The May 2018 parliamentary elections marked a
historic shift in power in Malaysia. The National Front
(BN), which had ruled the country since independence in
1957, was then defeated by the relatively newly formed
opposition Hope Alliance. This could happen since BN's
former strong man, Mahathir Mohamad, has been at the
head of the opposition. In February 2020, however, the
government fell due to internal fragmentation. It paved
the way for Umno's return to government power.
A strong contributing cause of the fall of the BN
government in spring 2018 was also the so-called 1MDB
scandal. At the center of the extensive corruption
crisis was the country's then prime minister Najib Razak,
who was also chairman of BN and the alliance's dominant
party, the Malay nationalist Umno.
Country facts and history of Malaysia, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
Already in May 2015, it was revealed that the state
investment fund 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) was
heavily indebted. Suspicions soon arose that the fund
had been misappropriated by its board, whose chairman
was Prime Minister Najib Razak. 1MDB had been
established in 2009 by Najib Razak, who has since had
great control over the fund.
The 1MDB scandal is growing
The scandal grew when the Deputy Prime Minister in
June that year openly criticized the Prime Minister for
how he handled the scandal. As a result, Najib Razak
dismissed his deputy along with four other ministers.
The national prosecutor, who held the investigation, was
also kicked by Najib Razak.
In July, The Wall Street Journal revealed that $ 681
million had been raised from 1MDB to Najib Razak's
private account. The Office of the Auditor General's
audit confirmed this. Najib Razak refused all
involvement in this.
The scandal seemed to temporarily subside when the
anti-corruption agency in August declared that the
amount deposited into Najib Razak's account was a
private gift from Saudi Arabia's royal house. Najib
Razak was considered free of suspicion of receiving
money from 1MDB and in January 2016, the preliminary
investigation against him was closed.
Mahathir Mohamad becomes opposition leader
The tours around the 1MDB fund divided the Malays
into two camps: those who were for the controversial
prime minister and those who opposed him. The latter
group belonged to Mahathir Mohamad. In 2016, he made a
political comeback with the stated goal of dismissing
Najib Razak, whom the old leader accused of abuse of
power and considered corrupt. In the same year, Mahathir
Mohamad formed his own party, Bersatu.
Since elections were announced in May 2018, the
opposition within the Hope Alliance, in January of that
year, appointed the old Umnol leader as its prime
ministerial candidate. The opposition's obvious leader
was otherwise Anwar Ibrahim from the People's Justice
Party (PKR), who, however, remained incarcerated since
2015 after a criticized trial and was prevented from
acting politically (see Modern History). PKR and Bersatu
were part of Hope's alliance, as were a few other
During the period leading up to the election day, the
BN-dominated parliament made several criticized
decisions. In March, it decided to redraw the
constituency before the election. Both the opposition
and independent election observers felt that the changes
increased BN's chances of winning the election. In
April, a law was passed that made it criminal to spread
fake news. Anyone found guilty could be sentenced to up
to six years in prison. Critics felt that the law was
used to silence government-critical media and opposition
voices before the election. The law was scrapped by the
new government after the election.
Historical shift in power
The electoral movement became fierce with strong
tensions between the two political camps. The words of
praise hail between the prime ministerial candidates,
and the opposition accused the government side of
widespread electoral fraud. According to Bersih, a
Malaysian organization that works with election
monitoring, a number of irregularities were discovered
in connection with the registration of voters.
On election night, it was clear that Malaysia was
facing its first reign of government in 60 years. The
Hope Alliance had received 113 of the 222 mandates. BN
had backed from 133 seats in 2013 to 79. Najib Razak
admitted to being defeated. He resigned as leader of
Umno and BN, and was replaced at both positions by Vice
President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. That Mahathir Mohamad had
not let go of the 1MDB scandal became clear when Najib
Razak and his wife were charged with a travel ban.
Already the day after the election, Mahathir Mohamad
was installed as the new prime minister and began to
appoint his ministers. He also announced that the king
would soon pardon the imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim, which
happened a week later.
Mahathir Mohamad said he intended to stay as prime
minister for up to two years and then hand over the
board to a successor. The reason was that Anwar Ibrahim
could not immediately become prime minister since he
must first be elected in parliament.
After the election close enough, the whole BN
collapsed when 10 of the 13 parties that made up the
alliance jumped off. Only the three original parties
were Umno, Chinese MCA and Indian MIC (see Political
In October 2018, the new BN and Umno leader Ahmad
Zahid Hamidi was also prosecuted for money laundering
and bribery. Two months later, he handed over his
leadership to his Deputy Prime Minister Mohamad Hasan
until further notice, as the pressure within the party
on his departure became too great.
The 1MDB scandal is gaining momentum
One of the first decisions Mahathir Mohamad made as
new prime minister was to reopen the investigation into
the 1MBD scandal. A series of police raids were made
against Najib Razak and his family's property. In July
2018, Najib Razak was prosecuted for corruption, money
laundering and abuse of power on a number of points. He
was accused of embezzling $ 540 million from the fund.
The defendant maintained that he was innocent of the
crime. Several trials were initiated against him in
Najib Razak's wife, Rosmah Mansor, was also indicted
in October 2018 for money laundering and tax evasion.
In the same month, Anwar Ibrahim regained a seat in
Parliament through a filling election, in November he
was unanimously elected as the leader of PKR.
During the autumn, the government scrapped a number
of planned China-supported infrastructure projects that
the old government had entered into as part of China's
huge infrastructure initiative BRI (Belt and Road
Initiative, or New Silk Road). The motivation was that
the projects would be too expensive for the indebted
Malaysian state. In some cases, however, the projects
In January 2019, King Muhammad V abruptly abdicated
without any further explanation. It was the first time
in Malaysia's history that the head of state resigned
prematurely. The 49-year-old Muhammad V was king for two
years. New king became Abdullah Riayatuddin al-Mustafa
Billah Shah ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah.
In September 2019, Umno and PAS joined an alliance
whose goal was to attract Muslim voters ahead of the
The government is falling
At the end of February 2020, Malaysia was thrown into
a new political crisis after Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad unexpectedly filed his resignation application.
His four-party government had failed after a long period
of tensions and factional formation. Parts of the
government had left Hope's alliance and instead tried to
form a new government together with, among other
Umnopolitics. The aim should have been to prevent PKR
leader Anwar Ibrahim from taking over the post of Prime
Minister after Mahathir Mohamad. In the new government,
Anwar Ibrahim and PKR would have been excluded.
Mahathir Mohamad was said to have resigned in protest
against the attack on his government and sources close
to him said he was still behind Anwar Ibrahim. However,
the fact that Mahathir Mohamad had long refused to
clarify when he intended to hand over his post to Anwar
Ibrahim had contributed to creating the strong tensions
within the government.
Mahathir Mohamad resigned as leader of Bersatu. He
was commissioned by the king to, as acting prime
minister, govern the country with a transitional
government until a new ordinary government could be in
After a few days, the situation began to clear around
Mahathir Mohamad's sudden departure. A power struggle
had again erupted between Mahathir Mohamad and PKR
leader Anwar Ibrahim. While Mahathir Mohamad as acting
prime minister began the work of forming a transitional
minister, Anwar Ibrahim said that the Alliance of Hope
had nominated him as the new prime minister. However,
the hope alliance had in practice collapsed. It was
unclear if Mahathir Mohamad was behind the attempt to
bypass Anwar Ibrahim, but judges considered him likely
to at least know it. Mahathir Mohamad's proposal to form
a unifying government across party borders won no
support in the political camps.
New Umnoledd government
After a series of new tours in the struggle for
power, the king unexpectedly stepped in and appointed a
third person, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, as new prime
minister. Muhyiddin Yassin, who formally took office a
day later, was a low-profile former Interior Minister
supported by two Muslim-dominated parties, including
Umno. He was described as an Islamic nationalist.
Muhyiddin Yassin was highly regarded within Umno
until 2015, when then-Prime Minister Razak Najib threw
him out of the party after criticizing Umno's handling
of the 1MDB scandal. Muhyiddin Yassin then supported
Mahathir Mohamad's new coalition. In connection with the
new tours, Muhyiddin Yassin returned to the camp.
Mahathir Mohamad called the king's decision "illegal"
and said he had a majority of the MPs behind him.
Some time in March 2020, Prime Minister Muhyiddin
Yassin presented a new government with Ministers from
Umno and a small Muslim party. Several of the government
members had joined the old government under Najib Razak.
Thus, after less than two years in opposition, Umno
Read more about the events in the Calendar.
READING TIP - read more about
Malaysia in UI's web magazine The Foreign
At "ringside" when Mahathir resigned last
time - 2003 (23-23-2018).
FACTS - POLITICS
monarchy, federal state
Head of State
kung (yang di-pertuan agong) Abdullah Riayatuddin
al-Mustafa Billah Shah ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah (2019–)
Head of government
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (2020–)
Most important parties with mandates in the
Hope Alliance 113, National Front 79, Malaysia's
Islamic Party (PAS) 18, Sabah's Legacy 8, Independence
and Others 4 (2018)
Main parties with mandates in the second most
National Front 133, The National Front 89 (2013)
85% in the 2013 parliamentary elections, 83% in the
2018 parliamentary elections
parliamentary elections 2023