In the previous installment of Elections 101, you’ve learned about the structure of our legislative body and the elections that the common Malaysian can vote in. Of course, since it’s been 61 years from the day we gained Independence, we’ve witnessed quite a few general elections (GE). Here are the highlights from the outcomes of each election, and how they changed the course of history – and the future.
Pre-Independence GE, 1955
General elections have to be called every five years or sooner. Due to the “sooner” part, remembering the GE years isn’t as simple as adding five years to every GE year, since an election can be called anytime, so long as it’s called within the maximum five-year deadline. That said, make sure that your calculation starting point is NOT 31 August 1957! You might think that Independence Day marks the day our country became free to choose its own leaders, but in reality, our forefathers spent many years before that preparing our country for independence, and that includes forming our own government. Since we decided to become a democratic country, that meant that we needed to hold a general election first, which was held in 1955.
In fact, our very own Independence reflects the achievement of the manifesto of the Alliance Party (which will become Barisan Nasional), which pledged, among others, to achieve Independence within four years of the first-ever general election.
GE 1, 1959
GE 1 is an example of a general election that was called before the five-year period was over. In 1959, that made it the first parliamentary election in Malaysia. This general election, buoyed by the recent success of Independence, saw Barisan Nasional gaining and maintaining its majority in every election ever since.
GE 2, 1964
Called five years after GE 1 in 1959, GE 3 also happens to be the year after the formation of Malaysia (Malaya plus Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore) in 1963, and the year preceding the expulsion of Singapore from the newly-formed Malaysia. Political tensions before and after GE 3 led to Singapore leaving Malaysia in 1965. This returned its share of seats in parliament to today’s Peninsular Malaysia, and thus upset the two-thirds majority check that Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore were supposed to provide to prevent amendments to the Constitution. Today, Sabah and Sarawak collectively hold 25% of the seats, which simply isn’t enough to give them a say in constitutional amendments, including those that encroach on their special rights.
GE 3, 1969
Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaysia’s general elections for the first time in GE 3. If you’re wondering about 1969 and whether it has any correlation between GE 3 and the May 13 Incident, you’re right. GE 3 saw Barisan Nasional lose its majority in several states (although it maintained the overall majority to form Malaysia’s government), namely Perak, Selangor, Penang, and Kelantan. The Opposition celebrated, but the celebrations turned nasty with racial slurs, and the retaliation the following day became known as the May 13 Incident which led to a declaration of a state of national emergency (darurat) that was only lifted in 1971.
GE 4, 1974
GE 4 was Barisan Nasional’s debut under the 2nd Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, having replaced the Alliance Party. Barisan Nasional managed to woo the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) into its fold, for only this one general election. This allowed Barisan Nasional to lay claim to Kelantan, which was under PAS. With the May 13 Incident still fresh, Barisan Nasional won an overwhelming majority.
GE 5, 1978
Once again, a general election was held before the five-year expiry period. Held during the reign of the third Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn, Barisan Nasional still won by a comfortable majority, but it lost its cooperation with PAS (yet retained its win in Kelantan thanks to fractured PAS detractors forming a coalition, the UMNO-BERJASA alliance, within Barisan Nasional).
GE 6, 1982
Nothing much happened here, and Barisan Nasional still won by a landslide, much like the previous two elections.
GE 7, 1986
GE 7 is another general election that was held before the maximum five-year tenure. However, the results still favour Barisan Nasional, with the Democratic Action Party being the only slightly relatively viable contender, with 24 seats to Barisan Nasional’s 148.
GE 8, 1990
Once again, GE 8 followed GE 7 after just four years. It followed a split in UMNO into two factions, New UMNO under fourth Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Parti Melayu Semangat 46 under Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. At the same time, the opposition finally formed a multi-ethnic coalition for the first time to contend against Barisan Nasional, called Gagasan Rakyat. The fledgling opposition coalition ended up winning 34 seats out of the 180 parliament seats contested.
GE 9, 1995
Voter turnout was weaker during GE 9, dipping below the 70% mark for the first time, at 68.3%. Barisan Nasional won 162 out of the 192 contested seats, while the opposition coalition Gagasan Rakyat lost some traction by winning only 17 seats.
GE 10, 1999
A new opposition coalition emerged during GE 10. The four-party coalition, known as Barisan Alternatif and comprising DAP, PAS, PKR, and Parti Rakyat, formed a stronger opposition against Barisan Nasional, although Barisan Nasional continued winning the majority. This was also a propaganda-filled election in which the cooperation between Chinese-majority DAP and the Malay-majority PAS was smeared both ways, in a forked-tongue propaganda campaign.
GE 11, 2004
Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi served as the fifth Prime Minister of Malaysia upon Tun Dr Mahathir’s retirement in 2003. GE 11 saw Barisan Nasional gaining its largest majority since GE 5. However, Islamic concerns lost the traction they gained during GE 11, giving more seats to non-Islamic political parties.
GE 12, 2008
The opposition, mainly DAP, PAS, and PKR, really picked up momentum during GE 12, finally unseating Barisan Nasional from its comfortable majority. It is rumoured that the timing of GE 12, which was held on 8 March 2008, was expedited to prevent the strongest Opposition representative, Anwar Ibrahim, from contesting, as he could only reenter the political arena on 14 April 2008. Barisan Nasional still won, but it was by a slim margin of 51.39% to the opposition’s 47.79%. This meant that Barisan Nasional no longer had the necessary two-thirds majority among the parliamentary seats to wrestle through constitutional amendments.
GE 12 marked many new firsts. It was the first time indelible ink was proposed to mark voters, although this was rescinded at the 11th hour and only implemented in GE 13. Barisan Nasional also lost five states to the opposition, namely Penang, Kedah, Kelantan, Selangor, Perak (although Barisan Nasional retook it later), and the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur.
GE 13, 2013
This is, perhaps unfortunately, known as the “blackout” general election of Malaysia, despite the Bersih factor. The Opposition, led by the coalition Pakatan Rakyat, won 50.87% of the popular vote, and 89 seats out of 222 seats in Dewan Rakyat. Despite that, Barisan Nasional still won more parliamentary seats at 133 seats to the Opposition’s 89, leading to them nonetheless forming the next Malaysian government. Protests and accusations of gerrymandering were rife, although a Parliament Select Committee was formed specifically to improve Malaysia’s electoral process, including indelible ink (that seemed to wash off). Despite winning a healthy vote, the Opposition lost Perak to Barisan Nasional due to defection.
Among others, the conditions for postal votes were tightened, with Malaysians living in Singapore, southern Thailand, Brunei, and Kalimantan being forced to return physically to cast their votes; the election became more disabled-friendly, by allowing an assistant into the polling booth with the disabled to help them cast votes; and advanced voting for civil servants and military personnel.