April 1, 2013
The DRUM Opinion
Malaysia at (yet another) crossroads
by Gerhard Hoffstaedter and Greg Lopez
While Malaysia has achieved admirable economic success under its dominant coalition government, this has come at the expense of human rights and the free press. Now, the opposition is offering greater transparency, write Gerhard Hoffstaedter and Greg Lopez.
The Malaysian government and its multiple state governments have become caretaker governments and elections will have to be called before June 28, 2013 if the country wants to maintain the semblance of an electoral democracy.
Everything is at stake at these elections. Malaysia has been ruled as a country by one coalition since independence in 1957 and its hold on political power has been tenacious. The economy and society remains formidable.
Opposition coalitions have tried at every election to make inroads in a system clearly stacked against them. In 2008, there was a real breakthrough, with the opposition capturing five out of the 13 states of the federation and breaking the ruling coalition’s psychologically important 2/3 majority it had become accustomed to.
It is not easy to categorise the two opposing coalitions and its members, as they are disparate, complex, and, with multiple agendas, often fractured. The ruling coalition is run by UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, with other constituent parties largely serving the Chinese and Indian populations as well as some indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak.
This consociational model of politics provided each major ethnic group a share in the political domain under the leadership of the Malays and an increasingly Islamicised UMNO. In return, the basic social, cultural and economic rights of the non-Muslims were guaranteed. With a plethora of positive discrimination for the Malays to become upwardly mobile, a new Malay middle class was created, which secured a peace between and among what in Malaysia are referred to as racial groups.
This coalition and its grasp on power has maintained this status quo, which has served the elite very well and achieved real economic success, at least on a national level, with Malaysia almost eliminating absolute poverty, recording impressive socioeconomic outcomes, building state-of-the art infrastructure, and achieving upper middle income status in less than half a century after independence.
However, outward peace and economic success were built on enduring human rights violations, a lack of a free press, corruption, and the capitulation of the civil sphere to reactionary and extremist nationalist and religious zealots.
The Opposition promises to unmake some of these strictures and aims to provide a more transparent form of governance, which it demonstrated in two of Malaysia’s most populous, rich and industrialised states – Selangor and Penang – which it has governed since 2008.
But the Opposition coalition is a looser coalition, made up of a predominantly Chinese party with socialist ideologies, Malaysia’s only Islamist party, and the People’s Justice party, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. He remains a divisive figure in Malaysia. His democratic credentials (as well as his economic liberal ones) are well known in the West, but in Malaysia punters are more concerned with his sexuality. The ruling coalition will continue to pursue any opening it can to destabilise his appeal as elder statesman.
Prime Minister Najib, meanwhile, is ignoring corruption charges in a French court over kickbacks in the purchase of French submarines and, more disconcertingly, questions about his involvement in the murder of a Mongolian model in Malaysia, who had acted as a translator in the said French submarine deal.
The campaign thus far has been fought by chipping away at both leaders’ capacity to elder statesmen and their ability to lead a divided country. The ruling coalition has, upon advice from an American PR company, rolled out a more inclusive image of its administration and vision for Malaysia, epitomised under its “1Malaysia” concept that now features on shop fronts, medical centres and government offices.
It has not, however, reined in the divisive reactionary movements and NGOs that call for Sharia to be the supreme law in the country or that continue to call non-Malays ‘sojourners’ in ‘their’ land.
To overcome the divided body politic, it will require a leader of substance and integrity. For many, that continues to be Anwar Ibrahim, while others are less sure. But without any alternatives, the stage is set for a bruising and expensive campaign with the highest of stakes and the lowest of strategies – in terms of quality – to get there.
Australia has largely been able to accommodate and deal with even the intransigent Mahathir, so continuing with a Najib administration will suit it just fine. In fact, Najib signed off on the Malaysia solution, or refugee swap deal, has furthered economic ties, and has been a gracious host to Australian delegations, bar one.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon learnt the hard way, being the wrong person at the right time for Najib Razak and UMNO to show their mettle domestically. UMNO moving into overdrive in the home stretch made it clear that there is a magic, invisible line foreigners should not cross when ‘meddling’ in Malaysia’s affairs.
Any commentary on the democratic process in Malaysia is not sought from the officials and Australian interventions, even in election observation, is not tolerated. These are the limits of good neighbours like Malaysia in its current political climate.
If the Opposition wins, it is unlikely that there would be any fundamental departure in the overall Australia-Malaysia relationship as it is on solid footing. If anything, it would further improve bilateral relations as the opposition coalition’s stated aspirations of social justice are quite similar to Australia’s core values.
There are two outstanding issues currently – the Malaysia solution and the Lynas rare earth plant. In relation to the Malaysia solution, Australia would have to renegotiate and reassess its border protection plans as at present the opposition coalition does not have a clear refugee policy other than stating its commitments to current international norms. They may sign a range of international conventions including ones that would protect the rights of the refugees, and require that Australia process them onshore.
However, in signing the various international conventions, the ‘Malaysia solution’ would also meet the requirements of the Australian High Court decision and leave open the possibility of renegotiating them. The Lynas issue is more complex as it involves an approved investment. The issue has created a groundswell of popular domestic dissent, but the opposition has been ambiguous on what it would do if it comes into power.
But for now, all we can do is wait for the election to be (finally) called.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland, and the author of Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia. View his full profile here. Greg Lopez is a visiting fellow at the department of political and social change, Australian National University. View his full profile here.