2018 has been an extraordinary year in Malaysian politics. Five months after the first regime change since the country’s independence in 1957, participants at The Australian National University (ANU) Malaysia Update 2018 took stock after the shock election result.
Dr Ross Tapsell, Director of the ANU Malaysia Institute, spoke about the importance of social media – in particular WhatsApp and Facebook – to the result.
“Winning the social media war was not just about the amount of material spread around by political parties but rather by producing the type of content that makes citizens share with their friends and families organically,” he said.
Based on his field work in Northern Malaysia, Dr Tapsell said it was clear that the opposition was able to produce such content much more successfully, compared to the incumbent party’s relatively “inorganic” and “official” information.
“Under a regime which restricts and shackles the mainstream media, the practice of passing on information, rumours and gossip becomes a heightened aspect of being an informed citizen and accessing the real story. So non-government sources… becomes more of a concept that you will trust.’
Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor of Political Science at Rome’s John Cabot University, said one possible explanation for the election was the pervasive paradigm of “saviour politics”.
“Saviour politics…is its own form of populism, in the sense that [the leaders] engage for the people and they personify the people. It’s not just the traditional feudalism of ‘be loyal to me’,” said Associate Professor Walsh.
Instead, the three main opposition groups in the election each created their own brand of saviour politics designed to stoke the resentment of Malays still angry at the excesses of then-Prime Minister Najib, who had been embroiled in an ongoing corruption scandal.
”So we have…multiple saviours competing against each other, all highly personalised around the individual, using emotions as a way to engender that.”
Sophie Lemiere, political anthropologist based at Harvard University, highlighted how the recently elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was especially successful at reinventing himself – changing from authoritarian leader to democrat and saviour.
“It was about playing on emotions,” she said.
”We’ve seen during the campaign moments that were actually very important in shaping the new image of Mahathir. He suddenly was crying to this little girl saying, ‘I made a mistake. Me and my friends, we’re going to try and save Malaysia.’ And that worked!”
She also noted how Anwar Ibrahim, current leader of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) ruling coalition, who was also released from prison shortly after the election, has yet to undergo this complete transformation.
“Since he’s been released, Anwar has been selling the same narrative. But he failed or has not yet been able to reinvent himself yet. He’s at a new store selling the same sandwich.”
For more Malaysia coverage, visit the New Mandala Malaysia blog
, hosted by ANU College of Asia & the Pacific’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
By CAP Student Correspondent Georgie Juszczyk