January 4, 2016
Racial Politics continues in Malaysia
by Dr. Wong Chin Huat, Penang Institute
The year 2015 will be remembered for the biggest re-alignment of Malaysian politics since 2008’s watershed election.
Seven years on, the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) has fallen apart, undone by infighting. And despite some damning exposes of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak now has an even stronger grip on the government and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Lastly, Malaysian society is more divided along ethno-religious lines, making the prospect of a cross-communal electoral wave that may install a new government increasingly remote.
It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. The question to ask is why. In theory, a new opposition coalition — Pakatan Harapan (Hope Alliance) — formed in September will replace the defunct Pakatan Rakyat, with the position of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) being taken over by its splinter, Parti Amanah Negara (PAN). In reality, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS are still talking about preserving some form of alliance.
At the same time, PAS and UMNO have also been exchanging friendly gestures. This leads to speculation of the two Malay-based parties sleeping in the same camp, which did happen once not long after the 1969 ethnic riots. For some, the opposition’s problems stem from the lack of a clear leader. Since the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in February, no one has been able to command respect across Mr Anwar’s PKR, the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PAS.
Anwar’s plan to make his wife Wan Azizah Chief Minister of Selangor was derailed by PAS in mid-2014, perhaps showing his limited clout with the ally. In truth, the opposition’s problem is far more fundamental. During the 2013 elections, Pakatan Rakyat won the popular vote, garnering 51 per cent of total votes. But that only gave it control of 40 per cent of parliamentary seats because of excessive malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies.
This means to win power, the opposition may need to gain perhaps up to 60 per cent of votes, and it can only do this with a much higher degree of support among Malays and/or East Malaysians. The PAS hardliners’ strategy since early 2014 of reviving the politics of Sharia expansion is, therefore, a shrewd one. It is surely an easier way than to figure out policy measures that can uplift the Malays where 44 years of the New Economic Policy (NEP) paradigm have failed.
The Malay vote bank
Najib is the first Prime Minister to lose the popular vote, even though he kept power. Ironically, the 2013 election might also have educated him on his regime’s strength: The captive and over-represented Malay-Muslim constituency.
In 2013, out of West Malaysia’s 165 parliamentary constituencies, 114 had a Malay majority, another 34 had at least one-third of Malay voters. And unless his Sarawak and Sabah lieutenants fail to deliver, he can count on the majority of the 57 parliamentarians there to be his loyalists.
In the aftermath of the 1969 race riots, Najib’s father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, built an electoral one-party state to reverse UMNO’s decline. He constructed the grand coalition of Barisan Nasional (BN) to co-opt all but two opposition parties.
Razak’s ambitious New Economic Policy — with its preferential treatment for bumiputeras for everything from educational opportunities to discount in-house purchases — successfully locked the Malay/Bumiputera voters into supporting UMNO and the BN. Today, Najib is surviving powerfully on his father’s legacy despite dwindling support outside UMNO.
Except for Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin and Vice-President Shafie Apdal, whom Najib removed from their Cabinet posts in July after they publicly criticised him over the 1MDB scandal, UMNO’s national and divisional leadership seems to be solidly behind Najib.
It is not that the UMNO warlords are deaf to former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s repeated warnings that Najib’s unpopularity may end UMNO’s rule. And they are not just worried about suffering the same fate as Muhyiddin and Shafie. The collective-action problem is obvious: How to remove Najib without shaking the party-state?
The way forward
So, what if the UMNO grassroots and ordinary Malays do decide to ditch Najib and UMNO in the next election, which is due by 2018?
If the verdict is clear, like the victory of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy last November, a peaceful transfer of power may be possible. But what if it is a slim majority, or if the outcome is not clear?
Can Najib prevent his ouster? He can do so now with the National Security Council (NSC), rushed through Parliament in December. The NSC can declare any area to be a “security area” and its commander, titled Director of Operations, can command any government entity including the Election Commission (EC).
It is possible for the EC to suspend elections or announcement of election results in a few opposition strongholds. In 1969, the elections in Sabah and Sarawak were suspended after the May 13 riots in Kuala Lumpur.
In fact, Najib’s NSC resembles the National Council of Operations (Mageran) headed by his father to take over executive power in the aftermath of the riot. Both consist of top politicians, top civil servants, military chiefs and police chiefs. In that sense, Najib has transformed the electoral one-party state to an apparatus convertible for personal rule.
Can Malaysia’s thriving civil society fight back if the one-party state deteriorates into a personal dictatorship? The prospects don’t seem likely. When the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections organised a 34-hour “Bersih 4” yellow-shirt rally last August on the eve of Independence Day, it gathered cumulatively half-a-million protesters demanding Najib’s resignation and institutional reforms.
But unlike at previous Bersih rallies, this one failed to attract a critical mass of Malays, who were probably anxious of a post-Najib future. UMNO leaders responded in September with a communally charged red-shirt rally to revive the fear of ethnic riots.
There have been other signs of growing racial and religious divisions. In July and December, two mini-riots broke out in two separate digital malls in central Kuala Lumpur, where ethnic-Chinese dealers were accused of cheating Malay customers.Instead of impartial investigation and law enforcement, the government responded as a patron of Malays, by setting up a new digital mall operated by Malay dealers only.
More instances of communal segregation have taken place in the name of religion. Halal trolleys have been introduced by a hypermart and may be made compulsory for others by the authorities. A Sharia-compliant-only airline was recently launched and the national railway, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, is contemplating the world’s first halal-certified train.
As these ethno-religious divisions run deeper, Malaysians face a collective problem in opposing authoritarianism. What is the way forward? That Najib has grown stronger in power despite growing more unpopular suggests that the problem with Malaysian politics is deeply structural.
It is not just about changing a leader or a party. It is about constructing a new social coalition for a new political order to replace Najib’s party state. That needs serious consensus building on thorny policy questions such as Islamisation and affirmative action, not just electoral pacts.
Till then, many trends in 2015 may continue into 2016. — TODAY
* Dr Wong Chin Huat is Head of Political and Social Analysis at The Penang Institute.