Malaysia’s Peaceful Revolution: A Lesson for the U.S.A.

Dr. Gina Morrison
Election Night in Malaysia

Today, when we are all looking a crucial midterm election square in the eye, we can learn an important lesson from a small developing nation in Southeast Asia called Malaysia. 

This beautiful country had an incredible, peaceful revolution when the need for change required great courage to put love of country before individual desire.  And I was there to see it. 

If you’ve been in any of my classes, you know about my love affair with Malaysia.  You’ve heard me talk about their uniquely multicultural society, their comfort with diversity, the kind and laid-back nature of the people and the wonderful opportunities that exist in that nation. 

I’ve been going there for two dozen years, watching it develop.  I love the people and I appreciate the great strides that the government has taken to transform the country into a hub for Southeast Asia.  But over the past few years, I’ve heard rumblings from people in stores, restaurants and coffee shops, and from trusted colleagues and friends on Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp. 

From what I was hearing, corruption at the topmost levels of government had tainted that beautiful nation and a grassroots opposition movement was taking hold.

As a researcher who has been welcomed by a foreign country, I know better than to question the government of my hosts.  Still, I couldn’t help wondering if these rumors were true because, in recent years, I had seen the Malaysian ringgit weakening.  I knew that many middle class working people had not been given raises for several years.  Some were fighting to make ends meet. 

In fact, there seemed to be a growing divide between those people who were really struggling and those at the top of the economic pyramid who seemed to have amassed unbelievable amounts of wealth.

I went on sabbatical earlier this year to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to complete a Fulbright Specialist project and conduct research on aspects of Southeast Asian modernity.  While there, my husband and I noticed that people had become more open about discussing the details of the corruption. 

Lecturers in universities called upon their students to question what they saw on government-controlled TV channels.  Colleagues in Malaysian Borneo expressed absolute certainty that an “opposition tsunami” would take place during the May 9 election, bringing on the first change of government in the history of Malaysia. 

People spoke of ousting Prime Minister Najib Razak for being the central figure in a world-wide money laundering scandal involving 1MDB—One Malaysia Development Berhad Inc.—a pool of taxpayer’s money that the government had created in 2009 to grow funds, through wise investments, for the developing Malaysian economy. 

Instead, according to an ongoing FBI investigation, the funds became play money for the prime minister and his innermost circle of family and friends.  These funds disappeared through a money laundering scheme that reached all the way around the world to Hollywood, through the prime minister’s step-son’s investments in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and a friendship with Leonardo DiCaprio that was enhanced with the donation of a Picasso to DiCaprio’s charity.  When DiCaprio realized the source, he returned the painting.  You really need to understand more about 1MDB than I can accurately present here, and I encourage you to start with the websites below to help you explore the details of the world’s largest financial scandal. 

U.S. Department of Justice lawsuits claim that at least $3.5 billion USD has been stolen from 1MDB, with over $600 million being funneled into Najib’s personal account.

People were disgruntled and frustrated.  Many voiced the possibility that if the government were to change, some of the affirmative action privileges now offered to Muslims and indigenous peoples, such as reduced loan interest rates and preference for government hires, might be lost.

On this last trip, however, I began to hear Malays themselves call for major changes that would allow their country to grow: an unraveling of the corruption, restoration of the stolen 1MDB funds to the people, equitable treatment of all cultural groups, a free press and, most of all, wise and ethical leadership.

But as election day approached, the only thing I saw on TV was excessive coverage of the prime minister’s visits to the rural areas distributing food to smiling villagers.  I saw no reflection of the real talk of the people and there was a conspicuous absence of the equal air time given to both parties in the U.S.A., which guarantees freedom of expression and a free press committed to reporting the news from both points of view. 

In Malaysia, the ruling party Barisan Nasional (BN) was rarely criticized in public.  Over the years, the power held by BN had become dangerously unquestioned due to censorship, to the point where the press was not what we would call a free press. 

In fact, the only TV channels that my husband and I were able to watch in our apartment were the government-controlled public channels on which any sort of criticism of the government was notably absent.

Try to imagine forming an opposition coalition in that environment.  Now try to imagine what it takes for the opposition to actually win that election.

Election day was scheduled for a Wednesday – the middle of the week in a country that requires voters to return to their hometowns to vote. 

Some faced five or more hours’ drive one way, only to wait in queue at a polling station for another five hours and drive back on congested roads for work the next day.  This placement of election day in the middle of the week—completely at the discretion of the prime minister—was seen by some as an attempt at voter suppression. 

But it didn’t stop people from voting.  All day, I saw many FaceBook photos of long lines of voters throughout the country.  After the 5 p.m closing of the polls, I watched initial election results on TV showing positive results for BN. 

Then, at about 9 p.m, the election results stopped.  Regular programing resumed.  Frustrated and eager to hear the results, we learned of a large outdoor gathering with a huge TV screen that had been erected in a nearby soccer field. 

An hour later we saw a fantastic sight:  Malaysians of all ages and ethnicities in the field, sitting together with friends or family on blankets or on the grass in the steamy tropical night; children being carried on the shoulders of their parents or held on the laps of grandparents; all heads turned to the screen with the election results. 

Slowly, everyone began to stand and cheer, turning on their phone lights in approval as one district after another appeared on the screen as having voted for the opposition, the Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope).  Several people waved huge Harapan and Malaysian flags. 

Cheers erupted: “Long live hope!” (“Hidup Harapan!”) and “Pakatan Harapan!”.  Common people took turns on the stage addressing the crowd, growing larger and more restless by the minute, as they realized that the prime minister was refusing to concede. 

Finally, after midnight, a Malay man took the microphone and spoke to the crowd in English and Malay: “Have patience; be calm.  Do not act in any way that will allow us to be viewed as unlawful. Our good news will come.  Look around you.  See the child sleeping on his grandfather’s knee? 

Someday you will tell him, ‘You were there when it happened, when this great country was returned to the people.  You are part of history.’”

I too felt part of history that night.  I wrote on FaceBook: “This is what democracy looks like.”  The next day, there was a new Malaysia.  I saw on public TV—which was immediately changed—the King of Malaysia endorsing the new Prime Minister Dr. Mahatir Mohammed, a former prime minister who had led the country’s drive to become a developed nation, a man respected for his wisdom at having learned from his own mistakes and an elder who had accepted the challenge of shepherding the country through the transition.

I feel privileged to have been a witness to history in the making on May 9, when an incredible, peaceful revolution occurred, and when the Malaysian people quietly, carefully and respectfully ousted the only form of government that the nation had ever known since its inception 61 years ago. 

These tolerant and patient people had simply reached the limit and, as a nation, had decided that the country was moving in the wrong direction.  Similarly, the U.S. midterm elections are also about the need to put our own country back on track, because I know that few of us feel good about the great split in our nation.  We’ve gone off course, but we also can have a peaceful revolution.  Let’s take a lesson from the Malaysians and get out and vote.