OPINION: Malaysia's House of Cards and 2-Party Democracy

OPINION: Malaysia's House of Cards and 2-Party Democracy
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It is time to take steps to ensure Malaysia matures into a strong two-party democracy.

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It has been more than two weeks now. It is happening, and it is happening fast. The Malaysian house of cards is being dismantled and disrupted from within. Raided at the dawn of Ramadan, and taken back by ordinary citizens like you and me.

It is unbelievable, it feels surreal. The government coalition that has been ruling Malaysia for over 60 years since independence has been defeated in what many pundits have referred to as the mother-of-all-elections. When results began trickling in on the night of May 9, one by one, incumbents who were for so long deemed untouchable were knocked off of their pedestals by the electorate. The people of Malaysia have spoken – loud and clear. We want change. And we want a better Malaysia.

For some, this may not sound like the turning of a new leaf, especially since the leader of the opposition, the 92-year-old Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was in fact the country’s premier for 22 years when he led the ruling coalition from 1981 to 2003. Not the real change that many external observers would have envisioned for the country. It appears more like an internal power struggle that has gone overboard.

But the reality is quite different. Unlike it superficially appears, this was not a contest between two personalities, or between a mentor and his protege. For many this was about the restoration of hope. A hope for a better Malaysia. A hope that the 60-year-old house of cards can be dismantled. And hope for the rebuilding of our parliamentary democracy with a strong two-party system.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak arrives to give a statement to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 22, 2018.

It is true that Dr. Mahathir originated from the same house that has led Malaysia to where we are today, but the fact is that this is a disruption that can only happen from within. Yes, if I have a choice, I would prefer new blood, and, if I may add, younger blood too.

But truth be told, it is not easy to dislodge the ruling coalition especially without a strong opposition leader. They have tried and failed, repeatedly. And Dr. Mahathir is still a strong leader who commands the respect of many – the opposition has undoubtedly benefited from having him on their side. As a young democracy, we need to establish a strong two party system as means to provide urgently needed checks and balances. We want to have the ability to choose our leaders, and kick out those that have not performed. Gone are the days of a single party monopoly.

As a young democracy, we need to establish a strong two-party system as means to provide urgently needed checks and balances.

The fact is that many Malaysians are just fed up with the sheer arrogance of the ruling coalition. Malaysians have seen far too many elected representatives who would openly suggest that we migrate elsewhere if we don’t like their policies. Or the blatant reference to our fellow Malaysians as immigrants simply because they are from a minority race and they are vocal against the discrimination that they face. Or the abuse of vital institutions including the judiciary, the police and the press to protect the powerful and intimidate the powerless. We hope that those days are gone forever, that they are part of a dark past as we traverse into a new future. I am proud of my Malaysian brothers and sisters for taking the risk into the unknown and embracing a new future.

I am especially proud that the Malay Muslims have come out in support of Dr. Mahathir. In the past few years, we have seen religious intolerance creeping into many institutions and establishments, tearing apart the very fragile fabric that holds multi-cultural and multi-religious Malaysia together for so long.

We cannot afford to risk this stability and descend into chaos akin to that we see in many other parts of the world. Since retirement, Dr. Mahathir has been vocal, especially in the last several years, standing up against the religious institutions. This is not a popular stance, let alone for a Muslim leader in a Muslim majority Malaysia. For taking this stand, he has been accused of being un-Islamic and an apostate, ridiculed as a traitor of the religion and someone who rejects the prophet. These were punitive labels that have been thrown around by the so-called traditional Muslim preachers. But yet, to my pleasant surprise, the Muslims in Malaysia have shown in the recent election that they reject this parochial mindset by rising above the narrow politics of race and religion that have for so long plagued our democracy.

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Photo Credit:AP/TPG
Opposition party supporters cheer and wave party flags as they gather to watch the general election result broadcast on a large screen a field in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 9, 2018.

We are moving into uncharted territory as we mature into a two-party democratic system. The country has never seen a transition of power between governing parties. And yet, we were able to do it so smoothly and without bloodshed. For sure, mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned along the way, but we must revive the democratic principles laid down by our founding fathers and make them the bedrock of our nation.

We must revive the democratic principles laid down by our founding fathers and make them the bedrock of our nation.

As we journey into a new Malaysia, let's not repeat the mistakes of the past. The National Front (Barisan Nasional) must take a long and hard look inwards to reflect on the errors that led to their demise. They must rebuild themselves into an even stronger opposition to sustain a two-party system.

As for the new government, their immediate goal should be to put the country back on track and recover the time that we have lost while regaining our international reputation, one that has been badly tarnished. It is time that we put genuine interest back into improving our education system, for decades have gone by where we have mass produced a generation that is highly qualified, but sadly not as highly educated.

Equally important, is the need for us to put in place a new system that can prevent the errors of the past from recurring. We cannot afford to have another scandalous, tyrannical and kleptocratic government running the country. Perhaps it is time that we consider putting a term limit on several key government positions, including that of the prime minister. We were lucky this time, but we may not be as lucky in the future.

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Editor: David Green