Another national election has produced yet another unexpected outcome. This time it was Mahathir Mohamad’s stunning upset victory over Prime Minister Najib Razak—which ended 60 years of rule by the National Front party—that caught many observers of Asian politics off guard.
But Malaysia’s 14th general election results should come as no surprise. This latest event is affirmation, yet again, of the convergence of powerful forces that are sweeping the world: digital disruption and its economic and social consequences; a middle-class backlash against entrenched and corrupt elites; and, like it or not, the growing influence of China.
How is this playing out in Malaysia and beyond?
Among other things, Mahathir has said he would repeal Malaysia’s hugely unpopular General Services Tax (GST) of 6% and re-examine Malaysia’s big infrastructure projects—including the proposed Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail link. He’s said that he wouldn’t seek “revenge” against Najib, but rather, that he would “restore the rule of law to Malaysia.” For many, this could be interpreted as a return to heavy-handed, authoritarian governance.
Initial reaction in the markets has been negative, with the value of the Malaysian ringgit falling 2.4% against the U.S. dollar, the day after the election.
Digital disruption and cyber-politics
Just like the Brexit and Trump election outcomes, data analytics, social media and digital platforms played a major role in determining the winners in this historic election. Malaysia has a smartphone penetration rate of over 75%, with over 40% of the country’s 15 million voters under the age of forty—meaning, as “digital natives,” they get their news almost exclusively via social media.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the predominate platforms, with a whopping 97% of social media users active on Facebook, which makes Malaysia one of the world’s most digitally connected and internet-savvy countries.
Malaysia’s election also featured the now familiar perils of cyber-space election campaigns: bots and fake news. But, all things considered, the overarching impact of AI and data analytics allowed Mahathir’s coalition— Pakatan Harapan— to target specific voters with laser-accuracy via social media.
Backlash against corrupt political elites
Digital technology has also been a power multiplier for a small number of the world’s wealthiest people, resulting in massive wealth disparities within general populations. This wealth disparity has been even more pronounced in emerging markets like Malaysia, spilling over into politics, where increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional institutions are controlled by these same elites.
According to Noel Meldan, a Malaysia expert with Vriens & Partners, a public affairs consultancy, concerns over cost of living was the single most compelling issue for Malaysians– particularly for 1.4 million young voters, many of whom are feeling increasingly anxious about their economic futures