Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game

July 1, 2018

Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game

by Dr. James Chin, University of Tasmania


“Over the next year, expect more UMNO businessmen and opposition politicians to move into the PH camp, all claiming to be closet supporters of PH. The “cari makan” political culture may be the hardest thing to reform in Malaysia—I would say it’s impossible, even under a reformist PH government. It is, at the end of the day, human nature”.–Dr. James Chin


Image result for hamsa ali and rosmah mansor

Missing in Action–The Super Carma (Cari Makan ) Irwan Serigar Abdullah

Over the past several weeks, much of Malaysia’s elite has been playing the game of “pusing” (Malay for turnaround), or as one businessmen told me, learning to “gostan” (Malay contraction of “go astern”). In popular usage, it means to reverse back. This is how it works: many in the Malaysian elite are now claiming to be closet supporters of Dr Mahathir and the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or alliance of hope) coalition. Some claimed to have secretly “sponsored” the campaigns of PH candidates.

In an infamous blog entry, Making Beeline to Curry Favour with Dr M, one of Mahathir’s closest political allies Abdul Kadir Jasin wrote:

“Last evening I was invited for a berbuka puasa with the Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at the Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) in Putrajaya…I saw many familiar faces—men and women—who during good and bad times had stuck with THE man…But I also saw many who had been absent from his berbuka puasa and other functions for quite a few years. I felt no sense of remorse when I greeted them with disdain…When Dr Mahathir was in power they celebrated him as if he was a ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (Chinese diety) and man of miracle. He was lavishly praised and even more lavishly feasted…But when he left office but yet continuing to care for the country, many of these people abandoned him for fear that supporting or just being seen with him would jeopardise their billion-dollar contracts, projects concessions, or subject them to the scrutiny of the Inland Revenue Board…The mere mention of Dr Mahathir caused them to cringe…Their hypocrisy and lack shame put me off. But still I accepted their handshake for the sake civility and common courtesy…”

While crony capitalism is found throughout Southeast Asia (yes, even in Singapore), in Malaysia the cronies never had to “pusing” or “gostan” at such a rapid pace. The assumption was that UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN) would remain in power for the foreseeable future. Thus the 9 May outcome was akin to suffering the first heart attack.

Unlike the West, political hypocrisy and the practice of switching political support for personal gain in Malaysia is often regarded as simply “cari makan” or earning a living. There is no political shame in “pusing” if the ultimate aim is to “cari makan”. In other words, you do whatever is necessary to get the government contract, or better, to get into government. Former prime minister Najib Razak was fond of saying that his political philosophy is “Cash is king”. During Najib’s era, “dedak” was the common term used to describe the use of bribes to buy political support.

Image result for Peace Frogs  Caricatures

The culture of “cari makan” had such an omnipresence in Malaysian politics that almost all the tycoons you see today in Malaysia are linked either to Mahathir or Najib. It was an open secret which tycoon was linked to each leader, such that the stock market in Malaysia had “political counters”, where certain companies were owned by these tycoons. It is not uncommon for the shares of these companies to move according to the latest rumour regarding the tycoon’s relationship status with the incumbent PM.

Image result for hamsa ali

He is still around and adapting to the new politics–Dr. Ali Hamsa

Those who came up in the 1980s and 1990s were handpicked by Mahathir and former Finance Minister and now chair of the Council of Eminent Persons Daim Zainuddin. In the past decade, another group of tycoons came up under the patronage of Najib. It was taken for granted that you could not become a business tycoon overnight in Malaysia without connections to the incumbent PM.

“Pusing” and “cari makan” politics is most acute in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Not only is it done openly at every elections, it is celebrated with a local word “katak” (or political frog), which essentially describes what happens as entire political parties and just-elected individuals move to the winning side on elections night. For political parties, it’s mostly about getting into government. For individuals, it can mean a sudden cash windfall. Sometimes, you can even “katak” twice or more for such gains.

The most recent example of this was on the night of GE14, when it became clear that Parti Warisan were in a position to form a new state government—United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO), a BN-component party, announced it was defecting to Warisan to give it a clear majority to form the next state government. Two days later, four Sabah UMNO state assemblymen defected as well, giving Parti Warisan a clear majority in the state assembly.

In neighbouring Sarawak, two just-elected MPs joined the PH coalition once it was clear PH had formed the federal government. The sole MP from the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) tried but failed to defect to PH.

Image result for Peace Frogs  Caricatures

Across the sea, Malaya is fast catching up on “katak” politics. Within a few days of PH’s victory, five BN state assemblymen defected to PH, giving the Johor and Perak PH state governments their majorities. More would actually like to defect but they cannot do so now because of the raw feelings generated in the recent campaign. It’s likely when things calm down, more elected BN representatives will move to PH.

While many would see these moves as opportunistic, many of those defecting justify it on the grounds that under the present political system, they can only resolve their constituency issues if they are part of the ruling coalition.

When BN was in power, individual BN MPs were given between RM1 to RM5 million ($337,000 to $1.69 million) to spend on their constituencies. Opposition MPs got zero funding. These funds are spent on any events or projects approved by the MP without the need for another layer of official approval. BN MPs would normally use this slush fund for small projects or events to increase their personal support among their constituents. Opposition MPs see the funds as nothing more than blatant vote buying.

The new PH government has continued the practice but with a slight modification. PH MPs will get RM500,000 ($169,000) while Opposition MPs will get RM100,000, or a fifth of what a government MP gets.

Over the next year, expect more UMNO businessmen and opposition politicians to move into the PH camp, all claiming to be closet supporters of PH. The “cari makan” political culture may be the hardest thing to reform in Malaysia—I would say it’s impossible, even under a reformist PH government. It is, at the end of the day, human nature.

13 thoughts on “Malaysia : The Elites playing the Cari Makan Game

  1. The carma culture is embedded into our way of life. All talk about change or transformation is all politics. Suckers all over the place. –Din Merican

  2. Where greed and money is involved there may be no loyalty to any person or party or relationship and this includes politics and power.

  3. From time immemorial, government changes but the rakyat remain the betrayed. Witness the upheavals at the “end” of the Suharto era. Has it ended? Tommy is saddled with more money than he used to have. The Indon oligarchs still having a field and the rakyat is still in dire financial straits. So let us be vigilant and avoid falling into the trap as when spending on education is cut in the name of cost saving. The education minister must restore the 8 school projects and apologies.

  4. Umnob/Bn government : Bn MPs get Rm 1m- Rm 1.5m to spend. Opposition get 0.
    Reformist PH government : PH MPs get Rm 500k to spend. Opposition get 100k.

    Rule of law is observed.
    But are they equal before the law, when the rule is unjustly applied ?

    The money is allocated to spend on the people living in their respective constituency.
    Why are the opposition MPs being short-changed and discriminated at the expense of the people welfare?

    Perhaps, people needs to re-reform the newly elected reformist PH government because there is no justification to do what the previous Umnob government did, even it had done worse to the people.

    So, are the PH government leaders genuinely fighting for the benefits of the people or against the opposition at the expense of people.

    Such is not the people’s culture, which no responsible and righteous political leader and party should ever think of taking the people for a ride again or they will be voted out in the next GE.

    The people had tasted power, collectively, in 14 GE ,and they know it.
    Such is a Crucial Reminder to all the political leaders, MPs and Assemblymen of the divide.

    • Hi, kllaukl giving 20% of the Rm500,000 allocation to the opposition MP is to help the constituency and not to enrich the MP or fill his war chest. If their expect dedak they know where to find it.

    • @Jeffery Lim,

      If the MPs from either the ruling or opposition Cannot appreciate the purpose of the unequal (or the suggested equal) amount allocated to be spent on the people for their general benefits, socioeconomic, community or otherwise, and instead use the fund for their personal extravagance or buying votes (dedak), they are Not fit to be MPs.
      They will be slated for just 1- term MPs.

      Besides, the average number of voters per Bn parliamentary seat is 50,000. Even if RM 500,000.00 is allocated, each voter will only get RM 100.00. It is Not certain if they will vote for the giver-candidate, but instead, will keep the money, not voting at all or would have voted against him.

      Unlike before , the voters of today are no longer stupid.

      Since 14 GE, they have tasted power collectively, that will bring them the deserving benefits in change their lives for better,
      and THEY KNOW IT,
      ….except, may be Jeffery.

      The people’s (including myself) have decidedly taken this stand :

      if the MPs or Assemblymen from the divide, are incapable in serving honestly, competently with commitments and dedication for the benefits of the people’s and the country’s interests and welfare,
      …..better they go find other jobs or be kicked out.

    • kllaukl MO1 wanted the rakyat to be poor and hungry so that they will be glad for the dedak. Just look at the result of the latest UMNO 2018 election. The answer lies in giving better opportunities to the people and cutting down our dependency on foreign workers. Understand or not!!!!!

    • Mr Lim ,

      You are contradicting yourself and getting irrelevant.
      My point is recapped below :

      ” Rule of law is observed.
      But are they equal before the law, when the rule is unjustly applied ? ”

      Exactly, your ” better opportunities ” and my ”.. equal before the law..” , are on the same line, which the people is not getting.

      We, the people, are fighting for it in a just and appropriate way, and urging PH government to apply just that– ”the rule of law”, justly and equally, and NOT to repeat what Najib had done with suppression and lawlessness.

    • In the end, it is the law of the victor or the hand that holds the power. Mao had put it succinctly “Power grows out of the barrels of the gun”

    • @Jeffery Lim,

      If you,
      like the government-of-day and the MPs of the divide, …

      ”…Cannot appreciate the purpose of the unequal (or equal suggested ) amount allocated is ….for the people’s general benefits….., they will be slated for a 1-term MPs ” or government,

      and bent on going off tangent,
      then , there is no point on us engaged or continue in this discussion . There will be no end to it.

      You might as well put a gun on the table.
      But remember , the people’s collective power is here to stay !

  5. After WW2, Nazi officials in East Germany became Communist apparatchiks.

    After the collapse of the Eastern European Communist police states, the Communists became capitalists and democrats.

    In the new Malaysia, it is up to informed voters and mobilised citizens to throw out
    crooked politicians who jumped from MO1’s regime to PH, at future elections.

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