With democracy on the slide in much of Southeast Asia, Malaysia may be bucking the trend, Director of the ANU Malaysia Institute Associate Professor Ross Tapsell writes.

Twenty-five years ago, then deputy prime minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim dared to challenge sitting prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, speaking out about cronyism and nepotism.

He was subsequently fired from cabinet, arrested and later charged with sodomy and corruption. The charges and his subsequent conviction were widely condemned by the international community as politically motivated.

While in custody, Anwar was beaten by the inspector general of police, sporting a black eye as he was brought to court. 

These events led Anwar and his supporters to launch a pro-democracy movement, and the black eye symbol became Anwar’s political party logo. Many Malaysians took to the streets, calling for Mahathir’s resignation and shouting “re-for-ma-si” (reform).

Similar events had occurred in neighbouring Indonesia, leading to the fall of the long-term dictator Suharto and the formation of Indonesia’s vibrant democracy.

But it was not to be for Malaysia.

With Anwar in jail, Mahathir weathered the initial storm and stayed on as prime minister until 2003. His political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), remained in power until 2018, when it was finally brought down by the infamous 1MDB scandal.

The years that followed in politics were chaotic, including a brief but surprising period of cooperation between Anwar and Mahathir. Then, in 2022, Anwar became Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in four years, coming out on top after a tightly fought general election.

But is this a victory for the pro-democracy forces that began 25 years ago? 

Malaysia’s democratic future may depend on whether the ideals of the reformasi movement still resonate with everyday citizens. Photo: muhammad syafiq adnan/EyeEm/stock.adobe.com

There is certainly that hope. After a polarising election, Anwar has vowed to “heal the divided nation”, and there are hopes internationally that he can “lead the region” when Malaysia becomes ASEAN chair in 2025.

But to win government, the now 75-year-old Anwar formed a coalition with the old ruling party, UMNO, which achieved its worst ever election result in 2022. He appointed UMNO’s Zahid Hamidi as Deputy Prime Minister, who faces corruption charges and is wildly unpopular, and made a series of other government appointments that have been heavily criticised.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has arrested former prime minister and Anwar’s main 2022 election rival Muhyiddin Yassin, who claims the charges of corruption are politically motivated.

But the reformasi movement was always about more than just Anwar. It was led by civil society actors, idealistic politicians, pluralists, students, non-government organisations and a new thing called ‘the Internet’ where independent journalism sites like Malaysiakini started to flourish.

Over the last quarter of a century, these same people and many new ones have continued to push Malaysia in a more democratic direction.

Mass rallies continued and civil society became stronger and bolder in their agendas. More independent news sites flourished and social media enabled greater freedom of expression. lt was these forces that ultimately enabled Anwar to take power via a peaceful, free and fair – if convoluted – electoral process last year. 

Malaysia’s future is likely to be determined by the extent to which Malaysians continue to see the reformasi process as meaningful and successful. Some will see it as outdated or be disillusioned. Others fight on, and many more yearn for Malaysia’s next generation of reformist leaders. 

Despite – or perhaps because of – this political turmoil, Malaysia seems to be moving in a more democratic direction, while other Southeast Asian countries slide the other way.

But there is no guarantee this trend will continue.

Whether meaningful reforms eventuate will depend on Anwar’s new government initially, but much more depends on which direction Malaysians want the country to be travelling in and if the ideals and goals of reformasi still resonate.

The ANU Malaysia Update 2023: 25 years of Reformasi is being held in-person and online on Monday 20 March. Register here.

Top image: butenkow/stock.adobe.com

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