‘People invested in wanting a change’ – civil society and the Malaysia elections

Malaysia’s May election saw the ruling party defeated for the first time in 61 years, amid widespread public anger about corruption. CIVICUS asked Gayathry Venkiteswaran, media activist and Assistant Professor of media and politics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, for her perspective on recent events, and what these meant for civil society.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: A Malaysian voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Kuala Lumpur 
on May 9, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Radu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

1. Given that the same party had been in power since independence, what factors do you think led to their defeat this time?

I think it’s too early to tell, but I will say that the electorate certainly rejected the kinds of politics and corruption practised by the previous government. The transgressions were too obvious, and it was a matter of how big the loss would be for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - but we didn't expect the fall to be this big. This election was significant because despite the challenges and obstacles placed in terms of the electoral processes, people were determined to reject the propaganda of the BN and insisted on change.

2. In what ways was civil society active in the run up to the elections, and what challenges did civil society encounter?

Civil society work to build political awareness and participation has been ongoing but it took a significant turn after the emergence of the Reformasi (reform) movement in 1998, and then the Bersih movement’s protests for electoral reforms. Bersih provided a focus for the change, even though various interest groups also brought their particular concerns such as anti-corruption, environment and indigenous rights. This mobilisation, together with exposés by independent and citizen media on the corrupt practices of the previous government, raised the stakes for citizens to demand change.

During this election, voters demonstrated commitment, including outstation and overseas voters, and people participated by being monitors at polling stations and provided other forms of checks and support to prevent cheating or malpractice on polling day. These are indications of people invested in wanting a change. The use of social media to share information, especially on voting practices, and the post-election vigilance of the newly elected government also shows a society that wants governments - whether at the federal of state levels - to be accountable.

While there was momentum for change and a number of initiatives that saw civil society coalitions or collaborations focused on the outcomes of the elections - for example, by issuing alternative manifestos - there was little real discussion on the possible scenarios, given the uncertainties and concerns that unlawful methods would be used to resist this change. It wasn't clear what civil society's stance would have been had the outcomes been different, and how it proposes to move forward in this environment.

3. What are civil society’s main hopes and fears now following the change of government?

Certainly, it is an environment filled with hopes. There are opportunities to carry out real institutional reforms, and hopes that the government will be more open to engaging with human rights-based civil society organisations (CSOs). The results showed a rejection of fear-mongering and bribery, and a willingness to bridge race/religion narratives as the main reference point for electing parties.

It is hoped that there will be room for a more inclusive and liberal approach in addressing the real concerns of citizens about their identities, needs and expectations. Having said that, there were and may still be fears that the BN coalition, especially members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and organisations associated with them, use provocations to destabilise the situation, and that Malay/Muslim electorates are pressed hard to become more fundamentalist in response to a multiracial narrative. At the same time, there are concerns that the ruling coalition could backtrack on its promises in order to accommodate the opposition and resistance from among BN and UMNO supporters.

4. What three things could the new administration do to most improve the conditions for civil society in Malaysia?

The main step is to respect the rights of civil society members on their freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This can be done by refraining from using existing laws to curb their activities - among them, the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Immigration Act, Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Law, and announce plans on reforming these restrictions.

Given the newly formed Institutional Reform Committee, it is hoped that the government will institute mechanisms for engagement with civil society, particularly in the areas of policy making and law making. Among others, there should be meaningful consultations before the drafting of policies and laws at the executive level, by departments and ministries, and at the legislative level, in select committees or parliamentary hearings. The public should have access to information on these processes and be given the rights to submit inputs and feedback.

5. What should Malaysian civil society do next to make the most of the opportunity presented by the change in government, and what support does civil society need now?

I think it is urgent for civil society to sit down and come up with a road map of action plans, which can include recommendations and mechanisms to check on the government's actions. Civil society can pool its resources to build its own monitoring platforms and processes for engaging with the government. But most importantly, there should be leadership and commitment to ensure that change is for the long term, irrespective of which political parties come into power. We've done this in the past, after the 2008 elections, with the setting up of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) for the state of Selangor, and the Penang Forum. The CGG didn't last, but these are worth considering as a model, with adequate fine-tuning so that there is clear focus, accountability systems and sustainability plans.