KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s opposition and its 92-year-old autocrat-turned-reformer prevailed in Wednesday’s election, upsetting the coalition that has ruled the country for the last six decades. Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, won 113 seats in the country’s parliament — one more than needed to form a government and dislodge Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been in office since 2009 and whose Barisan Nasional, or National Front, has held power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957. By 10 p.m. Wednesday, thousands of opposition supporters had poured into the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and other cities in anticipation of a formal announcement of victory. “We have in fact achieved a substantial majority,” Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister who became a front man for the opposition, said at a news conference at 2:30 a.m. Thursday. “I hope tomorrow we will have a swearing in of the prime minister.”
KAMPUNG BUKIT, KEDAH, MALAYSIA — With police investigating him under Malaysia’s new anti-“fake news” law, Mahathir Mohamad, the nearly 93-year-old former prime minister turned opposition frontman, says his country faces its dirtiest election on Wednesday. The governing coalition “will cheat like mad, they will steal votes, but still I think we can win,” Mahathir said in an interview with The Times, stepping off a makeshift stage and into a nearby BMW waiting to take him to yet another campaign rally. Defying his age, Mahathir had just wrapped up a half-hour stump speech in this farming area about a 20-mile drive from Aloh Setar, the capital of Kedah state, his home base. Kedah has typically been a government stronghold, although the green flags of Malaysia’s Islamist party also flutter along its roadsides. Mahathir wants to swing the state, and enough rural Muslim Malays across the country, to his four-party opposition grouping known as the Alliance of Hope.
GEORGE TOWN — Not many people give Malaysia’s opposition much hope of ending the Barisan Nasional’s 13 election winning streak, when the country goes to the polls next Wednesday May 9th. “For a government to rule for 60 years in a democracy, it shows there is something wrong with the country,” said Harindra Singh, a volunteer canvasser with the Democratic Action Party, the biggest of the 4 parties that make up the opposition coalition. The Barisan Nasional, or National Front, has governed Malaysia since independence from the UK in 1957. In the last elections held almost 5 years ago to the day, the Front lost the popular vote by 3% but still won enough of a majority of parliamentary seats to once again form a government.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA/SINGAPORE — A year ago two young female migrant workers in Indonesia, including 26 year old Indonesian Siti Nurbaya, were cast at the center of an international murder mystery when they were arrested by police for their alleged role in the audacious, Le Carré-esque assassination by poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was carried out despite the usual bustling morning crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Preying on the women’s perceived vulnerability as relatively-poor migrant workers at the margins of society, defense lawyers contend that North Korean agents duped their clients into unwittingly carrying out the murder by bluffing they were being recruited for a series of made for TV pranks. As the trial of Nurbaya and her alleged accomplice from Vietnam rolled on last month in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur, another case was emerging that highlighted the perils facing migrants in Malaysia. Adelina Sao died in a Penang hospital on February 11 after she was found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, succumbing after two years in Malaysia as one of around 400,000 foreign maids working in the country.
JAKARTA — Major palm oil producers in Asia are hoping European governments will not go ahead with proposals that could undermine their businesses and damage the Indonesian and Malaysian economies. Proponents say palm oil requires less land to grow than other vegetable oil crops. “Palm oil is the most productive oil that exists today,” said Colin Lee, director of corporate affairs at Cargill Tropical Palm, which has around 80,000 hectares of oil palm plantation in the region. Indonesia and Malaysia provide around 85% of the world’s palm oil. Palm oil makes up between 10% and 12% of their total exports, according to global bank HSBC.
MELAKA — “Fun” is a subjective concept, as is the even more nebulous “culture.” As for “heritage,” it is a debatable term too, but can be more or less quantified by the range and antiquity of buildings and monuments that make up a place. But how about cruising through a UNESCO World Heritage site in a garish Pokemon or Hello Kitty-decor trishaw, a speaker blaring Taylor Swift from the roof and exhorting passers-by to “Shake It Off,” as a wizened driver struggles to pedal a cartload of tourists along a cobbled street toward the ruins of a 16th century church? Fun?
KUALA LUMPUR — He remains Malaysia’s longest-ruling prime minister and was one of 20th Century Asia’s most outspoken political leaders. Now Mahathir Mohamad cannot even meet opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former colleague-turned-rival. The two are back on the same side, but prison authorities refused to allow the men to meet as planned on Wednesday, because “there was no official request,” according to Nurul Izzah Anwar, an opposition lawmaker and Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter.
KUALA LUMPUR — Denying Mahathir permission to meet Anwar was another reminder of what the opposition sees as a rigged status quo. “We have been governed by an autocratic and unfair system for many years,” said Nurul Izzah Anwar, who pointed out that Prime Minister Najib Razak was allowed meet her father. During the last elections held in 2013, the opposition coalition — then known as the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) — won 52% of the popular vote but gerrymandered rural constituencies meant they finished with only 40% of seats. If Mahathir does somehow replace Najib, he will be world’s oldest head of government. Although he has no problem speaking at a podium or walking the streets meeting supporters – in age terms it would be like Americans electing George Bush Senior in 2016. It is not just Mahathir’s age that make him a surprise choice. An authoritarian prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he implemented many of the rules that will make it difficult for him to return to office.
SINGAPORE — Reacting to the U.S. move last week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Muslim-majority countries in Asia have joined fresh calls for wider recognition of an independent Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. Speaking in Istanbul on Wednesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the 56 other members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that the group “can serve as a motor” to persuade countries that have not recognized Palestine “to do so immediately.” The Palestinian mission to the United Nations lists 137 countries as recognizing Palestine. The level of recognition varies among those countries, as Palestine has not been granted full U.N. membership. Though some OIC members recognize Israel — including summit host Turkey — Asian countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.