After the 2013 election, self-declared “Non-Governmental Individual” Hishamuddin Rais—who also goes by the pen name Isham—told his friends it would be four decades before Malaysia would see a change in government. Five years later, the country has proved him wrong.

The veteran activist with a seat in the former opposition coalition’s campaign “war room” says the Pakatan Harapan victory was the result of a “perfect storm” of events—from the corruption allegations swirling around former prime minister Najib Razak, to the decision to hold the poll on a Wednesday, and the opposition parties’ willingness to stand behind a single party logo.

But mostly, he says, it was down to the coalition agreeing to rally behind one man—92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, the bête noire of both Malaysia’s opposition and the country’s pro-democracy activists during his 22 years in power.

“It’s actually the Mahathir factor,” Isham explains about the Pakatan victory over tea one night in Kuala Lumpur. “Whoever tries to deny this has no idea what politics is all about.”

The filmmaker and writer says it was he who proposed Mahathir chair the coalition, recognising that the elder statesman would appeal beyond the opposition’s traditional urban strongholds. Having been arrested about 16 times, Isham says he’s well aware of how unlikely such a rapprochement sounds. “Shocking!” he laughs, and takes another mouthful of tea.

 

The early days

Isham started out as an activist in the 1970s—first as secretary-general of the union at University of Malaya and then as president-elect. As in many other parts of the world, students in Malaysia were becoming more politically aware, but when they joined forces with rubber tappers to protest against poverty, the government cracked down.

Isham escaped through the jungle of northern Malaysia, and stayed away for 20 years.

When he did return home, he found a country in the midst of a Mahathir-engineered economic boom. Those willing to talk about democracy, human rights and corruption had shrunk to a small, tight-knit community.

“It was the heyday for that kind of capitalism”

“The general population was not so interested,” recalls human rights activist Masjaliza Hamzah, who started her career as a journalist. “People were playing the stock market, making lots of money. It was the heyday for that kind of capitalism.”

Newcomers were treated with suspicion, and many feared they were being followed or watched so it was difficult to win the trust of the few activists there were. The Internal Security Act allowed for detention without trial and Mahathir had shown he was not afraid to use it against his critics, notably in the 1987 crackdown known as Operation Lalang when more than 100 people were detained. Newspapers were also closed down; a blow to independent and critical reporting in the country.

“It was only in 1998 with the high profile targeting of Anwar Ibrahim, the public sharing of events on television that more people came to understand that if that could happen to him [Anwar]—someone in such a high position—it could happen to them,” Masjaliza says.

 

The Reformasi movement

Anwar—then the Finance Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and the man Mahathir had been grooming as his successor—was sacked as the Asian Financial Crisis brought Malaysia’s economy to its knees. But Mahathir didn’t just fire Anwar; he also sought to destroy his political career by accusing his younger rival of corruption and sodomy—a crime in Malaysia.

Malaysians of all backgrounds poured onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur, calling for Anwar’s release and democratic reform. Masjaliza was among them. So was Isham. “Mahathir accused me of being the dalang (mastermind),” Isham says, able to smile now that he and Mahathir are on the same side. In 2001, he was arrested under the ISA and spent more than two years in detention.

Even though Anwar was eventually convicted and jailed, the urge for reform remained, and ordinary people had the feeling, perhaps for the first time, that change was possible.

Anwar Ibrahim - New Naratif
Anwar Ibrahim waves to supporters upon his release in May 2018. Bonma Suriya / Shutterstock.com

“We can place the credit at the feet of 20 years of reformasi; no question,” argues Kean Wong, Contributing Editor for the Australian National University’s New Mandala blog, who covered both the 1998 protests and the recent election. “The seeds of Reformasi and what came before—Ops Lalang, the industrialisation boom that created a middle class that had a dream about Malaysia as something other than putting food on the table. Reformasi popularised and expanded that.”

The more relaxed leadership of Abdullah Badawi, the man who took over from Mahathir when he eventually retired in 2003, further loosened the reins. Protests became a more regular feature of Malaysian life, despite the continued existence of laws designed to deter public gatherings and rallies. According to academic Bridget Welsh in her book, Awakening: the Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia, there were around 20 protests involving more than 100 people in 2003—the year Abdullah came to power—but nearly three times that many in 2011.

“The Reformasi movement brought the issue of reform into the public arena,” Welsh, now an associate professor at John Cabot University in Rome, told New Naratif in an email. “All the victors of elections since 1999 have been couched as ‘reformers’, even Abdullah in 2004, and Najib in 2013. Mahathir (also) adopted the reform mantle. Second, there was opposition cooperation and learning. This was a long process of learning how to make compromises and strategic alliances, which was evident in the tie between Mahathir and his critics from the 1980s. And third, Bersih. This was the movement that extended the reform movement into society at large.”

 

Bersih

Bersih’s cause was simple: free and fair elections. At its first rally in 2007, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur clad in the group’s distinctive yellow shirts, only for the police to break up the crowd with tear gas and water cannon. But the police response, and government efforts to restrict assembles and even ban yellow shirts, didn’t stop people coming out again and again. If anything, the more the authorities tried to crack down, the more determined people became.  

Bersih 5 - New Naratif
Malaysians took to the streets in 2016 for Bersih 5. Khairul Effendi / Shutterstock.com

Maria Chin Abdullah, having joined the movement from the beginning, took over as Bersih chair in 2013. The veteran women’s rights activist, whose late husband went into exile with Isham in the 1970s, has endured tear gas, court battles and nearly two weeks of solitary confinement in a darkened cell under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, in her battle for a better Malaysia. Now, having stepped down from Bersih, she’s the newly-elected MP—independent, but under the Pakatan umbrella—for Petaling Jaya, a suburban town near the Malaysian capital.

Given the difficulties of mounting any meaningful challenge in a system where the media is controlled, and key institutions—including the electoral commission—are under the prime minister’s department, the members of civil society pressing for democratic reform “never dreamed” the government would actually change, she says.

 

“A really long road”

Chin is mindful of the challenge of overhauling a political system tailored to the needs of a coalition that had run the country in one form or another since independence. At a weekend forum, she encourages Malaysians to get involved in their democracy. “People must always be engaged,” she tells the audience. “We have done the first part, changing the government. The second part is the harder one. That is bringing democracy to Malaysia. That is a really long road.”

Isham agrees, batting away any notion that the ideals for which activists have fought for so long will quickly come to pass. “That is too romantic,” he says. Indeed, while many think of NGOs as progressive organisations pushing for democracy, Malaysia has also had groups that resist change. They still call themselves NGOs, but many suspect they are actually linked to the parties that have just lost power.

For Isham, the first test of the new government will be the repeal of the draconian laws that remain on the statute books, including the Anti-Fake News Act, SOSMA, the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Sedition Act, a relic of colonial rule that Najib promised to repeal, but kept. The new Home Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, has committed to reviewing such laws.

“We have done the first part, changing the government. The second part is the harder one. That is bringing democracy to Malaysia”

Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who watched Reformasi unfold as a high school student and has just been elected to parliament for Pakatan, says the new administration is committed to implementing its manifesto pledges. “(Civil society) will give us some time to implement our promises,” he says. “But if we fall short then I can see them going back against us, and I think that’s what they should do. If it’s more of the same then they will definitely be our staunchest critics.”

The Pakatan government has moved quickly to fulfil some of its promises: announcing the end of the much-hated Goods and Services Tax (GST) from next month, and launching investigations into the scandals that swirled around Najib and his administration, including the billions thought to have gone missing from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

But for many Malaysians, the biggest change has already taken place. As the results came in and it became clear that Pakatan was going to win, journalists abandoned their usual caution to report what they were really seeing, and ordinary citizens took to social media to express their delight at the outcome—and disgust for the previous administration.

It was as if people suddenly got a new lease of life. The day after the election, for the first time in a long time, Isham felt free.

“I no longer needed to look from my balcony to see whether there was a police car waiting for me,” he says. “I no longer had to peer through the door to check whether there was someone waiting for me. On a very personal level that was the change for me.”

 

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Katharine Ee

Katharine Ee is a freelance journalist based in Kuala Lumpur.