Truce and Tales in New Malaysia: Happy First Anniversary


The expression “New Malaysia” or Malaysia Baharu emerged in 2016 as a semantic capsule for the democratic aspirations of the movement for electoral reform Bersih (“clean” in Malay), whose rally in November of that year brought more than 100,000 people to the streets of Kuala Lumpur.1 “New Malaysia” soon became the leitmotiv of the entire opposition movement to overthrow the Najib Razak government (2009-2018) embedded in the world financial scandal 1MDB.2 On May 9,, 2018 the opposition coalition, Pact of Hope (Pakatan Harapan or PH), led by Mahathir Mohammad, won the general elections, slaying 61 years of single party rule. Malaysia Baharu was born; and with it, the hopes of democratization.

A year later, on May 9, 2019 the PH government celebrated the first anniversary of New Malaysia in Putrajaya, the administrative capital about 60km south of Kuala Lumpur. Over the year, the expression New Malaysia has been institutionalized, and on that day “Selamat Setahun Malaysia Baharu” (Happy First Anniversary, New Malaysia) was displayed on all banners in and around the event hall. Foreign ambassadors are sitting next to state officials and civil servants, for whom, after 6 decades of UMNO style rule, this transition poses numerous political and administrative challenges. Ministers and members of the senate and the parliament on the front row are all eyes on Mahathir: they are first-timer ministers, former activists turned politicians, and even the UMNO old guard, who had left—or been sacked—from the previous government before joining PH. Alone on the grand stage between giant screens, Mahathir gives a speech emphasizing the victory of justice over kleptocracy, praising his government’s achievements and announcing a new route for equitable development.3 He reads from translucent glass prompters: the speech is spotless, under control, the prime minister follows the script—restraining his natural tendency to go off it.

It is in fact the 23rd year in power for the 93-year-old man who reigned over the country from 1982 to 2004, when he resigned. This time around, Mahathir has promised to stay in power for two years before handing the office to Anwar Ibrahim, his former heir turned archenemy with whom he reconciled in 2016. In 2015, Anwar had been jailed on politically motivated charges of sodomy for the second time, he was granted a Royal Pardon and released a week after the elections. “New Malaysia” is not just about an unexpected democratic turn but also is about a unique power transition between two charismatic leaders: Mahathir and Anwar.

Old players in a new game, old friends and new enemies (and vice versa), what has really changed in New Malaysia? Do the practices of power meet the democratic agenda announced during the campaign? How can Mahathir, once seen as an authoritarian leader, maintain his legitimacy as a democratic icon?

From Malaysia to New Malaysia

Before 2018: A Democratic Illusion

While Malaysia has been independent since 1957, the federation never became a full-fledged democracy. Instead, successive governments, run by the multi-ethnic coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front) led by the pro-Malay party United Malay National Organization (UMNO), maintained the liberticidal and racialized inheritance of the British empire. The semi-authoritarian system perpetuated by UMNO ensured its monopoly over power for decades.4 In 1987-88 the judiciary crisis symbolized the height of the tensions between the government (then led by Mahathir) and the judiciary, allowing the former to enhance its control and blurred further the separation between powers.

The existence of multi-partite elections and the development of a vibrant civil society were used as arguments in favor of a democratic illusion, while overshadowing the extent of the unfairness of electoral competition5 and the partisan nature of civil society. To Ottaway,6 semi-authoritarian democracies are “ambiguous systems” that combine: 1) rhetorical acceptance of liberal democracy, 2) formal democratic institutions, and 3) “a limited sphere of civil and political liberties with essentially illiberal or even authoritarian traits.” She highlights the fact that, far from being a transitional process, this regime is the successful outcome of a deliberated strategy “to maintain the appearance of democracy without exposing themselves to the political risks that free competition entails.”7

The emergence of the coalition Bersih in 2006, the first march of its supporters in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, and the relaunched Bersih 2.0 in 2010 raised the level of awareness of the many abuses of the electoral system by the ruling coalition. From 2006 to 2017, it organized no less than 5 street rallies to ask for electoral transparency, most of which were repressed by arrests, if not harassment, of its leadership and of anonymous citizens. The Bersih rally offers a useful perspective on the relative democratic nature of civil society. In general, civil society is perceived as a de facto, quasi-sacred, sign of democratization, while it may indeed be the opposite.8 Malaysia constitutes a great example of how civil society may be used by a government as an authoritarian tool. In 2015 for example, the Bersih rally was soon followed by a Red Shirt rally, led by UMNO member and leader Jamal Yunos. The violence occurring during other rallies organized by Bersih and/or other civil society groups like the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf)9 or Article 11 (2006),10 was often the act of small groups of individuals, some registered UMNO members, affiliated with underground criminal networks operating behind umbrella NGOs linked to UMNO.11 This orchestration of violence and tensions was a main element of the System of Legitimation of Authoritarian Power (SLAP).12

Since its creation in 1946, the complex UMNO ideological and political machinery has been strengthened and expanded to all areas of power including the economy.13 Manifestations in all sectors and propaganda reached a point where its own fate became inextricably intertwined with the fate of the entire Malay majority. In the 1970s after the formation of Malaysia and the exclusion of Singapore (1963), the anti-imperialistic and nationalist ideals previously shared with other ethnic-based parties acquired an ethnonationalist slant. Over decades, the UMNO-led governments pushed for a national narrative submerging the historical role and social and economic rights of the Chinese, Indians, and indigenous minorities.14

Indigenous population from Sabah and Sarawak, the two northern states of Borneo on both sides of the Sultanate of Brunei, and the Orang Asli community of the peninsula, have been included in this ethnonationalist narrative as “sons of the soil” or Bumiputera. This inclusion was a way to secure UMNO votes—and favorable numbers for an ethnic census—to safeguard its monopolistic position and its narrative. Nevertheless, the economic and social opportunities of these populations never equaled those for the Malays.15 The successive economic policies implemented from 1971 in order to reduce economic disparities favored the development of a Malay middle class to the detriment of other Bumiputera, and non-Bumiputera communities. The Malay and the indigenous people do have a special status protected by the Constitution referred to as “Malay Rights.”16 The economic interpretation of Malay Rights in the National Economy Policy (NEP) and its offshoots favored the majority in a wide range of areas, e.g., universities, public tenders, and finance, offering opportunities such as: higher representation in public service, reserved quotas for universities, and shares in public companies. These policies reinforced the national narrative and nurtured a feeling of both entitlement (among the Malay) and resentment17 (on all sides of the ethnic spectrum).

The end of the Mahathir era (2004) was seen as an opportunity for more inclusiveness. Both Abdullah Badawi and Najib’ governments played the harmony card but on different tunes. The Abdullah government promoted inclusion through the religious universalist perspective of Islam Hadhari.18 The concept only appealed to a non-Muslim international audience and failed to attenuate ethno-religious tensions, opening the door to new forms of resentment. With the relative opening of civil society, NGOs created with the objective of supporting the UMNO agenda mushroomed. Moral and religious controversies took center stage. In a country where close to 60 percent of the population is Muslim, and where religion is a primary marker of ethnic identity provided by Article160 of the Constitution, religion is at the forefront of the expression of ethnic rivalries. The importance of the controversy about Muslims renouncing Islam was inversely proportional to the number of cases (huge controversy, small number of cases). Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 11 of the Constitution but is conditioned by state interpretations of Islamic law when matters are related to Islam. Article 11 created a schism within civil society (conservative Muslims versus liberal Muslims and non-Muslims), reflecting political divisions between Malay parties (mainly UMNO and the Islamist Party PAS) and non-Malay parties (mainly Keadilan Rakyat or Keadilan and Democratic Action Party or DAP) on all sides of the political divide.19

Abdullah was pushed out of the government in 2008 after the worst electoral results the Barisan Nasional coalition had faced in decades, allowing the opposition to win 5 states.20 Najib Razak, son of Abdul Razak and nephew of Hussein Onn (the second and third prime ministers) was propelled to the top of the party as premier in February 2009. Najib’s reform intentions, specifically related to Malay rights, were debunked by the most ethnocentric voices of UMNO and their proxy NGOs.21 His economic and social plan, “1Malaysia,” to promote and celebrate harmony and diversity was encapsulated in one simple slogan—to be pronounced with a lifted finger to symbolize “one,” was showcased on streets and corners everywhere with giant posters of a smiling prime minister and also in the government owned media. “Good morning/evening One Malaysia” became the greeting formula for all news presenters. It soon was imprinted in people’s minds, but Najib’s grand vision was doomed.

2016-2018: Bersatu or the reinvention of Mahathir

The embezzlement of the state-managed fund 1MDB, one of the biggest corruption scandals in the world, burst into the limelight in 2015.22 In 2010, the public got its first glimpse of what would become the “1MDB scandal.” Initially designed to boost national economic growth, the development fund in practice became a cash cow for well-placed individuals, notably financier Low Taek Jho (Jho Low),23 who succeeded in siphoning off more than $4.5 billion from the fund. By 2015, however, foreign authorities had opened no fewer than nine investigations into the 1MBD affair, most of which identified Najib as one of the protagonists.24 Criticism of Najib’s role in the scandal led to a purge from UMNO, the cabinet, and the judiciary.25 Muhyiddin Yassin deputy prime minister, Mukhriz Mahathir, chief minister of the state of Kedah and son of Mahathir, and Shafie Apdal, minister of rural and regional development, among others, were sacked from the government and the party.

The financial scandal took a dramatic turn. As Muhyiddin recalls: “When Najib asked me to come to his office… [he had] set his mind that I have to go but he couldn’t say it right in front of me. I said, “what did you called me here for?… it is about the cabinet?” Yes. “Is it about you not wanting me to be reappointed as Deputy Prime Minister?” He said “yes” and… that’s it… In one meeting. Then… Hishamuddin [party vice-president, also defense minister and cousin of Najib] was asked to chair a special meeting to get me out… I wasn’t called to be present… because they had set their mind to get me out of the party. I did not receive any letter; I was just informed through the media… Shafie [Apdal] was removed. And, Mukhriz… was removed. So, we… start thinking that [we] need to move on and then we have to fight together. And, at a certain stage, we went to see Tun [Mahathir] because he used to mention that he is fighting alone and someone said: “Sir, you are not alone.26

Mahathir, Muhyiddin, Mukhriz, and the late Sanusi Junid (1943-2018) were the first elements of a new kind of opposition. As Muhyiddin explains it, the only voices that existed against the government were the opposition and Bersih,27 but to him the two were “not cohesive enough.” These voices had also been fierce critics of them, during their time in the government. On March 4, 2016, the Declarasi Rakyat or Declaration of the People was the first move towards the reunion of former enemies.28 A year after he had been sacked, Muhyiddin suggested to Mahathir the need to form a new party; a Malay party. Bersatu was formed in September 2016. The same month, Mahathir publicly sealed his reconciliation with his former enemy Anwar by appearing in Malaysia’s High Court in a show of support for a case brought by him.

Mahathir had resigned from his position in UMNO on February 29, 2016. A few months before, in August 2015, the seasoned politician had tested his popularity in the pro-opposition ranks by joining the Bersih 4 rally.29 This bold move proved that despite his autocratic image (at least among opposition supporters), the charisma of the leader was uncontested and able to cross political divides. It also sent an extraordinary message to the masses: first, Mahathir whose relevance to contemporary politics had somehow faded was back stronger than ever; and second, his agenda had made a de facto incredible turn towards democracy—a concept he has despicably criticized and associated with western values over the years. Mahathir played on the extraordinary nature of his action to build momentum and his messianic narrative: In a country on the verge of bankruptcy, returns an unexpected savior ready for all sacrifices (including his own health) to save the people, end kleptocracy, and bring democracy.30

Previously, Anwar had been the embodiment of democracy, as the long-awaited leader who would lead the country’s march to reform. 2018 was the 20th anniversary of this movement called “Reformasi,” which started in 1998 when Anwar was sacked by Mahathir, then jailed for sodomy and corruption. 20 years later, the reconciliation deal between the two implied that the symbolism of reform had to be shared.31 Unexpectedly, Mahathir’s image successfully changed to a credible democratic visionary (credible enough to be trusted to lead the coalition to victory). From demonized authoritarian leader to celebrated democratic icon and champion of human rights, Mahathir’s success in re-inventing himself proved his unique aptitude for pragmatic politics by making the imagery of reform his own. With some limitations, a new image of Mahathir as legitimate democratic leader had emerged in people’s imaginations as translated in the polls on May 9, 2018.32 Once the excitement of the campaign and the momentum of victory has passed, how can this newly gained legitimacy be sustained?

Transition(s) on hold

Democracy in stagnant waters

A year after the historical twists and turns that led to unprecedented victory, New Malaysia is in stagnant waters. In fact, the 2018 PH electoral success had only marked the first step in the process of democratization. As explained by Aurel Croissant: “democratization is a process of continual adjustment over rights and relationships in a political regime. In transitions from authoritarian rule to a political democracy, there are two transitions: first from autocratic governance to the installation of a democratic government, and only then, second from democratic government toward the effective functioning of a democratic regime, i.e., democratic deepening and consolidation.”33 On May 9, 2018, Malaysia achieved its first transition and initiated a change, but, as highlighted by Croissant, the adjustments over rights and relationships are complex and continuous. The government, the opposition, civil society, and voters are in a push-and-pull game that has had a negative effect on public perceptions, and has slowed down, if not blocked, the government’s decisions.

The stuttering of reforms has generated frustration among the public; a recent poll from the Merdeka Center indicated that the prime minister’s popularity had crashed down from 83% in May 2018 to 46% a year later.34 The iconic image of Mahathir has a dent. This is due, first of all, to his harsh criticism of civil servants, blaming them for the inefficiency of the state apparatus. In fact, without the support of the majority of the civil service, the PH coalition would have not won this election. Mahathir reproached the civil service with having kept ties and allegiance to the previous government, hence these pockets of resistance would be responsible for the “sabotage” of his government policies.35 The suspicion and responsibilities laid on the civil service added to the inexperience of first time ministers—but also experienced ones—working in an old system but applying “new rules” has created general confusion, more resentment, and finally, the sclerosis of the state apparatus. Second, most civil servants are Malays, and the announcement of a need for reform of the Malay quotas has created a sense of distrust in this government. Mahathir and his advisers Kadir Jasin and Daim Zainuddin have raised the sensitive question of the affirmative action policies for bumiputra. While reform of these economic policies, which have shown their inadequacy, and the reverse discrimination they have engendered is justified, the rhetoric used by government leaders has laid the fault on the community itself rather than on the policies.36

In the name of democracy, corrupted civil servants are being hunted,37 a former premier is on trial, affirmative action is challenged, gender equality is promoted (wishful thinking?), but at the same time, the prime minister complains about the lack of flexibility of electoral rules regarding the use of government resources for campaigns,38 and the premier-in-waiting is reproached with abusing electoral laws during his campaign for a parliament seat.39 Leaders are sending contradictory messages to their voters, paving the way for critics from a rather weak opposition, which takes refuge in old ethno-religious rhetoric.

In Malaysia, democratic transition has for long been associated with “liberalization,” a concept reinterpreted by some through a moral lens. For the most conservative part of Malaysian society, on which the new opposition tries to rebuild his support, liberalization is intrinsically linked to democratization and a challenge to traditional values. In this context, democratization is perceived as a celebration of a ‘liberal way of life’ and understood by conservative elements as immoral Western practices. The challenges of this government are shown in the increase of violence both verbal and physical against the most vulnerable parts of society, and in particular the LGBTQ+ community.40 But the lack of coherence of the PH democratic ambitions with its ministers’ policies, discourse, and practices is weakening the government’s democratic credibility. Amid the resurgence of violence against them, the deputy prime minister asked the LGBTQ+ community to not “glamourize gay lifestyle,”41 and rehabilitation centers for homosexual individuals were promoted by the department of religious affairs (JAKIM)–this despite the fact that there are no gays in Malaysia, according to a statement of the minister of tourism at the world’s largest tourism fair in Berlin.42 This dichotomy between part of the civil society’s demands, voters, the government, and the ruling coalition as a whole reveals the extent of the challenges ahead.

The (im)possible reform of political culture

Democratization is far from a universally accepted objective; its definition and processes remain unknown to most. During an informal discussion on May 9, 2019, outside of the hall where the first anniversary of New Malaysia is celebrated, an appointed legislator and social scientist by profession, when asked by us about the need for (re-)training parliament members about democratic rules and processes, explained that “there are more than 45 definitions of what a democracy is, most of us don’t know anyway.” To him, the question of “ethical politics” is more important and should be pushed because it fits “better” with Islam. He argues it is crucial for PH to “do more Islam,” for the lack of which the newly formed PAS-UMNO opposition is reproaching the government. Religion has for decades been a “safe haven” for politicians in need of popularity. While the political solution offered by this legislator lacks forward thinking, it rightly points to the fact that PH is losing the Malay-Islam battle.43 But if the problem is rightly identified, the strategy of being more Islamic than the Islamists (for lack of better terms) has been for used for (too) long and showed, at least in Malaysia, its inadequacy within the democratic agenda. My point here is not about the compatibility between Islam and democracy; first, religions, of any kind, are in no way antagonistic to democracy; and second, Islamist parties, as any other faith-based party from Ennahda in Tunisia to the Christian Democrats in Germany, are not positioning themselves against democratization but might indeed be one of its architects, as shown in Tunisia, and a fervent defender. In contrast to this call for more ethics and more Islam, Malaysian academics have pleaded for a “new national narrative.”44 But, is a new narrative a sufficient condition for democratization? Democratization requires more than a mere rebranding of (hi)story. Also, the narrative as understood and constructed in Malaysia has led to a bitter battle over competing (hi)stories, and the successful one, the heteronormative, patriarchal, ethno-religious centrist perspective promoted by UMNO for decades, has been at the origin of the self-identification chaos the country is now facing.

For clarity, we need to look at the narrative from its departure and arrival points. Narrative is a constructed, if not fabricated, linear perception of politics in all its aspects. The narrative goal is to support, if not foster, a cohesive national identity. The monopoly construction of the national narrative by the state, mobilizing deep emotions in the private sphere, aims to inhabit people’s imaginary in a way that leads to the acceptance of its domination. The Malaysian national narrative has been built on a unique perception of the country’s (hi)story as recounted by the Malay nationalist UMNO. In the same way East Asia does, Malaysia suffers from a National Identity Syndrome (EANIS) as sophistically described by Gilbert Rozman.45 Despite different etiology, the symptoms are the same: in Malaysia, all attempts at reinforcing national identity ineluctably comes with the “forging of an atmosphere of defensiveness and highlighting symbols of danger to the nation.”46

Arguably, the idea and ideals of “national identity’ have shown their limits. The concept of national identity is too narrow to encompass the complexity of most countries47 and, more specifically, a society as diverse as Malaysia. Also, the monopoly of national identity is one of the state but not of the people. While nationalism may have been a powerful mode of mobilization against imperial powers, it has today reached its limits and poses challenges to democracies. Nationalist ideals are rooted in the strength of the emotions of individuals– the emotions of individuals at work for the interest of the state. The question is not how to build an inclusive national identity or a new narrative, but how to rewrite the history of the nation, in a more inclusive way to broaden the definition of who or what a Malaysian is. Democratization implies that Malaysia takes a different road favoring the emergence of political culture cutting across all lines.

The stagnation of reform in New Malaysia reveals the existence of a deep structural problem in Malaysian politics: the nature of its political culture. Politics is the base of the organization of power. Politics, by nature, consists of two main elements—political imaginary and political culture, defined here in these simple terms: 1) political imaginary is the association of myths and utopia (beliefs);48 and 2) political culture is the expression of political imaginary in discourse and actions.

If politics had a human shape, the political imaginary would be the brain, and the political culture the body. One cannot function without the other one, and the two are interconnected by an intricate network of tangible elements that have an existence and a function of their own. Political culture is a window through which one perceives politics. It is entrenched in a society’s political imaginary, culture, and beliefs and contributes to the shaping of opinions, and social and electoral behavior. It is the canal of expressions of political imaginary and omnipresent in every particle or actor of political life. It is the ground in which practices and behavior of power are rooted.

The New Malaysia narrative seems to not have gone further than May 9. The complex 99 points of the PH electoral manifesto have overshadowed the necessity of crafting a new vision for the country. Democratic intentions have not materialized well through policies; the government lacks cohesion and fails in communicating its progress and agenda. In a context where the direction is unclear, the practice of power will not change, leaving ample space for corruption, cronyism, and also populist short-cuts. Political culture is the determinant factor of the ways in which actors will behave and the origins of the occurrence or recurrence of abuse of power at every level of society. The re-invention of Malaysia beyond the religious and ethnic divide is crucial for the success of the second phase of democratization–the more difficult one. The re-training of civil servants, the re-writing of textbooks and curricula, and a cohesive cultural agenda are pressing reforms that need to be tackled along with economic reforms. Without the evolution of political culture, the question of reform of affirmative action (but not only that) will continue to antagonize part of society. The stagnation of the democratization process lies in the (im)possibility of reshaping political culture, and with it the culture of power.

1. Press Statement, November 20, 2016. “After BERSIH 5 rally, the fight for free and fair elections and institutional reforms continues.” Accessed May 13, 2019,

2. “Timeline: How Malaysia’s 1MDB financial scandal unfolded,” Aljazeera, April 3, 2019,

3. Zurairi AR, “Three things we learnt from: Dr M’s Pakatan one-year anniversary keynote    
Address,” Malay Mail, May 9, 2019,

4. S. Lemiere, ed., Illusions of Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People, Vol. II(Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2017).

5. M.P.N. Othman, ed., Elections and Democracy in Malaysia (Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia: Penerbit UKM, 2005).

6. M. Ottaway, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003. For another perspective on “competitive authoritarianism” see S. Giersdorf and A. Croissant, “Civil Society and Competitive Authoritarianism in Malaysia,” Journal of Civil Society, Vol. 7, No.1 (2011), pp. 1-21.

7. S. Lemiere, Illusions of Democracy.

8. J. Lorch, “Civil Society under Authoritarian Rule: The Case of Myanmar,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, No. 2, 2006, pp. 3-37.; J. Lorch and B. Bunk, “Using civil society as an authoritarian legitimation strategy: Algeria and Mozambique in comparative perspective,” Democratization, Vol. 24, No. 6 (2017), pp. 1-16.; C. Froissart, “The Ambiguities between Contention and Political Participation: A Study of Civil Society Development in Authoritarian Regimes,” Journal of Civil Society, Vol. 10, No. 3(2014), pp. 219-22; and S. Lemiere, Illusions of Democracy.

9. A.R. Govindasamy, “Social Movement in Contemporary Malaysia: The Case of Bersih, Hindraf and Perkasa,” in M. Weiss, ed., Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Malaysia (London: Routledge, 2015).

10. S. Lemiere, “Conversion and Controversy: Reshaping the Boundaries of Malaysian Pluralism,” in J. F. M. Feener, ed., Proselytizing and the Limits of Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia (New York: Springer, 2014), pp. 41-64.

11. S. Lemiere, “Gangsta and Politics in Malaysia,” in S. Lemière, ed., Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information Research and Development Centre, 2014); S. Lemiere, “Malaysia: Gangster Boogie, Bosses And Politics,” in F. A. S. Gilmour, ed., Handbook of Organised Crime and Politics (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019).

12. On the System of Legitimation of Authoritarian Power (SLAP), see S. Lemiere, Illusions of Democracy.

13. C. Sue-Ann, “Control of corporate M’sia moves from Umno to govt,” July 22, 2016.; E.T. Gomez, Politics in business: UMNO’s corporate investments (Kuala Lumpur: FORUM 1990).

14. G. Wade, “The Origins and Evolution of Ethnocracy in Malaysia,” in S. Lemiere, ed., Misplaced Democracy, pp. 3-26.

15. S. Edwards, “The Orang Asli in GE14: Towards Meaningful Political Engagement?” in S. Lemiere, ed., Minorities Matter: Malaysian Politics and People Vol. III (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre. 2019), pp. 53-73.

16. See Article 153 of Malaysian Federal Constitution.

17. F. Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

18. “Islam Hadhari or Civilizational Islam: Promoting Good Governance Within Societies and Goodwill Between Peoples and Cultures Internationally,” May 26, 2006,

19. B. Welsh and. J. U. H. Chin, eds.. Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia (Petaling Jaya Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2013); S. Lemiere, “Conversion and Controversy.”

20. J. Chin and C.H. Wong, “Malaysia’s Electoral Upheaval,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 20, No. 3(2009), pp. 71-85.

21. T. Fuller, “Malaysia to End Quotas that Favor Ethnic Malays,” The New York Times, July 1, 2009, On the ethnonationalist front, see S. Lemiere, “Gangsta and Politics in Malaysia.”

22. K. Steiner, “Economics, Politics and the Law in Malaysia: A Case Study of the 1MDB Scandal,” in S. Lemiere, ed., Illusions of Democracy, pp. 245-70; C. Gabriel, “The Rise of Kleptocracy: Malaysia’s Missing Billions,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 29, No. 1 (January 2018), pp. 69-75.

23. A Malaysian based design company successfully launched a collection of items (t-shirts, mugs, and calendars) for the holiday season 2018. Jho Low became an excellent sales product. See M.M. Chu, “How Jho Low ‘stole’ Christmas,” The Star Online, November 18, 2018, Accessed June 12, 2019,

24. S. Lemiere, “The Downfall of Malaysia’s Ruling Party,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 29, No. 4 (2018), pp. 114-28.

25. Teoh, S. (2015). Najib sacks DPM, four ministers and A-G. Retrieved 20.05, 2019, from

26. Interview with Muhyuddin Yassin 06.05.2019 in Kuala Lumpur.

27. Ibid.

28. T. Leong, “Malaysia’s Mahathir and opposition sign declaration to oust Najib,” Straits Times, March 4, 2016,

29. “Former Malaysian PM Mahathir joins Bersih rally participants for the 2nd time,” Straits Times, January 19, 2016,; Mahathir joined the Bersih 5 in November 2016—this time along with Muhyiddin and Mukhriz—wearing the once banned Bersih yellow t-shirt.

30. This narrative is well illustrated by the campaign video promoted by the party and also in the numerous cartoons picturing Mahathir as Superman or Captain Democracy, see S. Chen, “CARTOON: Captain Democracy Flies to Malaysia’s Rescue,” The NewsLens, May 11, 2018.

31. For a more detailed account refer to S. Lemiere, “The Downfall of Malaysia’s Ruling Party.”

32. The re-invention of Mahathir is a dynamic process with different elements at play. This process has not occurred by the design of creative campaign strategists, but rather as a concurrence of demands and responses and the building of momentum.

33. A. Croissant, “Democratization National Identity, and Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia,” The Asan Forum, Vol. 6, No. 5 (2018).

34. “Getting into one year after GE14: PM’s approval rating at 46%, government at 39%,” MerdekaCentre, April 26, 2019,

35. “Dr M: Culture of sabotage still exists in civil service, but decreasing,” The Star, November 25, 2018,; (2019). "Daim to gov’t: Start trusting civil service or you’ll be ‘dead.’" Malaysiakini, May 6, 2019,

36. S. Lemiere, “Introduction,” in S. Lemiere, ed., Minorities Matter.

37. “Heads of ministries ordered to probe possible sabotage against Malaysian government,” Channel News Asia, July 27, 2018,

38. Z. Koya, “Bersih: EC must stand firm against PM on campaigning by ministers,” The Star, May 15, 2019, ; Z. Koya, “All must respect the EC,” The Star, May 16, 2019,

39. T.T. M. Carvalho, "Anwar welcomes Bersih 2.0’s report that he committed offences at PD polls," The Star, October 29, 2018,

40. “A brutal assault and rising fear in LGBT community,” Free Malaysia Today, August 24, 2018,; “5 men claim trial to injuring transgender,”  Free Malaysia Today, August 24, 2018,; M. Kaur, (2018). “Academic condemns anti-LGBT sermon,” Free Malaysia Today, August 25, 2018,; "We have experts to help LGBT return to ‘right path,’ says Mujahid," Free Malaysia Today, July 29, 2018,

41.  S.M. Kamal, (2018). “Wan Azizah: LGBT ‘practices’ must be kept private,” Malay Mail, August 20, 2018,

42. “ITB Berlin tourism partner Malaysia claims it has ‘no gays,’” DW, May 3, 2019,

43. N. Saat, “A Complicated Political Reality Awaits the Malays,” PERSPECTIVE, No. 40, May 21, 2019,

44. Zurairi. “One year in.”

45. G. Rozman, “Comparisons of National Identities in East Asia,” Harvard Asia Pacific Review, Spring 2010, pp. 3-6.

46. Ibid., p. 5

47. See G. Chakravorty, “Nationalism  and  the  Imagination,” Lectora, No. 15, (2009), pp. 75-98,;
G. Chakravorty, “Cultural Pluralism?” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 42 (4-5) (2016), pp. 448-55.

48. The concept is developed in S. Lemiere, Illusions of Democracy.

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