Any foreigner touring or residing in Malaysia in the month of May 2018, could be forgiven for unwittingly suspecting that Captain Marvel of the Avengers fame had manifested in Kuala Lumpur – taking the capital city by storm – in person and way ahead of the much touted release year of 2019-20. Only, this particular Captain Marvel was male, a nonagenarian (93 to be precise), the recipient of the country’s highest civilian awards and a warrior coming out of a political hiatus that lasted a full fifteen years. But a superhero nonetheless. On two tumultuous days that were the 9th and 10th of May, 2018, Dr.Tun Mahathir Mohamad and Malaysia created an epochal event, the reverberations of which will echo not just across this South East Asian country, but throughout the world. In a General Election for the ages (more of it later on), a kleptocracy headed by an impudent and condescending leader – one of whose incredulous sleights of hand included a miraculous deposit in his personal account (yes you read that right!) of a whopping sum of US$681 million – was cut down to size and brought to its knees. The United Malays National Organisation (“UMNO”) and their coterie which had seized victory in every single election since 1955, was voted out of power by a frustrated, vexed but determined population which overcame every possible barrier that was hurled at them. The party’s controversial face and the Prime Minister (now former Prime Minister), Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak was relegated from the pinnacle of power to a pathetic footnote crushed against a tidal wave of reform.
As an Indian and a Bangalorean, I am no stranger to the odious impact of corruption, the revolting effect of abuse of position and a blatant exploitation of political power. India was in the vice like grip of a dynastic rule for more than five decades, where familial loyalties and quid pro quo favours ruled the roost over foreign investment and freedom of doing business, and where scams of a myriad nature and mega magnitudes tested both people’s imagination as well as patience. The nation was finally jolted out of its self-imposed reverie and slumber when the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in an unprecedented show of strength in 2014. Hence it was no surprise, when in Malaysia’s fourteenth General Election (commonly denoted as GE14), the main plank of the opposition parties, led by Pakatan Harapan (PH) was combating corruption, cleansing a rotten system whose carrion had become a feasting ground for the vultures and ushering in an era of reform. And pioneering this vision was arguably the most popular, greatly revered and even lately reviled face in the history of Malaysian politics, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. As a measure of atoning for his own sins (in his own words), the favourite son of Malaysia donned the electoral garb with an avowed objective of dethroning a man who was once his own protégé. And boy did he destroy him!
For a neutral, the events highlighting the run-up to the election made for some jaw dropping and bizarre spectacle. The hurdles imposed upon the voting populace by the men in power, both intentionally and accidentally were a peculiar combination of ingenuity and infamy. Right from scheduling the election bang in the middle of a working week, with no provision for public holidays either the day before or after, to crafting a scheme of gerrymandering that involved an element of geographical delineation of voters, the likes of which would tax the brains of even Einsteinian proportions, Malaysians rooting for change had no option but to attain the impossible and attain the unreachable. An anti-fake news legislation was mooted, with absurdly broad ‘tentacles’ to conveniently serve as a ‘catch all’ mechanism that sought to bring within the dragnet of law, even genuine expressions of unequivocal opinion. The curtailment of free speech was taken to levels hitherto seen or experienced. Add to this, an egregious and shameful last ditch effort at influencing the voters’ mindsets and garnering votes by announcing ridiculous freebies (the reader will have a hard time digesting the fact that one of the carrots dangled to the voters was an exemption from Income Tax for individuals who are twenty-six and below!), and the people of Malaysia were left to climb Mount Improbable.
Climb it they did! Not only did the country best Mount Improbable, but it changed the very landscape of the summit. A teeming mass of voters poured in to cast their votes, braving both the elements of weather and bleak probabilities. Young and old flew (maybe abhorring Air Asia as a choice of airlines since its supremo Mr.Tony Fernandez had espoused his support for the ruling coalition thereby infuriating major sections of the public), drove and walked to their respective polling stations. As serpentine queues formed, time itself came to an interminable stand still. In a further display of affront by the men clinging on to power, there were even rumours of voters having been turned away from the polling stations as clocks sounded the designated closing time of 17.00 hours. As the voting finally culminated across the country, there was an uneasy, uncomfortable and queasy lull before the impending storm.
What usually (according to political experts and psephologists holding forth on national Television) was a simple process of counting and releasing of results, transformed into a Kafkaesque game of deferral and denial. Accusations of polling officers denying to sign off on ballot papers flew left, right and centre thereby birthing yet more rumours ranging from the bewildering to the banal. However, the Malaysian population exercised admirable restraint and displayed incredible patience.
Finally, what came was not merely a storm. It was a gale force of indescribable proportions that had the whole country rejoicing. From what was a state of utter hopelessness, the people of Malaysia had come together as one, casting aside extraneous factors such as religion and race to light a beautiful beacon of hope, aspirations and a wonderful future. They had not just created history but were themselves an indelible part of it. They had etched themselves into a beautiful pattern in the fabric of true democracy. And they had accomplished all of this without shedding a single drop of blood! Yet another country had provided monumental testimony to the fact that a repressed populace was in fact the most powerful voice, a voice that had the potential not only to elect the worthy but to unseat the cringe worthy!
Before the elections, many had advised me to stock up and be prepared for any adverse eventuality. But eventually there was no need for anyone to stock up, but just to stack up their efforts, perseverance, perspicacity and patience and to enjoy the outcome. As the dust finally settled and the rush of adrenaline slowly dissipated, Captain Marvel had sworn his oath to lead Malaysia into what may possibly be its most prosperous era!