian civil society and an energized political opposition have battled the government for their fundamental freedoms.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

A supporter (C, on right) of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim clashes with police outside court in Putrajaya Feb. 10, 2015.

The former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim risked everything when he broke with then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and joined the people in the first iteration of the “reformasi” movement to protest the BN government in the late 1990s.

He later marched, and was bloodied, with his fellow citizens in the Bersih street protests, an ongoing movement launched in 2007 calling for clean and free elections in Malaysia. His reward was arrest and two separate terms of imprisonment. Of his pardon and release from the second of those terms on Wednesday, Anwar told reporters: “The most significant lesson one can learn from prison life is the value of freedom.”

Democratic Action Party chief Lim Guan Eng, slated to become Malaysia’s next Finance Minister, languished in prison for 12 months, convicted for criticizing the state over its failure to bring a politically damaging rape cast to trial.

Likewise, Tian Chua, a Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) leader, was repeatedly imprisoned as a result of calling for freedom in his country and was later barred from defending his seat in the May 9 election. He, like Anwar, was one of the pioneers of the reformasi movement, during which he was a figurehead for civil disobedience.

And Ambiga Sreenevasan, proposed by the Malaysian Bar Council (the equivalent of Singapore's Law Society) for the Attorney-General's position following last week's elections, was the force behind Bersih 2.0, the 2011 iteration of the movement during which tens of thousands campaigned a free press and electoral reform in Malaysia.

The BN government declared the protests illegal but that didn't stop the former MBC president from defying the authorities and pushing ahead, effectively engaging in civil disobedience.

The blood streaming from protestors faces, the flailing arms and legs as demonstrators were dragged away by the police, and the outright defiance of (repressive) laws would have discredited the struggle for democracy and its protagonists in the eyes of many Singaporeans.

Unable to grasp that a corrupt state would not concede its stranglehold on power without civil action, many in Singapore saw such pro-democracy action across the causeway as mere unruliness -- anathema to growth and progress.

Yet now that the reformasi movement has prevailed, many Singaporeans see Malaysia's future as distinctly more buoyant and bullish than our own. Unsurprisingly, many hope that what happened on May 9 can be replicated in the island republic.

But a few fundamental shifts must occur for a similar result to happen here in Singapore:

Firstly, citizens must come to understand that protests and civil action are a necessary part of reform and, therefore, progress. They are not threats to society's wellbeing but fundamental rights that citizens possess to make ourselves heard. Authoritarian governments have long known that removing the fundamental freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly is the key to their monopoly on power.

Citizens must come to understand that protests and civil action are a necessary part of reform and, therefore, progress.

Secondly, think critically and independently. Our biggest battle is not against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), it is against what the PAP has done to our minds. As long as we continue to drink the Kool-Aid that an opposition party that speaks and acts outside of the PAP-prescribed rules is confrontational and destructive, a genuine alternative to the ruling party will elude us.

Thirdly, act despite a fragmented and messy opposition. Many opposition supporters clamor for opposition unity in Singapore, much like they have witnessed come together in Malaysia under the banner of Mahathir Mohamad's Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope). But cooperation among Malaysian opposition parties did not materialize in the blink of an eye.

Way before the PH and its predecessor, the Pakatan Rakyat, came to be, Malaysians had elected parliamentarians from various opposition parties, enabling these parties to develop and subsequently form a formidable, viable alternative to BN.

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Editor: David Green