Kuala Lumpur: In Southeast Asia, a region with a history of authoritarian rule, it required a seismic shift to topple Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that had been in government continuously since independence from Britain in 1957. As in Ireland, the British parliamentary tradition has had an impact and the Malaysian army has never been directly involved in politics, compared with the long coup d'état record of the Thai military. The defeated governing coalition could not thwart the wave of support for the multi-racial opposition alliance.


The access of the opposition to online news and online party rallies during the campaign circumvented the government control of broadcast media and the main daily newspapers.

The tsunami wave in the general election of Wednesday, May 9, 2018, had to overcome massive gerrymandering and was propelled by disgust with corruption at a time of rising living costs. It spread into the rural heartland of the then governing coalition as the opposition’s Pakatan Harapan alliance (Alliance of Hope) of four parties was led by the respected Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had been prime minister from 1981-2003, when he was the architect of economic transformation.

Pakatan Harapan (PH) together with an allied party from the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, won 122 seats in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives), giving it an absolute majority. Barisan Nasional (BN) won 79 seats, having lost 54 seats on Wednesday compared with the 2013 election.  In that year it won 47% of the vote and 60% of the seats. With one exception in 1969, BN had a supermajority of 66% or more of the vote in the period 1957-2004 and in 2004 it won 90% of the seats in parliament. On Wednesday in a turnout of 82% of registered voters, PH won almost 50% of the vote compared with BN’s 36%.

The scale of the opposition success is shown by the blatant gerrymandering this time. In pro-opposition strongholds, there were 15 constituencies with more than 100,000 voters while all but one of 30 of the smallest constituencies (with the smallest having fewer than 18,000 voters), were BN strongholds. For example, in a Kuala Lumpur district, the PH candidate won a seat with 121,283 votes while in the government administrative area, south of the capital, the BN candidate won with just over 12,000 votes.


I was in Manila on the night of February 25, 1986 when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda were airlifted from the national palace by an American military helicopter, after the Philippine military sided with more than 1 million people on the streets, who were protesting to stop another presidential election from being stolen again by a corrupt couple. This week in Kuala Lumpur, there was a historic victory for democracy as voters responded to allegations of massive looting of public funds. According to a 2016 lawsuit by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) “from 2009 through 2015, more than $3.5 billion in funds belonging to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) [a fund established by the Malaysian government] was allegedly misappropriated by high-level officials of 1MDB and their associates.”  The assets allegedly included “high-end real estate and hotel properties in New York and Los Angeles, a $35 million jet aircraft, works of art by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, an interest in the music publishing rights of EMI Music and the production of the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street.”

The DoJ lawsuit also said $30 million of 1MDB funds was used to buy jewellery for Rosmah Mansor, the wife of Najib Razak (most Malays do not use family names or surnames), the then prime minister, including a rare 22-carat pink diamond set in a necklace. The lawsuit also says Najib’s stepson who is Mansor’s son, purchased a house in Belgravia, London, for £23 million.  Almost $700 million was lodged in Najib’s personal bank accounts in Malaysia.

Colonial rule and multiracial society

Malaysia had 3 European colonial rulers in the period 1511-1957. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and in the 19th century, tin mining and rubber plantations provided big profits for British companies. Malays were discriminated against while Chinese immigrants were given mining jobs and British India supplied the labour for the rubber industry.

The population of Malaysia of 32 million in 2016 by race was Malays + indigenous people (69%), followed by Chinese (23%), Indians (7.0%) and Others (1.0%). In recent decades relations between racial groups have improved and violence at elections is not significant. In contrast in the 1960s Singapore with a majority Chinese population was ejected from the Malaysian federation and when Barisan Nasional lost support in the 1969 general election, ethnic rioting broke out in Kuala Lumpur. Official figures put the death toll of mainly Chinese, who dominated the business sector, at less than 200 but there are other higher estimates of up to 1,000.

Prosperity and special privileges for Malays in housing, education and business grants calmed the situation, but these have stirred up resentment among poorer ethnic Chinese and Indians.

The population of both Peninsular Malaysia and the Irish Free State was 3 million in the 1920s. The population of Peninsular Malaysia was 26 million in 2016 and 4.7 million in the Republic of Ireland. The population of Malaysian states in East Malaysia - Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo - was 6 million. 


Malaysia is no longer dependent on tin and rubber but it’s the only country in Asia that is self-sufficient in fossil fuels (oil and gas). It is also a big producer of palm oil.

Malaysia is also one of 13 countries that have experienced an economic miracle in the postwar period after 1945 – defined as a sustained annual real growth of 7% or more for a period of at least 25 years. Malaysia achieved this performance in 1967-1997.

Economic output grew by 5.9% in 2017 and the central bank forecast for 2018 growth is up to 6%.

Per capita GDP in 2017 was USD$9,800 compared with $6,700 in Thailand; $3,900 in Indonesia and $850 in Nepal. The city-state of Singapore had a GDP per capita of $58,000.

Malaysia has posted an annual budget deficit every year in the period 1998-2017. It was 3% of GDP last year.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister, chairing the first meeting of the party leaders of the new governing coalition, May 11, 2018


Lord Acton wrote in the 19th century "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We Irish know how the nexus between politics and the construction industry works.

Najib Razak fired any official who raised questions on the 1MDB scandal and he lost the support of his mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former and now new prime minister.

The 1MDB scandal prompted Mahathir to return to politics at 92 years of age and it was crucial for the Pakatan Harapan to have a credible Malay candidate for prime minister.

Mahathir, who can still inspire an audience without notes, despite his advanced age, said he would serve as prime minister for 2 years.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who is the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, the former opposition leader who is in prison on a second dubious charge of sodomy, is the new deputy prime minister. Anwar is expected to be pardoned and released from prison on May 15, 2018.

In a remarkable development, the biggest party in the new government was founded by Anwar Ibrahim. In 1998 when Anwar was deputy prime minister, he had a falling out with Mahathir and was sacked. He was subsequently jailed for the first time on a charge of sodomy.

Mahathir’s second coming is not expected to replicate his previous time as prime minister when he had an authoritarian style. This time his coalition government will be better balanced with power split between the four parties. A Malaysian Chinese has been appointed finance minister.

Wednesday was a rare good day for democracy in East Asia but it should give hope that the tide of populism and authoritarianism, is not inevitable.

Michael Hennigan has lived in Kuala Lumpur since 2007. He founded the Finfacts.ie financial website in 1997.