Democracy and Press Freedom

May 18, 2018

Democracy and Press Freedom

by Amb. Dennis Ignatius

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COMMENT | Democracy brings with it its own dividends. One of them is press freedom.

Freed from the shackles of government control, the Malaysian press is already exploring the limits of its new found freedom to articulate news, views and opinions. Our dismal ranking – near the bottom of the list in the World Press Freedom Index (145 out of 180 countries) – will now improve dramatically. Perhaps we might even become a poster boy for press freedom, at least in ASEAN.

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No More Vandalism of the Media

I anticipate that with time we’ll once again have a noisy and assertive press. There are lots of enterprising and intrepid reporters out there who are just raring to do their job once again. We must release them to their professionalism and passion if we want to strengthen our democracy.

I’ve been  a columnist and commentator for almost 10 years now. I know what it’s like to be censored, to feel anxious about crossing some invisible line, to worry about whether I might run afoul of some foul law or upset some powerful person somewhere.

Journalists, columnists and commentators should never have to fear the state. But that’s over and done with; I feel freedom’s caress in a very real way now as I write.

We cannot afford to be complacent about the press ever again. A free press is fundamental to democracy, fundamental to keeping our government honest and accountable, and the people informed.

To that end, we must insist that our new government act quickly to rid our nation of every single repressive law. No journalist should ever have to worry about exposing wrongdoings, malfeasance or corruption no matter who is involved. No editor should ever have to worry about a call from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Both government and public officials need to operate in the full glare of public scrutiny.

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Abdul Rani  Kulup–King of Police Reports–is out of business

As well, we should stop the childish behaviour of making police reports whenever someone says something unpleasant against the prime minister or other public figures, as a group in Kedah did recently (claiming that someone had said something offensive about Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad). Public figures don’t deserve special protection from criticism or insult. In any case, Mahathir himself won’t be losing any sleep over being called names; he’s been called worse before and look where he is now.

Television and the print media should also be free of government control or influence; it gives them too much power to impose their views on the nation. Political parties, too, should get out of the media business. Hopefully, the new government will act decisively to free the media from political control. We certainly don’t want to see the mainstream media now become unthinking and fawning echo chambers of the new government.

Coming back to life

The air of freedom that is already penetrating mainstream media is now forcing them to reinvent themselves. Suddenly, public broadcasting and the print media are coming back to life.

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Hooligans and Racists like Jamal Yunos and his Red Shirts will now have to bear the full brunt of the law if they intimidate journalists and disrupt public order

One TV channel, for example, carried a banner encouraging their viewers to celebrate our democracy. Another long-repressed reporter who had for years considered Mahathir a dirty word suddenly found the courage to give him advice on democracy. Strong stuff by the standards of our hitherto moribund mainstream media but it’s a good beginning.

For the first time, I find myself watching the news on local TV instead of automatically switching to CNN, BBC or Al-Jazeera.

I once wrote for a major English daily but resigned in disgust after a few years and refused to buy any of the local newspapers. Like many Malaysians, I refused to support the ‘dummification’ of the media, refused to be party to lopsided, blatantly dishonest reporting.

Well, I bought my first copy of a local newspaper a few days ago and I confess the content and tone have improved. Perhaps I can now look forward to once again spending part of my day, teh tarik in hand, reading the local papers.

Online news portals like Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today (FMT) and the now defunct Malaysian Insider have kept the flame of press freedom burning through the long dark years of oppressive government. So many of their journalists worked long hours with little pay and endured harassment and rejection because they were passionate about their profession.

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Malaysiakini: Free at Last to pursue responsible journalism

Many of us will always be grateful to editors like Steven Gan, Nelson Fernandez and Jahabar Sadiq for their courage in publishing all our highly critical and near subversive articles about Umno-BN and the Najib administration when no one else would. They upheld freedom of expression and the right to criticise the government when both were abandoned by mainstream media. They and their staff ought to be hailed as heroes of our democracy.

In the new environment of press freedom, online media like Malaysiakini and FMT will now become mainstream. Perhaps it’s time for a print version of Malaysiakini or an FMT daily or even a KiniTV channel. One thing is sure: competition will result in better and more qualitative news coverage and lead to a flowering of investigative journalism. What a thrilling prospect! Politicians take heed.

Whatever it is, the sooner the media is revamped and given the freedom to do their duty without fear or favour, the safer our democracy will be.

DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former ambassador. He blogs here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Rafidah Aziz’s Message to Pakatan Harapan Politicians and Fellow Malaysians

May 16, 2018

In 2015, Anwar was jailed for five years in what his supporters described as a politically motivated move to end his career [Reuters]

BREAKING NEWS: Anwar Ibrahim has received an unconditional pardon from King of Malaysia. Deservedly so, since he committed no crime. He is today a Free Man. I wish him well. He said he will go abroad and become an academic probably back at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He is in no hurry to be back in the rough and tumble of Malaysian politics.– Din Merican

Rafidah Aziz’s Message to Pakatan Harapan Politicians and Fellow Malaysians: Get Down to the serious business of Rebuilding Malaysia

by Rafidah Aziz

Dear Malaysians,


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‘D-day’ has passed. The hard work begins for the Pakatan Harapan government, to fulfil the aspirations and hopes of the rakyat – Malaysians who now feel that sense of harmony and strength that only unity can bring. They see that clear future ahead for them, and for those coming after them.

And now, all the stakeholders of the nation – the government, the enforcers of law and justice, the movers of the economy, social activists and monitors and drivers of the collective social conscience, and the rakyat at large – must now be serious about a number of things.

This includes putting the nation back on to the right tracks of social and economic development, righting the wrongs, ensuring that the rule of law and justice prevails, and putting into place a national management team that all Malaysians can respect, trust, and be proud of.

We must also rebuild Malaysia’s global image and reputation, which has been so tarnished, translate that spirit of ‘Malaysia boleh’ into something that every citizen can feel they can subscribe to and be part of as proud Malaysians.

Malaysians must now do what it takes to move the country up to a higher plane of:

  • Political maturity
  • National unity and cohesiveness
  • Mutual respect for each other amongst us the rakyat
  • Acceptance of our many diversities (as opposed to merely ‘tolerance’)
  • Motivation, decisions, and actions, guided solely by integrity and honesty and accountability at any and all spheres and levels of society, and
  • Putting national interest above everything else.

Dear Malaysians, how can a house that is crumbling under the weight of self-interest, massive scandals, poor governance, and lack of integrity and unbridled greed, survive into the future?

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Therefore, we the rakyat surely cannot allow to fester any machinations which reflect all that has brought us to this stage of saying enough is enough.


And so: no more self-interest, no more ‘my people’ and ‘your people’ divisive politics, and no more individual flexing of power and importance, of wanting to outdo one another.

This is the time for humility in victory. This is the time to work together, and not to ever even think of ‘manoeuvres’, ‘plottings’, or whatever , that can erode the rakyat’s confidence in the Harapan government.

No one should test the rakyat’s patience, or betray their trust. Please get your act together. No sideshows necessary or warranted.

Public governance is not the same as leading a mere political party, where one is accountable mainly to the card carrying members of the party. Public and national governance is beyond party interests, ‘loyalties’, and inward-looking decisions. It is also not and never about power and positions

Leaders must show leadership, and leadership does not mean posts, but rather the qualities intrinsic in the person. The rakyat put you there, they can easily push you out too. But most importantly, God almighty can quickly take away what he, in his compassion, has given you. Please do not disappoint the rakyat.

Just gel and unite, as one strong Harapan team in the government, with prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad leading the way.No side-tracking, no unnecessary antics and shenanigans, and no wasting of precious time jostling for position.

It is time for shoulders to the grindstone to work for the rakyat.

Sejahtera Malaysia.

RAFIDAH AZIZ is a former  MITI Minister.



Anwar faces difficulties in power

May 16, 2018

Like Suu Kyi, Anwar faces difficulties in power

by Ross Tapsell and Kean Wong

Malaysia has been stable, predictable, even boring, for Australians looking at its Southeast Asian neighbourhood, which has experienced great upheaval in the decades since the Vietnam War and the Asian Financial Crisis of the 1990s. Malaysia’s ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional was in power for more than 60 years, rigging the elections system enough to allow them to maintain its rule. Now, in a surprising turn of events, that system has failed them. And no one is really sure what comes next.

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Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysia has now entered uncharted waters, matching the uncertainty of the South China Sea that divides the peninsula from East Malaysia’s states of Sabah and Sarawak. First, prime minister Najib Razak was implicated in one of the world’s largest corruption scandals, with millions of dollars found in his personal bank account in what the US Department of Justice declared was the biggest kleptocracy case it has ever investigated. But Najib’s government was routed at last week’s polls. Winning in its place is a coalition called Pakatan Harapan (or “hope”), five parties with a broad array of agendas and visions for Malaysia.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was last week sworn in again, this time as the 7th Prime Minister, in a deal he took to voters where he would seek to release jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim via a royal pardon from the King, stepping aside after an expected two years to enable Anwar to take over. Anwar is expected to be released this week, as early as today.

In Australia, two former Prime Ministers reflect the ambivalence and sometimes confused views many share about a “predictable” Malaysia. As Tony Abbott tweeted last week: “PM Najib Razak was a good friend of Australia and a voice of decency and common sense at international gatherings. On the big questions he got much right and his time in government saw strong and effective cooperation between our countries.” Kevin Rudd avoided mentioning Najib, but shared Abbott’s view that this “new” Malaysia has far-reaching consequences for Australia and the region. “This is a stunning development with profound implications for Malaysia, South East Asia and China,” he tweeted. Malaysia is a key partner for Australia in responding to a rising China.

But what will this new Malaysia look like? For this unfinished nation’s burgeoning civil society, the “reformasi” (or Malaysian reformation) movement that was sparked off by Anwar’s sacking and jailing by Mahathir 20 years ago still drives the democratisation hopes represented by Anwar.

For many urban Malaysians, over 70 per cent of the country, Anwar personalises the non-racialised political and economic reforms they yearn for, with many assaulted and jailed over the past decades by BN governments led by Mahathir and Najib. Anwar’s coalition politics contrasted its inclusive nature against the “Malay supremacy” policies that were a feature of BN’s rule.

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Opposition party supporters cheer and wave their party flags on election night.

But, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Anwar faces difficulties. Mahathir’s new party ran on a policy to maintain these Malay-first policies, and is buffeted by a still hardy Islamist PAS party as well. This new government would not have won without Mahathir’s leadership and this promise. The opposition coalition was able to placate and win over millions of semi-rural and rural Malay voters previously beyond Anwar’s reach, partly because Mahathir represents Malaysia – and ethnic Malay leadership – at its peak in the 1990s, when Malaysia hosted the world’s tallest buildings and the stock market was the biggest (briefly) in Asia. Mahathir also played off his elder statesman role in the campaign by cutting through to rural voters with simple attacks against Najib, shredding him with accusations of “thief!”. The enmity was starkly and deliberately drawn, and it worked.

Understanding and engaging with this new, possibly fractured Malaysia will be essential to the region’s security, economy, and political developments. This new Malaysia is a win for democracy – and a big win for Australia’s own values. But this will require Australia and its democratic neighbours to invest in this win like never before.

Ross Tapsell is Director of the ANU’s Malaysia Institute. Kean Wong is the Malaysia Editor of the ANU’s Southeast Asia website, New Mandala.

Stunning Victory for Democracy in Malaysia

May 10, 2018

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In a stunning upset that virtually nobody saw coming, Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition has soundly trounced the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition that has held power for six decades, raising the possibility that Prime Minister Najib Razak, who heads the United Malays National Organization, could be prosecuted for a series of massive scandals.

The vote was also a rare victory for democracy in Southeast Asia, where there are dictatorships in Cambodia and Thailand, an authoritative government in Singapore, a government that looks like it has failed in Myanmar, a rigidly Communist government in Laos and an increasingly menacing one in the Philippines.

The opposition won at least 122 seats in the 220-member Parliament, with only 79 for the Barisan Nasional. Parti Islam se-Malaysia, which has been informally aligned with the Barisan, won another 18 and now will govern in two rural east-coast states on the peninsula. Besides retaining Penang and Selangor, Pakatan Harapan won Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Johor, the birthplace of UMNO.  Mahathir said at a press conference that the eastern Malaysia state of Sabah has also fallen to the opposition although officially that has not been announced.

Electoral chicanery didn’t work

Najib and UMNO attempted to engineer the May 9 election, the country’s 14th, in their favor with a redistricting plan that compressed as many as 150,000 opposition votes into a single district while leaving some of their own constituencies with as few as 5,000.  The government’s controlled press blanked out all favorable opposition news and social media, on which millions of Malaysians depend for news, were placed on watch with a “fake news” law that threatened up to six years of imprisonment and massive fines for whatever the government deemed to be fake news.

The Barisan spent lavishly on handouts to voters. Top opposition figures were threatened with sedition and other law violations and their leader, Anwar Ibrahim, remained in prison on sexual deviancy charges that human rights organizations said were trumped up to keep him out politics.  Mahathir told reporters the new government, which is expected to take power soon, would work to pardon the 70-year-old Anwar and free him.

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“Najib took the rural Malays for granted, thinking money would do the trick,” said Din Merican, a Malaysian academic now teaching at the University of Cambodia and whose critical blog was blocked by Malaysian authorities prior to the election. “He was wrong in underestimating the power of [former Prime Minister] Mahathir Mohamad over the Malays. They are grateful to him.”

Mahathir the driving force

Nonetheless, when the dust settled, it was the 92-year-old Mahathir who led the opposition to a convincing victory in a furious, hard-driving campaign accusing Najib and UMNO of massive corruption and calling them a “government of thieves.” It was the third prime minister he has brought down in his career. Mahathir is expected to be named premier again when the parliament reconvenes, although the understanding is that Anwar will take over when he is released from prison, which should be almost immediately. That is likely to require another election for him to join the parliament.

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The Deputy Prime Minister-Elect Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail

Although there were rumors that Najib and UMNO leaders were attempting to rally the police and army into declaring a national emergency and martial law. But, one source told Asia Sentinel, both institutions were split and in the end he was forced to cede power.

Now, when the dust settles, it will be necessary to rebuild virtually all of the country’s institutions including the parliament, whose leaders have exited on bribes from the prime minister to keep him in office. The courts have functioned to repress the opposition and to exculpate the guilty among the leadership. The police have investigated only the opposition on political matters. The mainstream press is in the hands of the government-aligned political parties and uses its monopoly to clout the opposition and protect the establishment.

The religious establishment – the leaders of Islam, the major religion in the country — have backed the leadership when needed, loading onto the people a fundamentalism that most do not espouse.  The opposition has been emasculated by sedition charges, police pressure, intimidation, hammering by a kept press, and gerrymandering.

Race card kept UMNO in power

Political dynamics – a fear generated among ethnic Malay Muslims that ethnic Chinese would come to dominate the political sphere as well as the business world – along with gerrymandering is largely what kept the Barisan in power during Najib’s nine-year reign.  The opposition won the popular vote in 2013 but was kept from power by Malaysia’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system and stringent gerrymandering.

However, he was precluded from playing the race card in this election with Mahathir once the leader of UMNO and the country for 22 years, ending his own reign in 2003.

Nonetheless, an unpopular but necessary goods and services tax, a perception of rising prices, the endless string of scandals involving Najib and a widespread dislike of his grasping wife, Rosmah Mansor, led rural Malays to sour on UMNO and the prime minister. “They lost the Malays,” one observer told Asia Sentinel.

Credit Malaysiakini

“There is much to do,” said Americk Sidhu, a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer who has been a prominent foe of Najib. “This is just the beginning. There is much to fix. The first thing the new government needs to do is completely revamp the election commission so that all future elections will be run fairly, which will mean UMNO will never form the government again. And of course we have to create a free, independent and impartial judiciary.”

Opposition members want Najib’s head

Ominously, among the first orders of business could be a move to prosecute Najib and other UMNO leaders on allegations of criminal activity going back to 2006, although Mahathir told reporters that Pakatan Harapan wouldn’t seek revenge on Najib.

However, Najib is the subject of a French investigation into the sale of submarines by the French munitions maker DCNS to the Malaysian government, along with Najib’s close friend Abdul Razak Baginda. It included the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a then-28-year-old translator and party girl who was killed by two of Najib’s bodyguards for reasons that have never been explained. The woman’s death and events surrounding it, including a massive bribe to UMNO to buy the submarines, was the subject of a prize-winning series of stories in Asia Sentinel in 2012.

An even bigger scandal blew out in 2009 with the creation by Najib and a financier friend, Low Taek Jho, of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. a development fund that Najib and his family, Jho Low and others used as a personal piggy bank, looting it for billions. At least RM39 billion (US$9.83 billion at current exchange rates) was said by the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism to have been lost to fraud and mismanagement. A US investigation, which was called the biggest kleptocracy probe ever brought by the US Justice Department, concluded that more than US$2 billion was stolen, with at least US$681 million disappearing into Najib’s own pockets.

The US by now has confiscated more than US$1 billion in property and other assets connected to the Najibs and Jho Low, including the proceeds from movies made by Red Granite Productions, a Hollywood production company partly owned by Reza Aziz, Najib’s son-in-law and Rosmah’s son. Justice Department officials have recently been in a Bali court, trying to get their hands on a 300-foot yacht, the Equanimity, that Jho Low has been doing his best to keep on the high seas.  Although they had seized the US$250 million vessel, a Jakarta court ruled the seizure was unlawful. The US is now petitioning once again to seize it.

In addition to Altantuya, two other mysterious murders remain to be solved, including the death of AmBank founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi in 2013. Najadi’s son, Pascal, has repeatedly charged that his father had complained about UMNO financial irregularities at the bank, which was the repository of Najib’s US$681 million which US prosecutors say was funneled from 1MDB. The second is the 2015 murder of Deputy Public Prosecutor Kevin Morais, whose body was found in a cement-filled oil drum in a river. Morais, who played a major role in a suppressed report on 1MDB by the Malaysian Attorney General, was believed to be a whistle-blower passing on information about the case to the critical Sarawak Report, edited from London by Clare Rewcastle Brown. Both Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel have been blocked by the Malaysian communications and media ministry from readership in the country.

Perhaps the biggest question is Mahathir himself, whose authoritarian 22-year reign put in place many of the circumstances that resulted in widespread corruption. He emasculated the judiciary all the way up to the Federal Court after it ruled against him in matters involving UMNO, and for booting two Asian Wall Street Journal reporters out of the country in 1966. He announced that Islam was the official religion. He created the crony capitalism that resulted in a class of rent-seeking Malays who came to depend on inflated government contracts, many awarded under suspicious circumstances. He was largely responsible for taming the press.

Nonetheless, he is revered by the Malay countryside for building the Petronas Towers, which at one point were the two tallest skyscrapers in the world, for bringing the Malaysian Formula 1 race, for the development of Proton, which built the now-ailing national car, and for many other initiatives that pulled Malaysia into the modern world.

Could he change his spots at 92? He has apologized for many of the excesses of his reign —  especially when he discovered the courts, the press and other institutions were being used against him in what is expected to be his final act.

GE-14:Will anybody win in Malaysia’s election?

May 9, 2018

Malaysia: Today is Polling Day

GE-14:Will anybody win in Malaysia’s election?

by Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

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Win or lose next week, in his determination to stay in office at whatever cost to Malaysia’s political institutions, its social cohesion and its international reputation, Najib has ensured that history will not remember him fondly.–Editorial Board

There’s not much doubt about the outcome of Malaysia’s 14th general election (known in Malaysia as GE14). Most analysts agree that the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, is likely be returned on 9 May, continuing its run as the world’s longest-serving elected government.

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Is this the face of a winner or that of a felon waiting to go to jail? We can make the difference if we use our right to vote wisely today. We have a Pakatan Harapan government in waiting led by a resurgent and energised Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.–Din Merican

Much of that electoral success over the past 61 years has been down to a strong record of economic development combined with a skilful — if cynical — deployment of ethnic and religious politics. As the years have gone on, however, regular BN victories have grown more and more dependent on the government’s rigging the electoral game in its favour.

Successive BN governments have taken advantage of a politicised Election Commission to concoct malapportioned and gerrymandered electoral districts in Malaysia’s 222-seat Parliament. Thanks both to the Election Commission and to Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system, it’s theoretically possible to win a parliamentary majority in Malaysia with only a fifth or so of the popular vote. Indeed, in Najib’s first election as prime minister in 2013, BN lost the popular vote but was re-elected with a large parliamentary majority.

Malaysia is not the only country where elections deliver unfair outcomes. The unrepresentativeness of electoral systems in Britain and Canada until quite recently (and in Japan to this day) is well-known. In 2016 the United States’ Electoral College delivered the presidency to the candidate who lost the popular vote by millions of votes.

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But the flaws of Malaysia’s system are of another scale entirely. They reflect a sustained and deliberate effort to skew elections in favour of the BN, writes Clive Kessler in this week’s lead article. That’s why a BN victory on 9 May would not necessarily reflect a vote of confidence in Najib’s leadership nor in the competence of his government.

As Kessler writes, malapportionment has an effect far beyond simple matters of parliamentary arithmetic. It profoundly shapes the character of political discourse and ideological competition. Malaysia is a famously multiethnic, multireligious nation, yet ‘[t]he Election Commission’s constituency delineation ingenuity constructs a “voting nation” that, through the vastly unequal weight given to rural over urban electorates, is far more hardline pro-Malay and pro-UMNO than the nation as a whole and its citizens’.

This is undoubtedly the logic behind the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition’s naming former UMNO Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as its candidate for Prime Minister. The choice of a 93-year-old authoritarian ex-leader as a symbol of political renewal seems an odd one; indeed, Mahathir’s 22-year rule saw the degeneration of Malaysia’s public institutions and the flourishing of crony capitalism.

But in the context of the electoral distortions Kessler outlines, having Mahathir lead the charge against Najib makes some sort of sense. The opposition is banking on the pull of nostalgia for the Mahathir era to make it competitive in the Malay heartland, where voters are growing impatient with government corruption and policy missteps.

In her pre-election analysis, however, Bridget Welsh highlights that elsewhere the picture is more complicated. ‘The opposition’, she writes, ‘is struggling with how to distance itself from Mahathir’s divisive political legacy, especially in East Malaysia where he remains unpopular’. Which way seats fall in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, where a desire for autonomy is seeing voters turn away from local BN affiliate parties, is one of the ‘wild cards’ in GE14 that pundits are watching closely.

For Najib there is a lot at stake personally. His leadership of UMNO will come under threat if he doesn’t deliver a convincing result, and because of this ‘the election is seen as so personalised that he cannot lose’, writes Welsh. In the background lies the ongoing 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. The United States Department of Justice has stated that a ‘senior official of the Malaysian government’ — later identified as Najib — received US$681 million in funds misappropriated from 1MDB into his personal bank account. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s criminal investigation into the handling of 1MDB monies continues. It’s not surprising, then, that Najib’s government has resorted to petty tricks to swing the election its way, such as scheduling the election on a Wednesday as well as more sinister moves like passing a broadly-worded anti-‘fake news’ law and expanded emergency powers.

As Kessler predicts, ‘the elections will produce their required result: an UMNO and Barisan Nasional coalition victory. But this will deliver little legitimacy or political authority to Prime Minister Najib and his party’. This should give Malaysians, and Malaysia’s international partners, some pause. To consider the worst-case scenarios: would a BN victory despite a major popular vote loss be the trigger for a cycle of public protest and government crackdown? In case of an (improbable, but not impossible) opposition victory, would Najib be prepared to hand over power in an orderly manner?

Win or lose next week, in his determination to stay in office at whatever cost to Malaysia’s political institutions, its social cohesion and its international reputation, Najib has ensured that history will not remember him fondly.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Ambitions in the east coast: Terengganu and Kelantan

May 6, 2018

GE-14: Polling Day, May 9, 2018 is on the horizon.  Here is your chance to remove through the ballot box a toxic Najib Razak regime and bring positive change to our country. Vote Pakatan Harapan.

Ambitions in the east coast: Terengganu and Kelantan

by Dr. Bridget Welsh


COMMENT | The 14th General Election can be argued to be a battle for the Malay soul, with Pakatan Harapan calling for a ‘Malay tsunami’, BN rallying Malay nationalism on the ground while promising more ‘goodies’, and PAS pushing its ‘choose Islam’ agenda.

Image result for UMNO and PAS in Kelantan and Terengganu

Nowhere is this battle more apparent than in the beautiful states of Terengganu and Kelantan. Making up only eight and 14 parliamentary seats respectively, or a total of 10 percent of the seats nationally, the number belie how critical they are for the political landscape.

In part, this is due to the intense level of political competition, with large numbers of competitive seats and both having had repeated changes in governments. More important, however, is the fact that these areas will determine the role that PAS will play on the national stage as either the victor or vanquished.

Pundits and pollsters have already repeatedly called Kelantan for BN, and applied this similar outlook to Terengganu, predicting BN will win the majority of parliamentary seats. On the ground, voting trends are harder to call, especially at the state level.

The sentiments do not have to do with the same political struggles in the Malay community elsewhere, namely battling a sense of disloyalty to UMNO and anger with the perceived excesses of the Najib administration in a climate of broad perceived economic hardship.

Rather, in these east coast states, the question of loyalty is one of long-standing family ties to either PAS or UMNO, and the sense of failures at the state leadership levels. Hardship and daily struggle are sadly an integral part of life in these areas, as development, social problems and poverty remain concerns for large shares of the populations.

While both those from Terengganu and Kelantan are well connected to developments outside, they have strong inward political orientations as local factors predominate. There is less attention to what is happening nationally, and as such, Harapan candidates and parties have limited traction, although the issues raised in rallies and on social media have permeated local discussions.

Messages and memories

The contests are largely between PAS and Umno, as these two parties have framed the competition for decades. Harapan’s campaign is only resonating significantly in urban areas, notably Kota Bharu where is has a chance of winning. BN chief Najib Abdul Razak’s picture is noticeably absent on the east coast, especially in Kelantan.


Ordinary citizens in these two states repeatedly speak of a common set issues in the campaign – Islam, GST, development, corruption and state leaders – Terengganu’s Abdul Hadi Awang and Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman, and Kelantan’s Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah and Mustapa Mohamed.

These tap into the different messages.

PAS has adopted a campaign focused on religion, openly calling for electing an ulama leadership who comprise the majority of their fielded candidates in both states and framing a vote for their party as a religious duty.

Unlike the ‘defend Islam’ message elsewhere in multi-ethnic areas, here PAS pushes more of an empowerment and community mission. Their campaign has been low-key, focused on fence sitters, tied to sermons and conducted in smaller ceramah.

After the split with Amanah, the party has aimed to reconsolidate its political machinery, severely weakened after key leaders left and later joined the Harapan coalition. Quietly, PAS has sent out the message that this election is also about the future of the party, as predictions of BN winning Kelantan have provoked defensive ‘survivalist’ mobilisation from the party faithful. In Terengganu, there is a direct appeal to assure ‘Hadi’s legacy’.



BN in contrast has pushed hard its commitment to ‘development,’ focusing on the economy. Fielding the popular UMNO technocrat Mustapa Mohamed (photo), or Tok Pa as he is affectionately known, as a possible BN Menteri Besar has won support.

Posters across the state showcase promises of projects and spending to come with a potential BN Kelantan win. Mustapa’s hard work in Jeli is testimony to how a politician can positively transform a district, as it is arguably one of the most vibrant industrial and education centres in Kelantan despite its remote location.

BN is capitalising on the apparent weakness of PAS’ state leadership, whose governance since the passing of Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, or Tok Guru, in 2015 have shown little in the way of development or direction for the state. PAS has governed Kelantan for 28 years and it is more vulnerable to losing the state than ever before.

In Terengganu, the BN ‘development’ call has less appeal, as UMNO has held the state government since 2004. Many of its projects have been ridiculed for overspending and accused of corruption. GST and high costs of living work in PAS’ favour. The promises for greater rewards appear hollow, although harder working BN MPs in the north and south continue to have support.

The centre of the state has the most heated contests. A recent example of a heavily criticised project is the RM3.3 million amphibious bus (Amphicoach) that was accidentally broken when the Terengganu MB drove it in March. This analogy is being touted as illustrative of UMNO’s sinking fortunes at the state level.

Amidst these contrasting messages are even more sentimental and powerful memories of the past. In Kelantan, Tok Guru is very much featured. Harapan has undercut PAS’ connection to Tok Guru by fielding Nik Omar Nik Aziz, the spitting image of his father in his younger years.

Nik Omar’s (photo) appeal is stronger outside of Kelantan than inside, and he appeared very late in the campaign, but it speaks to how powerful the memory of Tok Guru remains.

While Dr Mahathir Mohamad has made multiple visits – including visiting Kelantan today – the memories of his tenure are not as positive as elsewhere in Malaysia. Here there is a sense that the east coast was left out of the development of the Mahathir era.

In Terengganu, the most potent memory is of 1999 when PAS took over power of the state for the second time. Then there was a deeply unpopular Menteri Besar, Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, who was caricatured as paralleling the rule of Mahathir at that time. Caretake Menteri Besar Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman is also being quietly labelled as Najib’s political stooge, and sentiment against Najib is being directed at him.

Little Napoleans and power plays

This dynamic is being fueled by continued speculation of a deal between PAS and UMNO over Terengganu, tied to the perceived close personal and political relationship between Hadi and Najib. Talk is that seats are to go to BN at the parliament level while the state government is to be ‘given’ to PAS. This is seen as a parliamentary safety net for Najib if the overall election is close.

Both sides adamantly deny any deal. Questions remain, however, given the weak candidates being fielded in some BN seats, especially in Hadi Awang’s own parliamentary seat of Marang. The Terengganu PAS campaign is also flush with cash, with a record number of flags and slick posters – quite different than those in number and scope in Kelantan or earlier Terengganu campaigns – and alleged reports of handouts on the ground.

To complicate the Terengganu situation is the continued infighting over the menteri besar position in the state within UMNO. Razif (photo) has yet to consolidate his position and support, as others continue to believe they deserve the position.

Ahmad Said, the former incumbent in BN, remains a powerful figure and could very well hold state power in the balance. People speak of the ‘Little Napoleon’ problem, in which many people believe they deserve positions. There is a similar infighting in Kelantan within PAS which remains factionalised.

Within Terengganu (and across the country), there are accusations that Hadi is packing the party with his own men. Fielding his current political secretary Dr Ahmad Samsuri as a potential PAS Terengganu menteri besar in his own constituency has led to calls that ‘New Turks’ are rising in the party hierarchy.

Hadi has fielded his son-in-law, ustaz Mohd Akmal Kamarudin, in Selama, Perak (where he lost narrowly in 2013), although other his son-in-law in Selangor, Zaharuddin Muhammad, was dropped after fierce internal party opposition. Charges of nepotism percolate quietly as many hard-working members on the ground have been overlooked with the Najib-like loyalist candidate selections on the part of the Hadi-led campaign.

The power plays occurring within the Islamist party go beyond individual states, as the Terengganu leadership under Hadi appears to be aiming to finally move the party’s leadership to their state. Long left out (especially in 2008), Terengganu PAS has been subservient to Kelantan. This time round a loss of Kelantan would work to their advantage. As such, complaints rumble in Kelantan that their state is being ignored in the GE14 campaign, financially and otherwise.

As with Najib’s post-election contest in UMNO, PAS’ leadership will face a reckoning for their campaign decisions within the party.

Hadi’s legacy

Most see this as Hadi’s (photo) last general election as PAS President.

He is facing criticism for his relationship with Najib, charges of using UMNO money and accusations of a sell-out of principles of good governance – all denied by the leadership. At the same time, he is lauded as a hero within the party faithful for the focus on a ‘pure’ religious agenda and his staunch defence of the faith. A delivery of Terengganu into PAS’ hands would entrench his legacy, especially if the losses in Kelantan are minimised.

The current PAS leadership cares little for victories on the west coast. They do not see these losses as a potential vanquishment. It is quite the opposite – they would have potentially sacrificed these seats for the greater good. Despite even if they lose half of the seats the party current holds, PAS will continue to be an important player on the national stage – and if they win more than 10 seats in GE14, it will be a key player in the post-election scenarios.

Terengganu and Kelantan contests will come down to primarily party loyalties, followed by personal candidate assessments. The outside voters returning home (estimated at 10 percent and 30 percent of the states’ overall voters respectively) will be reduced considerably due to the Wednesday polling day and registration of party members as voters in Selangor and other states.

Terengganu leans at the state level to PAS, and Kelantan to UMNO, but frankly given the closeness of the contests and the number of highly competitive seats at the state level, it is too close to call. Young voters are the crucial group and contribute to the leans above, as they favour change in both states.

The parliament seats to watch are Kuala Terengganu, Kuala Nerus, Dungun (in Terengganu), Kota Bharu, Machang, Tumpat, and Pasir Mas (in Kelantan). Look out for considerable split voting, a pattern long evident in Kelantan and likely to occur in Terengganu as well this election. Expect a few surprises, as this is the norm.

Irrespective of the outcomes, Terengganu and Kelantan’s elections embody the different ambitions of Malaysia’s political actors. Najib and Hadi are very much relying on these outcomes for political leverage. The ambitions of citizens in these states are however what will determine the outcomes. Neither side can control the sentiments on the ground, and these are strongly held and will come out on Wednesday.

BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She is following the Malaysian GE14 2018 campaign on the ground and providing her analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini readers. She can be reached at

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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