When Malaysians Took Back Control


It was on nomination day that I first sensed something in the air. I was in the midst of my rounds at a village in my constituency that afternoon when a police officer upon noticing me quickly rushed across the street to shake my hand.

It was not so much that he came over to shake my hand, but rather the way in which he did it that conveyed to me a feeling of earnestness. Plus the fact that he had done so in full view of a crowd of about 30 ladies in Wanita Umno uniform. That was just not something that happened in the normal order of things.

As the days went by, my confidence began to grow. I found myself warmly received even in previously black areas – in the very places where five years ago I would get jeered at and my outstretched hands ignored. This time they were not only receptive, but many also gave me words of encouragement. At the time, I put it down to familiarity as, after all, I had been servicing the area as their MP.

I became thoroughly convinced following early voting on May 5. As I visited the military camps and police barracks, I could tell from the looks on the servicemen’s faces that this was not going to be like any other election. The mood was unmistakable. Coupled with the inspiring stories of postal voters sending ballots back via random strangers on aeroplanes, I had little doubt that the palpable undercurrent I had been feeling now seemed destined to become a tsunami.


As I sat with the rest of my team on the evening of polling day, watching the results stream in online, I told everyone that we were about to witness history in the making. And by 3am the next morning, it finally happened.

Malaysia had become a democracy.

Victory was exhilaration, exhaustion, relief, vindication, all rolled into one. On a personal level, I was more than satisfied when my results showed an increased majority of about 71%. I had run the campaign of my life, making sure every possible minute was put to productive use as I faced off against BN’s chief minister candidate.

More importantly, my gut feelings were proven right as vote tabulations revealed I managed to win in polling districts where we used to be thoroughly routed. The icing on the cake however was the fact that I also won about 60% of the military votes – I am convinced that this must be some kind of record for a DAP candidate.

What Does Change Mean?

As the dust begins to settle and the country gets back to business, the big question post-jubilation is what all this change will actually mean.

For one thing, it means that we are finally rid of a kleptocratic regime that had made an art out of rent-seeking and patronage politics. Being named by The Economist as ranking in the top two in the world for state monopoly capitalism is no mean feat. And as daily disclosures continue to reveal, the extent of the corruption and mismanagement is nothing short of mind-blowing. Imagine if we had another five years of them.

Change also means that we can finally move on from the shackles of narrow, ethno-nationalist hegemonic politics. This bane of our country has long held us back, not only suppressing both the public and private sectors but also causing massive brain drain and capital flight over the years.

But more than the above, it also means that we can finally hope for a new and better future.

This is why it is critical that Pakatan Harapan manages to steer through the crucial first six months in power. The coalition must prove itself to be more than just a vehicle of convenience by which a group of disparate politicians managed to defeat the BN. Instead, it must live up to its name and become a platform for progressive reform, not merely in form but also in substance.

The good news is that it is already happening.

Restarting the Clock

It is indeed ironic that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is the man to bring about the change that the Opposition has fought so long (and for a long time against him) to achieve. Widely credited as being responsible for the proliferation of patronage politics, Mahathir has now banned direct negotiations, calling instead for open tenders for all government procurements.

Previously labelled a Malay ultra, it is Mahathir who has now taken the bold step of appointing DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng to the powerful post of custodian of our national treasury, the first ethnic Chinese to be minister of finance in 44 years. Despite the move evoking racialist sentiments, the prime minister stuck with his choice for the simple reason that he felt Lim to be the most suitable person for the job – itself a bold statement.

It also broke the trend of prime ministers concurrently holding the finance portfolio, thus restoring the check and balance role that the minister of finance should play.

To top it all off, years of injustice were rolled back when Mahathir set in motion the release of his former protégé-turnedrival-turned-coalition partner Dato’ Seri  Anwar Ibrahim from prison with a full royal pardon, enabling the latter’s eventual return to politics. At the same time, Mahathir set another record when he appointed Anwar’s wife, Dato’ Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, as the country’s first female deputy prime minister.

It may still be early days, but one would be forgiven for daring to hope.

For every Malaysian out there, particularly those of us with painted left index fingers, May 9, 2018 will forever occupy a special place in our hearts. It marks the day our destiny was altered when we decided collectively to snatch it back from those who would rob our future from us. And that is what this date will forever symbolise – the moment when Malaysians took back control.

Zairil Khir Johari is the Penang state executive councillor for public works, utilities and flood mitigation, and the state assemblyman for Tanjong Bunga.

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