Malaysia’s Shambolic Opposition

November 18, 2015

Malaysia’s Shambolic Opposition

by John Berthelsen

With the demographics going their way and UMNO enveloped in massive scandals, why can’t the opposition pull it together?

Azmin Ali

With more than two years to go before the next election, Malaysia’s opposition has a golden opportunity to take over the government, not because of the continuing scandals brewing within the state-backed 1MDB investment fund or rising concern over the economy, but because of demographics.

The figures tell the story – or they don’t. For a variety of complex reasons, including but not exclusive to their own ineptitude, a turnaround is unlikely although it should be. With the Barisan and particularly the United Malays National Organization depending for support largely on the rural ethnic Malay population, that is a dwindling base.

Today 74.7 percent of the population is categorized as urban, according to the CIA World Factbook, and is urbanizing at a rate of 2.66 percent annually. The Barisan also depends on the aging or elderly for its support. Today 45.4 percent of the population are under the age of 24. Perhaps two-thirds are under 40, according to Ibrahim Suffian, the program director of the Merdeka Centre social research organization.

The urban young, in addition to thinking more freely and not being bound by the strictures of dress and behavior of their elders, have access to far wider sources of information. Virtually all of the young, Suffian said, now get their news from the Internet rather than the mainstream media, all of which are owned by pro-government political parties, and which monopolize the conventional political dialogue. That means Malaysiakini and others that are distinctly anti-government or at least neutral are their primary source of news.

Less loyalty for the Barisan, but…

“More people are coming into the electoral process and they are less loyal to the Barisan,” Suffian said. “The older are more committed. Everything else being equal, it does represent a challenge for the Barisan because they have to deal with a much larger, younger electorate. Voter sentiment is less loyal. At this point, voters’ views are more varied, the government can’t control the sources of information.”

Anwar Ibrahim, Wan Azizah

The opposition is made up of Anwar Ibrahim’s moderate, predominantly urban Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, now run by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, while he resides in prison; the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party; Parti Amanah Negara, which emerged from the wreckage of the fundamentalist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and, depending on the mood, the fundamentalist remainder of PAS itself,

With all of these factors going for the opposition, why is it so badly crippled? Surprisingly, for one thing, the two massive scandals involving 1MDB and the sudden appearance and disappearance in 2013 of nearly US$700 million in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts haven’t really percolated down beyond the well-educated middle class, Suffian said in a telephone interview. But the coalition is so badly fractured by religious and ethnic differences and competing claims to power that unless a miracle happens, its chances of winning the election, even given the disarray in the ruling Barisan Nasional, are minuscule.

The Real Elephant in the Room

The intractable fact of race continues to hamper the country as it has for generations. In an analysis quoted by reporter Scott Ng in the local website Free Malaysia today, the Ilham Center recently published a survey of 720 Malay voters in the northern state of Penang, now ruled by the Democratic Action Party and arguably viewed as Malaysia’s most effective state government.

Lim Guan Eng2

Nonetheless, the voters view the Penang government as a DAP government, not a coalition one, with predictable attitudes on the part of the individual races. Malay voters don’t understand the DAP, they don’t think it represents their interests. The DAP has been attempting to bring in more Malay members to the party nationally, but it remains largely a Chinese party to them and that generates fear that the Chinese, who control the economic sinews of the country, would control the political ones as well if they came to power.

“The problem of credibility among Malay voters is something the opposition, whatever form it may take, has to address before the next general election,” Ng wrote. “However, it is significant that only 43 percent of the survey respondents were identified as UMNO supporters. The rest were fence sitters. If we take this as a general model for the feelings of the Malays nationwide, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for the opposition to widen its support base.


That means that somehow, the opposition has to come up with concrete policies and credible leaders, Ng wrote. “Failure to do so will be tantamount to handing Najib the election on a silver platter. The question is, can the opposition parties get their heads together long enough to really address the opportunity at hand?”

In a survey by the Merdeka Center done a month and a half ago, Suffian said, the young are split between the opposition and the ruling party. “The view is that many are still undecided, not happy with the opposition, because it is fragmented and spending time fighting each other. There is a certain pull against the Barisan, but it is discontent more over how the economy has performed than because of the scandals.”

Many people feel there is something wrong because of the scandals, he said, but they don’t understand what it is. “The main negative that affects their perception is the economy. People are worried about the currency, future job prospects. Sentiment is negative as far as government, but the problem is that people are stuck.”

That means if the opposition is going to present a viable face to the electorate in the next election, which must be held before April 2018, it must somehow reformulate itself as predominantly ethnic Malay-led, a difficult task because for better or worse, the Democratic Action Party is the strongest in the coalition. Parti Keadilan, led by the 63-year-old Wan Azizah, is riven by factionalism, with Mohamed Azmin Ali, the Chief Minister of Selangor State, which PKR controls, harboring ambitions to take over. Azmin is a polarizing figure who could drive people out of the party.

Hadi and Harun Din

Amanah, the moderate remnant of PAS, has not put together enough rank and file voters to become a significant force. Its members bolted the fundamentalist party over the stated ambitions on the part of the leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, to implement harsh Islamic law in Kelantan, the only state PAS controls. PAS controlled an efficient vote-gathering machine prior to the breakup, but is being pulled in two directions, with some factions leaning toward throwing their support to UMNO and Najib.

Rafizi and Tony Pua

There is a generation of younger leaders including Rafizi Ramli, the secretary general of PKR, Tony Pua, the de facto spokesman for the DAP, and Lim Chin Tong, also of the DAP. But they so far haven’t generated the gravitas to take over from the older generation.

With Anwar in prison, and with the Barisan reportedly determined to keep him there for the rest of his life, there is no major unifying force to pull the coalition back together and give it a Malay brand. Ethnic Malay candidates put up by the DAP all lost party elections as ethnic Chinese voters abandoned them. That means that despite the problems the Barisan faces, it may well survive.

15 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Shambolic Opposition

  1. Without Anwar physically on the ground, the glue that holds the disparate parties together dissolves completely and the separate components break apart just as naturally – nothing anybody can do about it. The golden opportunity for a change is gone with the wind. A great pity indeed.

  2. Demographics may favour the opposition, but in politics, there is more to it than that. It has to do with the ability to govern at the national level. On that score the Pakatan Harapan is a no hoper. Intra- party differences within PKR, confusion in Amanah and perceived chauvinism in DAP are factors that will keep Barisan Nasional in power for some time to come. I am not hopeful for change.

  3. Changing the landscape of the country has to be stepped up now with such fragile and delicate political situation created through both sides of the two different political landscape. Over the combined efforts of the moderates from PAS muslims together with another intellectual group, Pakatan Harapan can be formidable but lacking of an attractive leader to lead like Anwar Ibrahim to form a cohesive force to draw the young Malay voters has been handicapped due to the jailing for political reasons. For the Chinese support for the next election, 80% of voters support are in the bag with more to come to lure Malaysians working overseas to come home. For Indians and other minoities, they are hard to predict as they can change their mind within twent-four hours without having a fixed decision prior to walking to the voting centre. More attention need to liaise with the rural folks especially Sabah and Sarawak into the interior where it takes five hours upstream by boat to reach the long house. On the other hand, BN have a better advantage no matter of what is happening on the ground as they have the cash-king to do the talking where their concenstration is based on all rural constituencies especially the two states of Sabah and Sarawak which they won over 50 parliamentary seats in the last election. Their assets are still remain unchanged.

  4. DAP is largely to be blamed for the present disintegration of the Pakatan Rakyat.PAS’s stand regarding hudud is well known even before the formation of PR and it is not really surprising that it will at least make an effort to lntroduce hudud in Kelantan although knowing full well the chances of getting two third majority in parliament for the Bill to be passed is next to impossible because even some Muslim MPS are opposed to it.However in order to maintain the overwhelming support of Chinese,DAP becomes too aggressive towards PAS and Hudud issue and humiliated the party which ended up strenghtening further the Ulamak faction within PAS.There are however parties within PAS that wanted closer ties with UMNO mainly for personal benefits but these group could be thwarted if DAP was less confrontational about the Hudud issue.Meanwhile KEADILAN is stuck between those two due their dependent on both Chinese and Malay votes.I have a feeling that something awry is going to happen in this country in the not so distant futurewhich will evaporate all the hopes of the people since 2008.

  5. How i wish g25 would consider joining dap, how i wish LGE and LKS and dap would allow Tawfik to be party leader.
    Tawfik quit politics long ago. His foray into civil society openly is of recent vintage. DAP is probably the last place he wants to be, if he decides to return to politics.–Din Merican

  6. >Ethnic Malay candidates put up by the DAP all lost party elections as ethnic Chinese voters<

    This assertion puts a rather negative spin on the present situation: just last year DAP's novice Dyana Sofya lost to Gerakan's veteran Mah Siew Keong only by a very slight margin. Malay votes for the DAP were hardly affected – I remember that there was even a slight increase. It was the low turnout and the decrease in Chinese (and Indian) votes that led to Mah's paper-thin win. I think if the DAP had fielded an older, male, Malay, he would've won. There remained a section of older Chinese who were male chauvinists, and also those who thought Dyana too young and inexperienced to represent them. If the Chinese and Malay votes were raced-based, Pakatan wouldn't have won so many seats in the last elections. Rafidi himself recognized that his Pandan seat – once Ong Tee Kiat's stronghold – was a Chinese majority stronghold, yet many Chinese voted for the PKR man. The same thing happened to DAP candidates who'd the votes of many Malays. Race is no longer the decisive factor in urban Malaysia. Even Mahathir admits that the educated urban Malays usually voted for the Opposition.

  7. dap chinese supported a chameleon dsai. Dap chinese welcomed a divisive tun m in bersih. Dap chinese supported nik aziz, and many pas members. Dap chinese could not have enough of nurul izzah, and adam adli. We even tolerated an azmin ali. If any malay can honestly name a mca chinese leadership, a thinking chinese malaysian could look up to… then.. dap chinese would be disbanded this very day. If there is any umno malay leadership dap chinese could look up to, this term .. dap chinese would not exist. Heck, if there are a few more trustworthy malay muslim leadership, perhaps there might be more muslim chinese. Alas.. unfortunately, it seems we only see sycophant phoney chinese muslims taking up much of the public space, encouraged to put shame into our chinese culture. I am thankful that Malaysia has nurture me. I am ashamed that china has been a shamble, and still seem to be in a shamble, if one could look beyond today’s glitter. But, i am not ashame of dap chinese. Dap chinese is still striving to build a nation, while others .. i donno wassup with the others.

    Those Malays who dap chinese dislikes, most Allah loving and thinking malays would not like either. I was never a dap chinese, because i do not have the privilege to do so. But, what i can see is that dap chinese merely wanted a same kind of malay leadership most malay wanted. The issue has always been the same. The shambling part is not opposition or no opposition. The shambling part is that we have lost fundamental block to even want to work together today, not to mention tomorrow.

    I was not borned in 1969. But, from what i get to reconstruct from piecing things together.. we have already lost the chance to build something achievable with incidents from 1969. If we do not do an impossible effort to work together today, impossibility would not happen tomorrow.

    Melayu tentu akan hilang di dunia. I feel as much hurt as any Malay for seeing that happening. In any case, blaming dap chinese would not heal the land. This land is dying of third stage cancer, and it is not caused by any dap chinese.

  8. Talk is cheap. YAB Anwar got himself into jail. While the Doyen of the Opposition got himself suspended because he did not know how to say “sawi” in Parliamentary Language.

  9. Yes DAP arrogance and the reluctance of Chinese voters to select Malay candidates are 2 main issues . It is sad DAP arrogance has ‘chased ‘ PAS out of Pakatan . The strength of Pakatan is more a less diminished . Hopefully , the new partner Amanah and the new young voter would remedy the trend. On balance , I think Barisan would hold on for another term .

  10. Both sides of the aisle are hampered by the Malay factor. This is sickening to the core. Its no wonder that the pendatangs are taking a back seat.
    The PAS goons is a millstone around the neck of our nation. Why cant there be sane thinking Malays like the ones I know. Najib is laughing to the bank!!!

  11. Under the prevailing political circumstances which are expected to last for a very, very long time, Najib will set a new record of being the longest-serving Malaysian PM – longer than that of the “My Way” mamak. Long live Najib – Malaysians deserve you.

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