This Malaysian Election (GE-14) is different

April 29, 2018

This Malaysian Election (GE-14) is different

by Dr. Bridget Welsh, John Cabot University

Image result for najib vs mahathir

Malaysia’s government has dissolved the Parliament to make way for the 14th General Election (GE14). The country will go to the polls on 9 May. From afar, this election seems like a repeat of the last election in 2013, when a polarised electorate was divided over the governance of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Questions of leadership, ethnic inclusion, economic management and democratic reform were at the heart of the earlier polls. These issues remain important. But now there is greater electoral competitiveness, a reformulated opposition and international intervention in an election that will be a crossroads for democracy and governance in Malaysia.


In 2013, the campaign centred on Najib. Painted as a reformer, the BN anchored its success to Najib to pull votes in. His picture was plastered across the country, backed up by a ‘1Malaysia’ public relations blitz and a campaign flush with cash. Najib was able to rally his political base and ally with business, ever dependent on government largesse. He was also able to use his advantage through electoral malapportionment and gerrymandering to win the majority of seats despite losing the popular vote.

In 2018, Najib is still at the centre of the campaign but now he is more of a deterrent away from BN. Dogged by allegations of scandal, and with the lowest popularity of any premier in Malaysia’s history heading into the polls, Najib lacks the pull he once had. He relies on the power of his office to maintain his advantage as the election is seen as so personalised that he cannot lose.

Race and religion play pivotal roles in Malaysian politics. GE13 was characterised as a ‘Chinese tsunami’ in which nearly 80 per cent of Malaysian Chinese voted against the government, which provoked a Malay counter-reaction towards the government. In 2018, the campaign is being touted as a ‘Malay tsunami’ as now opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad aims to win over parts of the majority Malay community. Whether Mahathir succeeds or creates a backlash is not yet clear. What is evident is that unlike in the 2008 election, where there was a sense of inclusive national identity, ethnic politics now dominate.

Image result for najib vs mahathir


On top of ethnic mobilisation is religion. Non-Muslims have been moving away from the BN due to deepening Islamisation and greater restrictions on the practice of minority faiths. Najib’s tenure saw the troubling disappearances of Pastor Raymond Koh in 2017 and regular verbal attacks on Christianity by public officials. Some non-Muslims are turning back to the BN out of fear of further displacement and reprisals.

This shift has coincided with more frequent calls to ‘defend Islam’ and for greater Muslim unity against supposed challenges to the faith. The BN has propagated this narrative. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has gone further, calling for a ‘Muslim tsunami’ in which Muslims displace others. Religious mobilisation will shape the electoral outcome, as PAS focuses its campaign on ‘defending the faith’ through the implementation of Islamic law and narrowing the space for religious freedom post-election.

 Najib is relying on his economic performance to maintain support, especially from the business community. His administration can be credited for navigating the country out of the 2008–09 global financial crisis, as growth has stabilised and reached 5 per cent. He is a favourite of the international financial community for introducing a goods and service tax in 2014. But this has come at a cost, with high inflation, record debt, and non-employment-generating infrastructure investment dampening the effects of growth.

Arguably the biggest challenge for Najib is the charge of kleptocracy and mismanagement of government-linked companies in a litany of corruption scandals. Najib’s and his family’s ostentatious ‘shopping trips’ and displays of wealth have served to showcase the distance of the elite. The opposition hopes to capitalise on anger but has yet to win the confidence of business. Electorally, there are two opposing trends: anger at the higher cost of living, and pro-incumbency, risk-averse behaviour in a ‘flight to safety’.

From 1999 campaigns have been about democratic political reform, with the winner co-opting a reform narrative. Since 2013 the Najib administration has taken a sharp authoritarian direction, with attacks on critics and a campaign of fear.

GE14 has become an election about defending democracy rather than promoting it. What muddies the picture is that the opposition leader touted to lead this defence of democracy is Mahathir Mohamad. The opposition has promised term limits for the executive and more accountability in financial management but is struggling with how to distance itself from Mahathir’s divisive political legacy, especially in East Malaysia where he remains unpopular.

GE14 is still arguably the most competitive election in recent history, with 65 per cent of the seats competitive compared to 50 per cent in 2013. At least half of the state governments are open contests. Three-corner fights add to the competition, as PAS is facing off against both the BN (despite the close relationship between Najib and PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang) and the newly configured opposition. Pakatan Harapan offers quite a different option to voters — not only Mahathir’s leadership in alliance with his former foe Anwar Ibrahim, but the most secular and experienced opposition to date.

Image result for najib has China's backing

Najib Razak has good  relations with Xi’s China

The prominent role that the Chinese government is playing in the election is another feature. China’s Ambassador has accompanied BN parties on the hustings, and Chinese funding is seen to boost funds for 1MDB debt payments and the current campaign. China’s commitment of US$55 billion in infrastructure projects in Malaysia makes the Najib government a key ally in China’s geostrategic ambitions. This has provoked strong nationalist responses within Malaysia.

The election outcome will determine not only the political direction and leadership of Malaysia — and the shape of democracy and governance — but will also have reverberations in regional affairs.

Dr. Bridget Welsh is Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asian Democratic Studies at the National Taiwan University, Senior Associate Fellow of the Habibie Center and University Fellow at Charles Darwin University.


8 thoughts on “This Malaysian Election (GE-14) is different

  1. This GE is different in that the Melayu will have a rude awakening that there is no way to change the course of doom. This is the time that all Malaysians have to start thinking what it means to live beyond Tun M. Tun apologized to the young Aisha and Adam this week, but he did not say what he is apologizing of. For me, not so much that he owes my generation an apology, he should apologize for his flawed political philosophy. Tun M is fundamentally wrong in his Melayu dilemma thinking in that he has put the Melayu into a path of greedy entitlement of MeFirst get rich quick scheme and hate all that is non Melayu. Thus, the next generation would be a senseless battle of outMelayu and outIslam each other, while spending all the silly effort to fight their own neighbour. But, I don’t blame TunM for that. I now live in a different world, yet the narrative is still the same. My bet for the nation that will do well in this century is the one that could get the narrative of inclusion correct. My money is not in China nor America.

    • Strangely speaking, the more I think about getting the narrative of inclusion right, the more it has got to do with ability to be sure of one’s root. For my Christian root, it is my deeper trust into the Spirit is grace and that my kind is uniquely saved because we know we don’t deserve such grace that could me strength to accept all. For my Chinese root, it is the realization as pendatang too, we could contribute to the place we called home. Deng Xiao Peng is one. Sun Yat Sen could be one. Lee Kuan Yew is one. Yap Ah Loy is one. My maternal great grandfather is one. They are all who helped to suggest there is nothing beyond pendatang.
      The Prophet gave a people of pendatang an identity. Many have been blessed by it. It too could continue in Malaysia, if this generation of Melayu could understand the meaning of that wisdom.

    • I did not forget to mention my American root which has definitively shaped me, which I most want to contribute. But it is in limbo now. The idea of being liberal and what it means… I am not getting it the more I am trying to learn about it. Perhaps Dean Din could help out.
      Don’t worry about labels. Hold on to your beliefs and principles. And trust yourself. Din Merican

  2. When it comes to racism, tribalism and sheer hypocrisy – nothing beats a pretend Neo-Liberalist Evangelical Calvinist like katasayang. And he doesn’t even live in Malusia..! Seems to be shaped by hard predestiny, yet grumbles about it..

    I think there are a lot of kooks who love talking to themselves and at themselves. No, it’s not depression, but schizophrenia..

      It is schizophrenic. Just thought of sharing the above of a recent work from a pendatang American evangelical theologian, picking up from centuries old tradition of the old world. He is arguing exactly what CLF has suggested, and he is telling all evangelical Calvinists that it need not to be the case. When it comes to being Chinese, one need not deny one’s race, just as one need not ask of a once DPM to first deny his being Melayu, nor should one ask of a committed Muslim to want to build an Islamic nation. A DPM could and should say one is Melayu First, or a Muslim First in a deeply committed pluralistic society, but when there is no preferential treatment. I hope Tun could understand and transcend that very thought. If he would leave us with that thought to the Melayu of Aisha and Adam’s generation, Malaysia could indeed reach first world status in no time. Else, the nation will continue to fight against itself no matter the outcome of this GE, and lend itself to be fought by bigger players. But, in any case, it is up to the will of our greater Being.

  3. “Don’t worry about labels.” As usual, Din is right on the money: what’s “liberal” today is vastly different from what was “liberal” some decades ago, and before Reagan sneered at the “L” word. Further, today we often consider J. S. Mill as a founding father of liberalism, but during his time he was known to many as a radical, both in deed and in words. Incidentally, today’s neoliberals are anything but liberal: they’re the kind who believe, and practise, the kind of dog-eat-dog capitalism that Einstein abhorred and warned the world about. And most “conservatives” today are not conservative at all: instead of conserving humanistic values and traditions they’re at the forefront at dismantling everything the Enlightenment stood for.

    Meanwhile, in the East, Xi is so proud at “defending globalization” but at the same time he’s telling his people to study the Communist Manifesto. And so on and so forth.

    • Thanks, icrenoir. I get to read this book from Edmund Fawcett on liberalism, which is really quite helpful for me.
      I think Golden Rule exists for the Muslim and the Confucius Chinese.
      Yet, somehow this Golden Rule doesn’t really exist it seems. Mostly, we also stop asking why? Does it exist in our culture?

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