How Malaysia fell victim to stealth authoritarianism in the midst of the pandemic, and what us Malaysians should can do moving forward.
The Southeast Asia region is still reeling from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Whilst nations such as Indonesia and Thailand were committing their resources to alleviate the damage caused by the lockdowns, Malaysia was going through a political destabilization that hampered the COVID relief programs. In brief, Prime Minister Muhyiddin used the COVID pandemic as an opportunity to quash political opposition and hinder the democratic process. Examples of policies introduced include shortening debate lengths which essentially curtailed opposition speech, as well as placing social distancing protocols that made it difficult for the opposition to rally against him. Whilst these policies were in place Muhyiddin rehabilitated disgraced members of his old political party, Barisan Nasional, quashed corruption charges against the previous Prime Minister, Najib Razak, before shutting down the parliament in January 2021. The result of this was Malaysia having one of the worst responses in the world to the pandemic according to pandemic-response indices by the Economist and Bloomberg. Malaysia’s economy contracted by 5.5% in the year of 2020 which had been its worse performance since the Asian financial crisis of 1990 and growth estimates continue to trend downward to this day. This occurrence is a prime example of the negative consequences that occur when politicians are given a plethora of government perks whilst being shielded from public accountability.
The actions of Prime Minister Muhyiddin are examples of stealth authoritarianism, where repressive measures are cloaked by laws and emergencies leading to a significant growth in executive power that is used to erode democratic institutions. Muhyiddin undermines partisan alternation by significantly increasing costs of removing the incumbent through abuse of COVID guidelines and adopts electoral laws to disenfranchise his opposition as well as to abscond his allies. This use of stealth authoritarianism, however, is not an isolated event. Historically in Malaysia and many other Southeast Asian countries, democratic erosion of some sort is a mainstay in our history, however, history also tells us that there is always a chance to recover from the backsliding of democracy. In 2018, Malaysia saw a historic election that saw the removal of the incumbent party for the first time since Malaysia gained its independence, replaced by the multi-racial Pakatan Harapan. It was a hopeful and optimistic time as democratic reforms took place. The media gained its independence, constitutional amendments extended voting rights to citizens above the age of 18 as opposed to 21 and Malaysia rose 10 places in the transparency index. Yet what was missed at the time and ultimately what caused Malaysia to fall back to its previous state is the failure to implement the most vital of reforms. Ensuring judicial independence, elimination of political and preventative detentions and well-established term limits for prime ministers were all changes that Malaysia desperately needed but never received.
With the people of Malaysia, today, lacking faith in their governmental system once again I plead for all of us not to fall into apathetic pessimism but to look towards the future and ask ourselves to aim for the small victories. Maybe Malaysia will not receive the changes it desperately needs but that does not mean we can’t start to create an environment where those changes would be more likely. From small-grassroots movements to large-scale campaigns, if we first aim to limit executive powers in times of emergency, maybe then we can still save something positive from this fateful pandemic.