Off topic photoessay: a new chapter for Malaysia

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I have never been interested in politics – mostly because the same party has been in power in my country since independence; more than 60 years. A change of government is no big deal in most democracies; but the concept of democracy had been largely theoretical until two days ago – the incumbents ensured there was simply no credible opposition to vote for even if you were inclined to. I – and many others – had come to the conclusion that democracy was merely an illusion. We were proven wrong two days ago when the opposition was elected into power by a surprisingly large margin; never mind that the opposition was lead by a 93-year old former prime minister who switched sides, and the supporting cast of actors was largely the same as before. Never mind that Malaysians voted for fundamentally the same thing as we had 20 years before (if that’s not a pervasively conservative attitude, I don’t know what is). And never mind that some of the promises made (as with every election) may not make complete rational sense – the real news is that we actually had a choice. At the very least, this gives us hope that things can change: and from now on, change will happen if the people aren’t happy.

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Precipitating that change was the attitude and behaviour of the last leader – a kleptocrat wanted by several countries for stealing his own people’s (i.e. our) money, and introducing draconian laws and tricks to do every single thing to keep himself, wife and cronies in power. Billions went missing from our sovereign wealth funds; we took on unnecessary debt from foreign countries to pay for it; laws were introduced allowing control, seizure and arrest of any property or persons deemed by him to be ‘a national emergency’ or ‘in national interests’; distribution of uncorroborated facts became illegal under a ‘fake news act’. His one credible rival was put into prison on a sodomy charge. GST was introduced to cover the enormous hole created by the extraction of funds to pay for his electoral campaigns, cronies and wife’s well-documented shopping sprees. Electoral constituencies were redrawn so their party strongholds would have fewer voters – few enough to be bribed. And I (and others I know) found ourselves registered to vote even though we had no memory of having done so – ironically, this was the one thing that pushed me (and again, others I know) over the edge NOT to vote for them. And even when it was clear the opposition was going to win – the electoral count was stalled and official results not presented until 3pm the following day (instead of usually around 10-11pm on election day itself). There are videos circulating of officials refusing to sign off on the ballot boxes in disbelief.

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Don’t get me wrong: the new guy may not be any better, but at least he’s done the job before, and there wasn’t as much collective grumbling and griping and unhappiness at the time. He put the opposition leader in jail first; he started consolidation of power around the PM’s office and removed quite a lot of latitude from the constitutional monarchy; he put into place affirmative action policies for the majority that arguably accentuated racial divides and disadvantaged the people who were actually making money for the country. But: on the whole, you didn’t hear much public grumbling: the country was doing reasonably well, and we just got on with it. We weathered the various financial crises reasonably well, instead of having a currency that yo-yoed like mad (2.9:1 to the USD in 2013, dropping to 4.6:1 in 2016, and now back to 3.9 or thereabouts).

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Electoral promises and sequels aside, the one thing that really struck me during this round of polling was that the people were actually starting to care and say ‘enough is enough’: Malaysians in general are fairly easygoing and have a very high activation energy to actually do anything; the fact that we were seeing people supporting in droves campaigns, the election itself and the post-election aftermath was a sign. And it wasn’t just the easily swayed or the activists – it was everybody. This set of images was shot last night at the back gates to the national Palace, where Mahatir was being sworn in as Prime Minister by the King; I was having dinner nearby and a friend and I went to see if anything was happening. Every single social group in society was represented, and fully – all races, all ages, all occupations, all education levels. The energy of that crowd was peaceful but buoyant and probably the most positive thing I’ve ever felt in Malaysia. People watched the events on their phones, just happy to be near it all. For a change, I didn’t feel like migrating, or that I didn’t belong. I did wish I’d brought more camera than my iPhone, but history called and needs must. The people had hope. We voted, and saw that democracy actually opened up a chance to change things. MT

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Local context moment: sign aptly reads ‘Caution: ccrossroads ahead’

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Local context moment: the billboard is for the former PM/party; the flags decapitating him are for the new one.

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  1. As stunning an upset over the establishment as the US 2016 results. What a time we are in. Who could have predicted.

  2. SAID AZIZI says:

    The pictures are great. Great read Ming ! Thanks

  3. Indeed very happy with this outcome for all Malaysians having lived here the past 6+ yrs and having sensed the whole situation had progressively deteriorated over this period with increasingly frequent scandals et al. Really pleasantly surprised with the result as feared the former government would simply cheat their way to victory – just so refreshing for this not to have happened and hope the new government are given the time and chance to sort out the mess and make the necessary but difficult changes. Boleh Malaysia!

  4. Some of your shots remind me of Joe Rosenthal’s Mount Kirobasa photograph! Maybe the same fate will happen to one of your photos? You will forever be know in Malaysia.

    • There were a lot of people photographing – I think only person, right place, right time simply does not happen anymore in the current day and age…

  5. Michael says:

    As a citizen of the U.S., where politics and government seem to have devolved into a surreal combination of farce and tragedy, I feel unqualified to comment on elections and their consequences other than to wish you and your country the best. We’ve always known our national politicians to be a self-serving lot, but only recently has the cover been drawn back on what a mean-spirited, vicious bunch they can be, effectively declaring war on everyone other than themselves.

  6. Lorenz Flückiger says:

    Such a chance for Malaysia! Wish you all the luck for the present and future!
    Democracy? Switzerland! Hardly any one knows how far our direct systems goes. (Very far!) But maybe some aspects could work in other countries, too?
    As usual, great images packed with emotion!

    • Actually, I’ve always liked the separation between administration and everything else in Switzerland…it’s probably one of the few important countries where most people don’t know who’s leading the country – in many ways, a very appropriate models or the current state of internationalism, I think…

  7. Your fellows look very enthusiastic. Couldn’t imagine this here in Germany. Maybe the biggest Problem will be that People are always expecting too much from a government. The more enthusiastic they are, the more disappointed they will be. Hope they are realistic and supportive enough to understand that they themselves are part of the process of change.
    By the way your Title Picture reminds me of the World Press Photo 2014 where refugees are looking at their Smartphones at the beach of Dschibuti in Africa to catch a signal.
    Very nice to look at, in my opinion you show the emotions in the streets very well. Interesting times for you in Malaysia.

    • Some may be expecting a lot, but I think that too is relative – after the last government expectations are very low…so long as they don’t take huge amounts of public funds for personal use and arbitrarily arrest and murder their opposition, I think most of us will be very happy.

  8. Dear Ming Thein,
    Beautiful pics as usual. I am sure it not just about photography on the night but the emotion and I get it in your pics. More so that in was taken with phone cam. I migrated to Australia many years ago from Malaysia but a large part on me still feels sad at what has been happening in Malaysia under the previous PM. I too still remember what the present PM was. However at 92yrs old I would like to believe the new PM intentions are good and the future can only get better. Best wishes.

    • Agreed – we too hope he’s past the point of self service, or if so, at least wants to see the country (and his legacy) left in good shape after the rather bad historical decisions to support the previous PMs…

  9. Congratulations! Living in Scandinavia, democracy is something we take for granted with with elections every four years (or two years, if you count local elections)

    Looking at the images, it looks like you’ve managed to hold the phone pretty still. I’m assuming the OIS helps a lot with that? (I’m on a 6s and never I never take pictures at night because it doesn’t look all that great)

    • (I’d recon experience is a contributing factor as well)

    • Thanks. We did have elections every four years, but with all sorts of dirty tactics in play and no real opposition – they might as well not have happened.

      OIS helps a lot. It was already in the 6 plus generation (but didn’t make the smaller one until the 7). The 8 plus second camera is unstabilized (both are stabilized on the X) and there is an enormous difference to the stabilized wide camera.

  10. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Hello Ming !
    I love photos. I hope it is not next “orange revolution” (Ukraine, Libya).
    Very often politician used young people power as an instrument.
    I hope is no influents from “outside of the country”.
    My best wishes to you , your family and your country.
    I t is always difficult to live during time of transition/revolution.

    • We hope not too. But it’s everybody who’s been far more active than usual in voting – whilst there are more young people voting period, the older generation also switched allegiances. Voter turnout was at a record high of 84%, which undoubtedly helped. Ironically it seems all of the incumbent’s tactics to rig the election only made people all the more determined to oust him…

  11. Richard says:

    You really captured the mood of the rakyat there Ming. I never thought the day would come. Looking at developments from abroad had made me very jaded over the years but this has now given hope. As you say, proud to be Malaysian.

  12. Victor Mai says:

    I am starved for news /pics on the outcome since the victory.We might come home. Hope the future employment on level playing field with minority in the new government. Great pics will treasure them.Never give up Anwar. Thanks Ming

    • Not 100% sure coming back will see any differences just yet, but we should see the outcome of the 100 day plan soon enough and judge from there…

  13. Lennart Hansson says:

    Best wishes to you, your family, and the Malaysian people, Ming!
    And yes, the photographer is the creator of the image; the hardware only sets the boundaries of what is physically possible. In other words: Excellent images, Ming!

  14. I hope the change in government will result in a better future for Malaysia.

  15. Frederick Saunders says:

    A great set of images… almost like Delacroix meets KL. I don’t know much about his politics but I heard Anwar interviewed on radio a few years ago (discussing Shakespeare of all things), and he came across as probably the most thoughtful and intelligent politician I’ve heard. In any case, I hope things work out well for Malaysia!

  16. Terry B says:

    Ming, the perfect response to the best camera is the one you have with you. You’ve captured the moment.

    I hope the euphoria is not displaced and that the people of Malaya can move forward to better things. My view of politics and politicians, even here in the UK, is that they seldom deliver what the people really need. Need as in need, not so much what they want, and it is a view looking very much through an half empty glass. Reading the news of the event here left me wondering just how much can/will change with a leader already tainted with the outgoing government, and one who is 93 at that, and seems to be committed to just two years. I really want to be wrong on this, but can a leopard really change its spots? In this case, I do hope so.

    • I share your skepticism. But at least there’s some hope, which has to be better than nothing, right?

    • The camera you have with you is most definitely the best camera you have – a wise thought. I also do wonder if having had for example a Ricoh GR (just to name a very small species) in contrast to an iPhone would have made any difference – any thoughts?

      • Almost certainly. I’d have shutter speed (i.e. motion) control and was ‘running out of light’ at ISO 640 and the images look pretty bad at anything over social media sizes…

  17. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    Best of luck to Malaysia!

  18. Good thing you didn’t drag that Hassy to the rally, you might have been mauled! 😉

  19. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Congratulations Malaysia!

    I guess it will take time to get rid of a lot of ingrained habits…
    If the mood of the people shown in your photos continues long enough, I guess things might change a bit faster.
    There is hope…

    ( Sweden had the same party for 40 years, the Social Democrats 1932-1976, also FAR too long.
    “The New Totalitarians” by Roland Huntford 1971 was to the point!
    But we had no serious corruption – except PMs had the right to increase their own wages, and did.)

    • I too, hope it lasts…it’s been a rather pleasant place to be over the last couple of days (despite all the fears of civil unrest)

  20. 3PM –> 3AM (must’ve been a typo I believe)

  21. Congratulations…..I’m happy for you and your country. Whether the winner is good…or not so good, having a choice is absolutely great

    L. K. Chesebro


  22. Congratulations. I hope it works out well for you and for Malaysia.

  23. I am happy for you and Malaysia and hope this brings greater freedom, security and prosperity. The images are wonderful. One commenter on Flickr said they look like paintings of the French Revolution. I agree they are masterfully executed. Why did you choose an iPhone? Would a larger camera have attracted unwanted attention? Best wishes to you and your family.

    • Thanks. Simple answer – I didn’t leave the house with the intention to shoot. I happened to find myself in the area after agreeing to meet a friend for dinner, and curiosity got the better of me. We use what we have to hand…fortunately composition is independent of hardware 🙂


  1. […] this year following a recent and significant shift in the political landscape (as documented by MT here). I braved the insane traffic and impenetrable crowds to experience Malaysia’s 61st […]

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