Notes from the campaign: Election day’s dues

May 10,2018


Notes from the campaign: Election day’s dues

The twilight of 1Malaysia, and the dawn of another well underway.

by Kean Wong

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There was already a queue of hundreds of Malaysian voters by the time the gates opened at my suburban polling station for the 14th general elections (GE14). While some were enthused to make their mark on Malaysia’s future, others seemed a little resigned yet determined to carry out what one retired civil servant in the queue said was a “citizen’s national service”.

There were numerous reports of long waits in huge queues of over two hours long, often double or more the time it took to cast a vote in the previous GE-13. There were also reports of unstamped ballot papers and votes going into the wrong boxes, and men being turned away and asked to change out of their casual shorts before being allowed into the voting booths. And the inconsistent reports of the Election Commission (EC) allowing those caught up in the big queues to be allowed to vote even after the 5pm closing time if the voters were still in queue. Some of these irregularities were addressed by the Election Commission chairman at a lunchtime media conference on election day, baldly assuring Malaysians their votes would still be counted.

Much social media traffic included posts of Malaysians showing off the indelible inked fingers of those who’ve already voted, and the typical Malaysian feasting that occurs soon afterwards. It was as festive a day as the Malay word for elections implied, a festival of choice or pilihanraya.

But the serious discussion on polling day was also about winners and losers, often raising the two factors previous rival private polling and data collections were inconclusive about: that winning GE14 was much about voter turnout, whether it surpasses GE13’s high of nearly 85%, where the higher the turnout the better the chances were for the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. And whether the 37 or so marginal parliamentary seats “too close to call”, according to the final Merdeka Centre polling before GE14, were to be swept up in any purported momentum for change towards PH. For polling day, there was much speculation about an unprecedented hung parliament, and whether it was feasible given the depth of enmity between the rival coalitions and their leaderships, with all sorts of darkly muttered scenarios of extraordinary measures taken to grab power in such uncertainty. There needed to be some sort of emphatic win, either way, senior members of both coalitions had indicated the previous week — Barisan Nasional’s (BN) caretaker prime minister Najib Razak won’t survive his own UMNO party’s upset of not improving GE-13’s results for long if not. Nor will Mahathir’s coalition, which has built up a great head of steam, accept a slender loss.

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New Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad –Changing the Tide of History and Redeemer of Malaysian Politics

Amidst polling day’s febrile climate of expectations, the night before GE14 was, by comparison, relatively sombre. Both the incumbent Najib Razak and his nonagenarian challenger Dr Mahathir Mohamad made speeches at the same time, on air and online. While the caretaker prime minister again used government-licensed and party-linked terrestrial television station TV3 to make a set of last-minute promises for the weeks ahead, Dr Mahathir relied on a Facebook broadcast that had streaming hiccups and was sketchy in parts, at least at the final opposition coalition rally in Petaling Jaya that I attended. The younger man’s short-term promises aired on traditional but sturdy broadcast architecture contrasted with the older man’s longer-term vision sold over a still flaky social media network.

Najib’s promises were planned for the near future, including exempting those under 26 from paying income tax, and adding extra holidays and toll-free use of the highways for post-Ramadan festivities later this month. The speech came across like another stump speech, another pitch for votes from the so-called millennial generation. The older politician was more future-focused on the horizon ahead, making an emotional appeal despite sounding tired after his hectic bout of national campaigning. Dr Mahathir promised his winning the elections would enable broad and deep institutional reforms, suggesting he wanted to right his previous wrongs as he confronted his mortality. Reviving the heyday of Malaysia’s industrialised economy, retooling it for the new services-oriented information age, and supporting women’s equality with better opportunities that also included the young were keys to restoring the nation’s glory and fame, he explained, as was defeating the spectre of corruption and the “cash is king” culture he alleged was now widespread throughout government.

Over the previous several months of meeting Malaysians across the peninsula, and especially in the past 10 days as the official campaign season nudged even usually disengaged and self-declared “fence-sitters” to pay attention, I found many voters agreeing on a few key themes: that the rising costs of living was a central worry, even in small towns and semi-rural areas like the FELDA kampongs in the interiors that were surrounded by palm oil trees as far as the eye could see, which BN has traditionally seen as a “fixed deposit” of votes for itself.

Partly because of the skilful politicisation of the 1MDB scandal by the opposition PH, and the relatively inept way the BN federal government has also handled other related funds scandals, including the murky dealings over the Muslim pilgrims fund and FELDA privatisation, the unease over “uncontrolled” corruption is palpable. Few Malaysians I met outside the city elites could articulate the corruption scandals’ highlights or their details, but many felt the Najib government did not do enough to address their concerns, which had been stoked by the widespread messaging phenomena of WhatsApp chat groups. For UMNO operatives working to secure key state governments in Johor and Perak, there was a need to prosecute their case for reelection on state issues, to make the issues as local as possible, as UMNO in these states saw their chief ministers as popular bulwarks against an unpopular federal leader, a prime minister tainted by scandal that one Johor party campaigner said was “difficult to defend” over alleged lavish lifestyles that contrasted badly with underemployed locals struggling to pay the bills. Much politics was local, even though national issues often intruded as dangerous undercurrents. The ubiquitous use of smartphones even in rural areas was reflected in the second-generation FELDA settlers I met in Pahang, where a few traded short videos and memes with me over an allegedly irksome state chief minister.

On an airless hot night in a Pahang FELDA village surrounded by palm oil trees a few days before GE-14, an older “Pakcik Felda” (as he wanted to identified) shared his gnomic take on the GE14 ceramah taking place across the road, just beyond a row of third-generation settlers who had motorbiked in for the evening. They had just tasted the satay still sizzling nearby. In the muggy stillness, the Main Range hilly spine of the peninsula on the horizon contrasted with the flatness around us, that matched the modest Bahasa accents of the co-op market’s shopkeeper and his assistant. The pakcik said they were born well after he’d arrived in 1965, a few years after this then-jungle was opened up for cash cropping. The pakcik said the third generation of his own family was now mostly working and living elsewhere, a few in nearby Raub town and Mentakab. But all were expected home to vote at GE14 midweek, back in a village that was festooned with mostly BN and PAS flags.

When asked about how his village saw the GE-14 contest, he explained it was much like a tree: “when you plant a tree, you want it to grow straight and upwards, tall and strong. And after awhile, you’re rewarded with the bounty of fruits, sometimes so overripe that the branches bend downwards overly heavy, threatening the tree itself.” So it’d need some trimming and maintenance? Or uprooting and replanting as some plots nearby were doing? Pakcik Felda smiled slightly, winked, and strolled off in the darkness of the still night.

The previous night, at a field made muddy by the light drizzle, thousands had jammed together to cheer and chant the sort of “reformasi” slogans not heard in Putrajaya over 20 years ago, when I’d been in a nearby field watching Dr Mahathir launch this town, with his then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim hovering nearby. Back then, like this night, it was much about notions of filial duty, about the obligations of both fathers and sons, and about the need to win legitimacy among Malaysians newly rich off the 1990s industrialisation boom. Dr Mahathir had launched Putrajaya in the name of the Father of Malaysia, the founding independence prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. But now, he was in the battle of his life against the son of his political mentor-father, the second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, trying to save the national legacy Dr Mahathir alleged the son Najib Razak was irresponsibly damaging.



Yet the real star of the night was another son, fresh to the limelight, Nik Omar Nik Aziz, the oldest son of the still revered PAS spiritual leader and long-time Kelantan chief minister, the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz (popularly known as TGNA). Nik Omar in his national debut on the GE-14 hustings reminded Malaysians why his father was held in such high regard, across the racialised religious divides that still marked so much of Malaysian politics. At his national debut, in the administrative capital his late father disdained, Nik Omar was at turns generous about Malaysians beyond his Islamist movement, retailing an easy impish wit, while playing cute Kelantanese cadences and accents (or logat Kelate) with a crowd in love with his modesty and credibility as a clean-skin politician. As one son valiantly saved his father’s legacy, facing off today’s truculent PAS leadership, there was another unsparingly taken down by the elder on stage.

Down south a week before GE-14 polling day, in a quietly prosperous kampong near Muar, Johor, Abang Said, the warm-up act for local parliamentary candidates Syed Saddiq and former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has the crowd in stitches with his crooning of a multiracialised medley of risque schoolyard tunes, which are punctuated with chants of “tukar!” (change). He sets up the night’s star, the 25-year-old youth leader of Dr Mahathir’s and Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), with a feel-good muhibbah (togetherness) message that takes cues from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, that Malaysians when united can do anything under tonight’s bright full moon.

The mostly under-40s Malay audience whisper to each other, sounding awestruck about their own boy-wonder-done-good, his filial stories of honouring the many sacrifices his working-class parents have made resonating for several sitting near me. Many know much about how families only have limited time together because so many are forced to work for better pay across the border in Singapore, doing 16-hour days during the working week commuting to the city-state for often menial jobs. Yet Syed Saddiq’s brand of populism and its doubts about globalisation’s costs and its underemployed bodies is ambivalent about how the allure of Singapore’s better paid workplaces can be addressed across the border in Johor. Syed Saddiq’s diatribe against corruption, the big debts the federal government is carrying, and for “maruah” or honour and honesty in governance wins him enthusiastic applause: “we are the coalition of the future!”

Next door in central Johor’s Sembrong electorate, Hishamuddin Hussein was defending his parliamentary seat. The senior minister, cousin of caretaker prime minister Najib, and son of the third Malaysian prime minister ran a campaign that featured his own style of logos and slogans, with smart shirts that played on his popular nickname “H2O”. In an electorate rich off palm oil and a fraction the size of neighbouring opposition seats, Hishamuddin was expected to win handsomely following the redrawing of electoral boundaries.

But his opponents and a few shopkeepers in this electorate noted that Najib’s billboarded faces were harder to find, and the H2O branding offered a distancing from a federal UMNO-led government that many disdained. While few in Sembrong expected a “Malay tsunami” of votes against UMNO, no one was willing to rule out this allegedly remote possibility if there was a major swing against the incumbents.

For a group of Malaysian Indian youth who had gathered to cheer on a passing parade of H2O campaign vehicles, there was a bracing reminder about a small community displaced in the transition of the area’s economy from rubber to palm oil trees, that had also paid a steep price in the racialised politics that informed this transition. Many families had been displaced with small compensations that barely replaced the homes and schools that were once provided by their estate owners, with these once-anchored communities now reduced to fringe-dwelling in towns nearby, barely making ends meet.

One of the group explained what GE-14 meant to them: “It’s the manly thing to do every five years (this election campaigning) and the kids have fun, doing campaign errands, putting up flags as high as possible, getting money for their bikes. Staying busy, avoiding temptations. You don’t understand how little there is to do in small places like this. Hope (or harapan) is for the rich.”

GE-14: Is a ‘Malay tsunami’ on the horizon?

May 9, 2018

Today, Malaysians Go to the Polls to elect a New Government

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GE-14 : Is a ‘Malay tsunami’ on the horizon?

ANU experts assess the likelihood of the Pakatan Harapan coalition finally making inroads into the UMNO heartland.

As a student of Indonesian politics—who maintains an interest, but no particular expertise, in Malaysian affairs—it seems to me there’s one simple and compelling argument for why Barisan Nasional (BN) will win today’s election: namely, that elections in Malaysia just aren’t a fair contest, and aren’t meant to be.

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Three Issues dominate Malaysia’s GE-14–Corruption, The Economy and Race and Religion

The government owns or controls most of the mainstream media, it has access to a bigger pool of campaign funds and state resources, it restricts and even jails opposition candidates from running for office. Gerrymandering and malapportionment create almost-insurmountable obstacles for opposition parties, even before you get to other Electoral Commission funny business.

So it’s hard to disagree with the assessments of political scientists like Meredith Weiss (a regular contributor to New Mandala), who wrote in 2011 that Malaysian elections “serve more to legitimate the existing government’s continued rule than to offer a chance to change the government.” Lee Morgenbesser argues that elections under the auspices of authoritarian regimes like Najib Razak’s merely reinforce authoritarianism, rather than democracy. Elections are a means for BN to distribute goodies to its base and gain a fine-grained measure of its popular support, while allowing for the controlled and ritualised display of opposition that allow opponents to blow off steam—and indulge in the fantasy that they might one day actually win—without really threatening the government’s hold on power.

So why, despite the cards being comprehensively stacked in Najib’s favour, does the result of Wednesday’s election still feel so uncertain for experienced Malaysia-watchers?

It was this tension, between acknowledgement of the immense barriers to change in Malaysia and anxiety about what exactly lies on store on Wednesday, that animated a public discussion on GE-14 held by the ANU Malaysia Institute in Canberra on Monday 7 May, which featured ANU Malaysia experts John Funston, Amrita Malhi and Ross Tapsell in conversation with Diana Anuar.

Image result for Malaysia  Vote for Change 2018Dr. Mahathir Mohamad–Malaysia’s Man of the Hour


One thing the panelists agreed upon was that predicting the outcome of the election was difficult, for a few reasons. The first is Malaysia’s electoral system: it’s well known that the country’s single-member electoral districts are so malapportioned and gerrymandered so as to give an outsize voice to rural mostly Malay-majority seats, as well as to the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

That means that national-level opinion polls aren’t a very useful tool for predicting the outcome of the election. What’s important is not how many people vote for BN or Pakatan Harapan, but who and where. BN won only 47% of the popular vote at GE13 in 2013 yet retained a comfortable parliamentary majority (it being theoretically possibly to form government in Malaysia with less than a fifth of the popular vote.)

The big question this election, then, is whether the emergence of Mahathir Mohamad as the figurehead of the Pakatan coalition will boost the opposition’s changes in the Malay heartland areas that are most overrepresented in parliament. Malaysian politicos are calling this scenario the “Malay tsunami”, and in John Funston’s analysis, “if [it] does emerge, that could well sweep away the efforts of the Electoral Commission to provide the government with a majority”.

That’s certainly a big “if”. To be sure, Funston says, “there’s never [before] been an alignment of Malay groups such as [now exist in the Pakatan coalition]”. Mahathir, he said, “has been at his charismatic best” on the campaign trail, reminding rural voters about the corruption allegations dogging Najib and controversies such as the Felda Global Ventures saga.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the pull of Barisan’s powers of patronage among its base, and to overestimate the effect of corruption scandals to divert their loyalty towards the opposition. ANU’s Amrita Malhi observed that discussions with opposition insiders revealed that “they found that the 1MDB scandal didn’t work with a lot of people,” who didn’t connect lurid tales of multi billion-dollar corruption cases to their own day-to-day experiences. Instead, “[the opposition] decided to just link it to cost of living pressures”.

Keeping in mind the usual caveats about the reliability of polls in Malaysia, recent surveys from the Merdeka Center do suggest that the “Malay tsunami” won’t be big enough to get Pakatan over the line. Ross Tapsell’s observation from the Malay heartland state of Kedah was that “ethnic Malay voters have more choice in this election. And coupled with smartphones allowing for more personal interaction with individual parties and candidates, the local candidate is crucial.” His sense was that PAS voters will stick with the party, which left the opposition coalition to compete in GE14 as an “independent” entity—though in reality, it’s now seen as effectively UMNO-aligned.

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UMNO Kleptocracy vs Pakatan Harapan Democracy

The anti-status quo mood being sensed by many observers is certainly there. But in the absence of publicly available seat-by-seat opinion polling that’s required to reliably predict the outcome, even the best analysts are reliant on educated guesswork about how popular sentiment will translate into voting behaviour. Attendance at opposition rallies and ceramah do suggest an upswell in enthusiasm for regime change, even in areas where BN has long dominated. Whether that represents an intensification of support for the opposition, or that they’re winning over formerly pro-BN or disengaged voters, will only be known later tonight. Large attendance at rallies has not always been a reliable indicator of the vote—as we learned at GE13.

Nevertheless, when the audience pressed our panel of experts to have a punt on what Wednesday’s result would be, a few scenarios were floated.

John Funston thought that the most probably outcome was a win for Barisan but with a reduced majority. Even that result would, he said, lead to significant changes within UMNO; “if there’s a weak victory for Najib, all sorts of possibilities emerge”. Amrita Malhi agreed, noting that in a recent interview with Bloomberg, Najib said that he wasn’t expecting a landslide in his favour. “If he’s saying it’s going to be like that, then that’s as good a prediction as any.”

If we take a long view, though, the significance of GE-14 won’t necessarily be determined by who wins. Rather, it will be a milestone on a path towards considerable different outcomes for Malaysia.

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PAS’ Hudud Advocate and President Abdul Hadi Awang in league with UMNO’s Najib Razak

For John Funston, the election is not just a contest between two party coalitions but “also a contest over what type of state Malaysia is going to be: an Islamic one, or a secular–liberal one.” The spectre of an UMNO–PAS governing alliance after GE14 only adds to worries about the acceleration of the Islamisation of Malaysia’s legal system—something, he notes, that UMNO has already come to endorse “to shore up [Najib’s] support” with the PAS leaders and supporters, who are now untethered from the opposition alliance.

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Amrita Malhi speculated on the longer term endurance and evolution of the electoral authoritarian political model. For a long time, she says, the system has been “working the way it’s supposed to”, containing the level of competition to deliver regular victories and legitimacy for BN. But “the system has reached its limit in terms of its capacity to contain the level of competition that’s increased since [the 2008 election]”.

For me that raises the question: if even unfair elections can’t deliver the legitimation and stability that Malaysia’s hegemonic party needs, what methods of continuing their rule do they turn to next? No matter what happens today, this will be a milestone election for one reason or another—and not necessarily in a good way.

Keep to date with analysis and observations of the results as they come in at New Mandala’s election night live blog, which begins at 5:00pm MYT/7:00pm AEST on 9 May.



The ‘Apa Lagi Cina Mahu’* politics of endless division

May 5, 2018

GE-14–Four Days to May 9, 2018

The ‘Apa Lagi Cina Mahu’* politics of endless division

Malaysia’s GE-14 marks the end of Malaysian Chinese politics after 60 years of dwindling and divisive outcomes.

The political issues the Chinese community face at the 14th general elections (GE14) hasn’t changed much for the past 40 years. Since the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, what the Malaysian Chinese community wants can be easily summarised in a single sentence: the community wants political equality and equal treatment, and a free hand in the economy. And an UMNO-led government will never grant these two wishes, now or ever.

By almost every political measure, the Malaysian Chinese community’s political interests are systematically pushed aside in the name of a ‘Malay Agenda’, or to be blunt, in the name of the Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) ideology. It’s taken for granted that if a Malaysian Chinese company wants government business or to grow bigger, it needs one or two influential Malay partners, preferably one with a direct connection to UMNO. The gold standard is to have Malay royalty as your business partner.

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UMNO President Najib Razak has lowered his harsh rhetoric against the Chinese Community as he needs their support for GE-14

Politically marginalised by government policies, Malaysian Chinese sometimes call themselves ‘second class’ citizens. From the annual distribution of university scholarships and placements to business opportunities, being a Bumiputera Malay means you have the first bite. In the economic arena, big government projects are usually granted first to Malay-majority companies or joint-ventures between Bumiputera Malay and Malaysian Chinese business people. Many government projects and procurements require the bidder to be Bumiputera-majority companies. In practice, non-Bumiputera companies are simply not allowed to take part in the tenders.

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This is the reason why the Chinese-based parties in the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN), the most prominent being the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan, do not substantially discuss public policies of national importance. They accept initiating important public policies are the purview of UMNO. The MCA and Gerakan’s roles are to react to the policies after they have been adopted by the government, and political success is measured by their ability to tone down or blunt the policies that often hurt Malaysian Chinese interests.

Both the MCA and Gerakan have defended their legitimacy over the past four decades through “service politics” rather than advocating political equality. The MCA and Gerakan systematically established ‘service centres’ to help constituents with day-to-day problems rather than dealing with policy issues. Constituents can seek assistance in their dealings with government departments, or welfare assistance such as applications for the government’s BR1M cash handouts. This model has proven effective for the BN Chinese parties at a local level as municipal councillors are directly appointed by the BN government.

At the same time, the BN Chinese parties also engage in ‘fear politics’. They insist that without their presence in the federal cabinet and state governments, the implementation of Ketuanan Melayu will be even more severe for the Malaysian Chinese community. By claiming to blunt or modify the sharper aspects of pro-Bumiputera policies, these parties defend their relevance in the BN coalition.

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MCA President,  Liow Tiong Lai

THIS METHOD HOWEVER fell apart in 2013. At the 13th general elections (GE13) in 2013, then MCA President Dr Chua Soi Lek took a political risk by declaring to the Malaysian Chinese community that MCA would not join the UMNO-led government if it failed to win the support of the community. This desperate move backfired and the MCA suffered heavy losses at GE13, ending up with only seven parliamentary seats and 11 state seats. Chua kept his promise and the MCA declined all appointments to the federal cabinet. Within a year however, Dr Chua was defeated in a party election by Liow Tiong Lai, who stood on a platform of “returning to cabinet to represent” Chinese interests. To UMNO’s credit, it stood by its oldest ally, probably knowing that the MCA’s losses were due to UMNO’s aggressive Malay agenda. The MCA was duly given two cabinet posts in the federal government plus other positions after Liow’s party victory.

This was a watershed episode in Malaysian Chinese politics. The Chinese community learnt that life goes on without any MCA representatives in the cabinet. The MCA, or for that matter, any Chinese representation in the federal cabinet, did not alter their daily lives. The Malaysian Chinese business class could not care less as they have been directly doing business with UMNO proxies for decades. The stark truth is that the Malaysian Chinese community does not count politically at the highest level of BN government.

While the MCA “in and out” saga was going on, the Malaysian Chinese community could see that Penang’s DAP-led state government, and DAP representatives in the PKR-led Selangor state government (elected in 2008), were doing a good job in ensuring that anti-Chinese policies at the state level were kept to a minimum. While affirmative action policies were still being pursued, the Chinese community could see that more resources were being channeled into Malaysian Chinese-owned small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), and the Chinese schools sector. In other words, it was possible to pursue both Malay interests and Chinese interests in most areas. The general perception among Malaysian Chinese was of an UMNO-led government pursuing Malay interests at the expense of Malaysian Chinese interests.

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Blatant attacks and insults against the Malaysian Chinese community by Malay and Islamists right-wing groups in the past few years have only hardened the attitude against UMNO. It does not help that senior UMNO officials come out regularly with blatantly anti-Chinese statements. An infamous incident was a senior UMNO minister telling Malays to only shop from a Malay-owned shop, which he later followed up with a government-funded project to build a Mara digital mall where only Malays could rent the stores.

Is it any surprise that UMNO is seen by most in the Chinese community as the purveyor of anti-Chinese racism? On top of this, most in the Chinese community believe that Prime Minister Najib Razak was involved in the 1MDB corruption scandal. Not only is UMNO allegedly racist, but its leader is an alleged kleptocrat as well.

At GE-14, the MCA has modified its ‘participation in government’ rhetoric with a new twist. Rather than just saying that the Malaysian Chinese ‘voice’ will be missing if they are not elected into any federal cabinet, the MCA has trumped up its role as a bridge between Malaysia and China’s One-Road-One-Belt (OBOR) project. In MCA contested constituencies, there are prominent billboards of MCA leaders meeting President Xi Jinping and other China leaders. The message can not be clearer –the MCA is gaining importance in the UMNO-led government because the massive investments in the Malaysia-leg of the OBOR projects. And this will require the MCA’s expertise and links with China. UMNO needs the MCA as UMNO needs the OBOR-linked investments. With China’s rise as the regional power, UMNO will have little choice but to take the MCA and Malaysian Chinese more seriously.

WILL THE MALAYSIAN Chinese community heed the MCA’s new approach? The short answer is ‘no’. The MCA (and Gerakan) do not seem to realise that the Malaysian Chinese community has moved beyond these parties’ style of ‘service and fear’ politics. Because of their inability to rollback alleged anti-Malaysian Chinese policies of the past decades, they will not buy the argument that China’s rise will lead to a similar rise in the MCA’s reputation for UMNO. They see the MCA as a party of opportunists who are getting personal benefits by agreeing to be UMNO’s Uncle Tom. This view is so ingrained in the Malaysian Chinese community since 2008 that only a mass hallucination will alter this view.

Most of the parliamentary seats won by the MCA and Gerakan are in constituencies where there is a high percentage of Malay voters. The incumbent MCA President Liow Tiong Lai is standing in Bentong where 47% of voters are Malay, while Gerakan’s president is standing in Teluk Intan, a constituency where 41% of its voters are Malays. UMNO delivers the Malay voters to the MCA and Gerakan, thus enabling the incumbent to win the seats with only 10 to 15% of Chinese votes. In constituencies where there is a clear Chinese majority, the winner in almost all cases is the DAP.

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Former MCA President Ong Tee Keat

I will leave the last word to Ong Tee Keat, another former MCA President. In a confidential remark to US embassy officials, he said “there was once a day in Malaysia when the MCA would get the leftovers, but now we are just hoping to get some crumbs from the UMNO table.”

*This was the notorious headline run by UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia in the aftermath of GE13, scolding the Malaysian Chinese for the party’s poor results.

GE-14: A look at the rural Malay voter

May 3, 2018

GE-14: A look at the rural Malay voter

With GE14 rapidly approaching, both sides of the political divide are trying to woo a vastly underestimated, non-homogenous rural Malay public.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is respected by the Malays. His impact on rural Malays cannot be discounted

 In the coming Malaysian general election, the grand prize seems to be the rural vote. With redelineation passed by parliament, the power of the rural voter in deciding the fate of an elected representative can be more than 10 times that of an urban voter. Both sides of the divide are trying to woo a rural Malay public that is often vastly underestimated. Based on a series of focus group discussions and informant interviews in both Johor and Kedah, as well as extensive immersion in rural, coastal and island areas over the past decade, here I examine Peninsular Malaysia’s rural voters to discern how they might vote and the issues that matter to them.

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Most rural folk live off the land and sea as farmers and fishermen, while others supplement family incomes with menial jobs as cleaners, security guards and factory workers. Earnings are not high and are perennially stagnant. All focus group discussants and informants that I spoke to cited rising costs of living as the issue that mattered the most. The end of petrol subsidies, implementation of goods and services tax (GST), inflation and difficulties in buying land and property means that there is a constant struggle to stretch pay cheques. Any handout is gratefully received. Benefits such as BR1M, while often cited as too little to offset increasing expenses, help to alleviate financial pressures—even if only momentarily.

Rural voters are too preoccupied with making ends meet to contemplate macro issues such as allegations of corruption. Some that I spoke to said that political scandals are beyond them; what the politicians did at their level bear no consequence on rural lives and makes no difference to their survival. In fact, many said that no matter who is in power, they hardly get any benefits or assistance—except for when elections roll around.

Rural voters are not unintelligent. They are aware that corruption is rife, but there is a fatalism to their mindset. They have a tendency to accept their position on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy and do not expect to get more than what that rank entitles them to. Many raised the issue of “cronyism” as a form of corruption that plagues the middle levels of society—where political branch heads, village and local committee leaders block their access to financial benefits, job opportunities and other forms of assistance. All focus groups mentioned that while government leaders had rural communities in mind, it was this middle level that held the purse strings and disbursed allocated aid to only friends and family.  Those in real need were often literally left stranded (such as during recent floods affecting both south and north Malaysia).

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Hierarchy is an important component of rural Malay life. Historically feudal societies, today’s rural communities remain deeply traditional in many ways. At the top of the ladder is the king, and in place of those who would have been lords and noblemen in the past, are politicians and government heads. Respect for royalty is enshrined in the nation’s Rukun Negara (National Principles) which every child recites at morning assembly in school. The king is second only to God. Religion is a national concern and Islam is etched into the constitution as the main religion of the federation. Malay rights are inscribed into economic policy. It is to this mix of history, principle and policy that the rural Malay psyche responds, albeit in varying degrees.

Loyalty and indebtedness are characteristics that emerge from a history of feudalism. In election terms, this means that voters remain loyal to those that helped them get to where they are. A common local phrase is “kami kenangkan jasa dia” (we remember his good deeds). Older interviewees related how difficult life was before the ruling party gave them the comfort they enjoy now. This generation is quick to remind their offspring that voting for those that helped them is a family tradition and to break that practice is akin to breaking the norms of filial piety. Younger voters confessed that while they wondered about the value of their vote, they often toed the family line just to prevent tension at home.

Malay rights and Islam are undoubtedly hot button topics. Distrust of the other (usually personified by the Chinese majority Democratic Action Party [DAP]) is widespread. DAP is often demonised on religious terms as a threat to Islam as the nation’s primary faith. Anyone who engages with them (voters or other opposition parties alike) are deemed to have crossed to the dark side and are tainted with similar distrust. There is a great fear that Malays will lose everything that they believe they are entitled to, and there is also a great need to demonstrate the strength of their faith by voting for the party with the best religious credentials.

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While all of the above are common threads that surfaced from the research, there were also differences. The lack of homogeneity among rural voters cannot be overemphasized

As its birthplace, Johor has always been the bastion of UMNO. Even as he declares his political neutrality, Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar has reminded his people that the party was born on palace grounds, funded by his grandfather. A 2017 study commissioned by ISEAS—Yusof Ishak showed that the Sultan is greatly respected by Johor citizens of all ethnicities and incomes, but even more so by the rural Malay. It is likely that the Johorean rural voter will take any opinion expressed by the Sultan into consideration when deciding how to vote.

This is very different from the situation in Kedah, where rural communities seem much more detached from their king. Loyalty is instead redirected to elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad who is fondly remembered for his contribution to both nation and state. His son, Mukhriz Mahathir, was chief minister between 2013 and 2016 until he was forcibly removed after internal party disputes. Kedahans were quick to offer unsolicited examples of projects and better times under their leadership. They also expressed their exasperation at the injustice meted out to Mukhriz and the disrespect that the remaining UMNO cadres had for Mahathir. Malay mores of respect for elders and good manners are cited as principles that politicians should never cross.

Differences between north and south also surface in the attribution of blame for daily difficulties. In Johor, rising prices are attributed to either Chinese businessmen or the federal leadership. The 2017 Johor Survey revealed that the average Johorean is satisfied with UMNO state governance. Interviewees have told me explicitly that there is nothing wrong with Barisan Nasional (BN)—as long as its federal leadership is removed. At BN rallies in Johor, successes are attributed to Johor Chief Minister Khaled Nordin. No mention is made of Prime Minister Najib Razak. The poster boy for Johor BN Khaled Nordin’s tagline is “Muafakat Johor” (Johor United); he and “Team Johor” have successfully captured the state’s support.

In Kedah, however, voters sing a different tune. Younger voters were impatient to vote for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). They were vocal and adamant in wanting to give the opposition a chance to govern, especially since experienced hands such as Mahathir and Mukhriz were part of the line-up. They were less distrustful of DAP. Older voters seemed a little torn between the party that they had always voted for and the man that they knew and loved but is now standing on the other side. Adding to the confusion is the presence of PAS who was once Kedah’s most credible opposition party and who holds the most visible religious credentials. One informant mentioned that if PAS was part of the opposition team, UMNO would be done for. Many others maintained that it was hard to decide. At times they would whisper their support for the opposition, or state that you just can’t say that you disagree with UMNO (meaning that they lean towards the other side).

A lack of homogeneity also exists within states. In east Johor, FELDA voters expressed unfailing support for BN. To them, those who have left the party are ungrateful disgruntled individuals; that corruption allegations are fake news; and that they were willing to vote across ethnic lines as long as BN wins. In west Johor, voters were more doubtful; some were apathetic as they felt that they suffered no matter who is in power. Some mentioned that if there is good fishing or bad weather on polling day, they would have better things to do than vote.

In Kedah too, there are differences. While the majority seemed to be in support of Mahathir no matter the party he stood for, many are recipients of BN’s recent generosity. Gifts of land grants, new homes, double the BR1M amount and myriad other goodies go a long way in solving financial problems. The question is whether these voters can look past election bounties when they vote.

The rural voter is not a single homogenous block. While survival is their priority, overarching Malay principles of hierarchy, loyalty and the need to preserve Malay rights and religion will have an impact on their decision at the ballot box. It is the person that has always been there for them in times of need (not a parachuting politician) and the one who can alleviate immediate difficulties that will win the vote.

All photos by the author. This article is an excerpt from her recent publication, Malaysia’s General Elections 2018: Understanding the Rural Vote, published by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.


GE-14: Losing a legacy, finding a nation in Sarawak

April 29, 2018

GE-14: Losing a legacy, finding a nation in Sarawak

A new generation’s contest over Sarawak’s lost autonomy may force voters to reconsider how today’s leaders are trapped by the past.

by James Chin

Something is simmering in Kuching, and it’s not just the fragrant laksa soup of Sarawak’s capital.

Long seen as the barometer of Chinese politics in Sarawak, the Stampin constituency at the 14th general elections (GE14) will see a contest between the leaders of two political parties that claim to speak for the Sarawak Chinese community. The two parties are the Sarawak Democratic Party (DAP) and the Sarawak United Peoples Party (SUPP), fondly known by the locals as “soup”.

Representing the governing SUPP party is Dr Sim Kui Hian, the party president who’s had a meteoric rise. Sim only became active in SUPP a decade ago, stood as a candidate for the first time in 2011, and became party president in 2014. On the opposition side is Chong Chieng Jen, the chairman of Pakatan Harapan Sarawak (PHS) and chairman the Sarawak DAP since 2013.

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SUPP-BN’s Dr. Dr Sim Kui Hian

While the Sarawak and national media try to portray the contest as the “battle of the titans” or “clash of the kings”—and focus on the fact they are the most senior Sarawak Chinese leaders on opposing sides—in reality the real meaning of the contest goes deeper than just this symbolic clash.

TO UNDERSTAND WHAT the Stampin contest means, you need to understand the personal history behind these two leaders and the historical context. First, the historical context, and then the personal history.

Under Sim, SUPP has made Sarawak nationalism and parochialism the cornerstone of the GE14 campaign. Using the tagline “I’m In for a Stronger Sarawak”, SUPP is telling ethnic Chinese voters that the Sarawak Chinese must vote SUPP in order to help SUPP and the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN) “take back” political autonomy as promised under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

The irony of course lies in the fact that SUPP, together with its partners in the Sarawak BN, willingly surrendered Sarawak’s autonomy to the federal government in 1970. Most Sarawakians (or for that matter Malaysians) do not realise that Sarawak lost its MA63 autonomy in 1970 when SUPP deliberately chose Parti Bumiputera to form the coalition state government in Sarawak. SUPP then was in a unique position—it could go with either the Sarawak National Party (SNAP), an Iban-led party, or Parti Bumiputera, led by Melanau-Muslims. The SUPP-Bumiputera coalition government became the founding members of BN in 1974 with UMNO and other parties of the peninsula.

Parti Bumiputera in 1970 was a proxy for UMNO and UMNO sent a Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) minister to come to Kuching to pressure the then-opposition SUPP into a coalition government with Parti Bumiputera. From the first day of the Bumiputera-SUPP government, it was clear the while Sarawak had some powers, ultimate power was held by UMNO and the federal government.

In 1973, when the MA63 explicitly gave all the three remaining partners (Sabah, Malaya, Sarawak) a period to formally review the MA63 agreement, the meeting was abandoned and was never held. In 1974, Sarawak (and Sabah) gave up their oil and gas to Petronas. I can detail other events where Sarawak (and Sabah) lost their autonomy but suffice to say that in Sarawak, it all happened under Sarawak BN rule and all Sarawak BN MPs (including SUPP) voted in favour of many constitutional amendments which centralised powers in the federal government.

Despite this history, voters in Sarawak have short memories and get highly emotional when it comes to Sarawak nationalism. Thus SUPP and the Sarawak BN can suddenly appear as Sarawak nationalists today despite this contrary history.

Who can forget the infamous Mahathir mantra “Melayu mudah lupa” (Malays forget easily)? Well, to that I can add “Sarawakians mudah lupa”.

This context of this electoral battle is therefore rooted in this idea that it is “us” (Sarawakians) versus “them” (Malayans). Sarawak DAP and Pakatan Harapan (PH) are painted as “them” as their roots are in Malaya. Ditto for the other opposition parties PKR and Amanah.

In the 2016 Sarawak state election, former Sarawak Chief inister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem was very successful in rebranding the Sarawak BN as the true defenders of the MA63 autonomy. What was remarkable was his campaign speeches in which he promised to “keep UMNO out” of Sarawak. Sarawak voters swallowed the message despite it being crystal clear that Sarawak BN was keeping UMNO in federal power. Without the Sarawak MPs from Sarawak, UMNO would have fallen from power!

The same is likely to happen this time. The SUPP’s Sarawak nationalism mantra, backed by a sophisticated social media campaign, has dented the opposition claim to be the true defenders of MA63. Prior to 2016, SUPP’s social media has been dismal, allowing the DAP to dominate cyberspace. Unlike earlier SUPP presidents, Sim has taken to social media like ducks to water. He brought in a professional team from Malaya to handle the social media, selling SUPP’s Sarawak nationalism like a slick advertisement campaign. So far, it’s working and I would argue that the SUPP’s social media presence in this GE14 is superior to the DAP’s.

THE PERSONAL HISTORY lies in the background of the two candidates:  Sim Kui Hian is the son of Tan Sri Datuk Amar Sim Kheng Hong, one of the original strongmen of Kuching SUPP. Sim Kheng Hong was Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister for 17 years (1974–1991) and was known to be particularly close to Tun Rahman Yakub, Sarawak’s Chief Minister from 1970 to 1981. The standard joke among insiders is that SUPP’s Pending branch is actually the Sim family branch, since the family has exerted control over the Pending branch since its founding. In a nutshell, Sim Kui Hian was born into SUPP royalty and his rapid rise to the Presidency was aided by his family tree.

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DAP’s Chong Chieng Jen

Chong Chieng Jen’s pedigree is almost similar to that of Sim Kui Hian. Chong Siew Chiang, Chieng Jen’s father, was a founding member of Sarawak DAP in the late 1970s. Prior to that, he was a SUPP state assemblyman for the Repok constituency (Sarikei town). The twist in the story of how DAP came to Sarawak occurred when Chong Siew Chang consulted Rahman Yakub, then Sarawak’s chief minister, about bringing DAP to Sarawak. Prior to that, Rahman Yakub had used Sarawak’s immigration autonomy to deny Lim Kit Siang, DAP’s national leader, entry into Sarawak. According to Siew Chang, Rahman told him he would not ban Kit Siang from Sarawak if there were DAP branches in Sarawak. The real reason, of course, was to weaken SUPP’s hold over the Chinese community by giving the Chinese an alternative to SUPP.

So the current two contestants have history going back to the early years of SUPP and Sarawak DAP. They are both the children of the most senior party members and heirs to their fathers’ political legacy. The upcoming contest is thus a clash between the second generation. Sim became SUPP president in 2014 while Chong became chairman of Sarawak DAP a year earlier.

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Kuching–The Capital of Sarawak, Malaysia

The choice for the Chinese voter in Stampin is not simply “Dacing vs Rocket”—rather, it’s informed by historical context and personal history. Without understanding this, you will not be able to really understand the significance of Stampin at GE14.

GE-14: Malaysia’s resurgent states stake a claim

April 25, 2018

GE-14: Malaysia’s resurgent states stake a claim

The era of dominant federal government may be over as leading states push for greater autonomy, resisting a centre compromised by scandal and policy drift.

by Tricia Yeoh*

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The dynamic Crown Prince of Johor Maj-Gen. Tunku Ismail Ibrahim: “Do not question the sovereignty of Johor.”

Ahead of Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE14), Johor’s Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibrahim (popularly known as TMJ) issued a statement earlier this month essentially calling for the continuance of the incumbent UMNO government. It was also a thinly veiled criticism of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who had curtailed the powers of the hereditary rulers during his 22 years in power, and who’s now leading the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) as its prime Minister-in-Waiting. The Royal Houses rarely intervene so publicly in national political affairs, and the Johor Royal Family has made the headlines in recent years. Most cutting was the TMJ’s reminder to political leaders: “Do not question the sovereignty of Johor.”

Despite government being in caretaker mode, both federal and state-level parties have been offering “goodies” to their voters in these final weeks before GE14’s polling day on 9th May. The Federal Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) made 67,000 free RM800 (A$269) fuel cards available to taxi drivers in Peninsular Malaysia, while in Selangor state, Chief Minister Azmin Ali handed out cash allocations, laptops and iPads in his constituency. In Penang, responding to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s promise to remove road tolls for motorcyclists at the two bridges linking island and mainland Penang, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said all tolls would be abolished if PH takes federal power. In Johor, Chief Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin announced that three entertainment parks worth almost RM8 billion (A$2.7 billion) would be built in the near future.

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Selangor Chief Minister–Dato Seri Azmin Ali

In an environment so highly focused on national-level politics, what role do the states play? Are federal–state relations relevant, and do they impact electoral outcomes in any way, and how?

MALAYSIA IS A complex creature. While it was formed as a constitutional federation and has all the trappings of a formal federalism, in reality it practises only a weak or highly centralised form of federalism. Over the years, greater power and control have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the federal government, starting with the abolishment of local council elections in 1965.

The Federal Government’s powers are far-reaching, and states have little say over their own state economies. Ever since the early 1970s, when then Prime Minister Tun Razak (Najib’s late father) initiated a policy of a kerajaan berparti or a government run on UMNO’s philosophy—at a time when the race-based affirmative action New Economic Policy (NEP) was being rolled out nationwide—states have been largely subservient to national-level ideology and direction. Up until 2008, UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN) arguably considered states as natural extensions of the centre, operatives necessary to fulfill the national mandate of economic development—the more centralised, the more efficient.

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Malaysia’s Most Unpopular Politician–Najib Razak

Today, the Prime Minister’s Department budget alone is more than five times larger than the state budget of Selangor and almost nine times larger than Penang’s, according to the 2018 budget. Although policy areas such as local government and land are supposed to be under state jurisdiction, according to the Federal Constitution, there exist entities like the National Council for Local Government and National Land Council, both chaired by a federal minister, both with strong influence over how such matters are managed within the states. There are also numerous provisions in the federal constitution that permit the federal government to actively intervene in a state’s affairs. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) can declare an emergency on the advice of the Prime Minister for the sake of maintaining “national security and public order”, which is extendable to any matter within the legislative authority of a state.

In the context of Malaysia’s single-party dominance, where UMNO-BN has never lost power, it’s no surprise that, with a few exceptions, BN-controled states are not as autonomous since their decisions are largely governed from the centre. Federal infrastructure projects would invariably receive the required state developmental order approval, for instance (states have the power to withhold this).

On the converse, whenever opposition parties have taken over state governments, they have been punished. For instance, oil-rich Kelantan and Terengganu have had their oil royalties withheld whenever opposition party Pas won power. The federal government banned log exports from Sabah which resulted in that state’s income falling drastically when it was under opposition rule in 1991. Budget cuts and delays in development project approvals have also been standard practice. Some states have resorted to depending on natural resources for their funding, since that is one of the few areas states manage. Sometimes this results in tragic outcomes: for instance, Kelantan was accused of excessive logging, which many argue resulted in the tragic floods of December 2014. Even BN-controlled states like Pahang (Najib’s home state) have also had to rely on natural resources to boost state income, through both logging and bauxite mining.

WHEN PAKATAN RAKYAT took over control of the states of Selangor, Penang, Perak, Kedah and Kelantan in the wake of 2008’s now-historic 12th General Elections, State Development Offices (SDOs) were physically removed from state premises, with funds directly channeled from the Federal Government and completely bypassing the new state governments. The Federal Government also set up Village Development and Safety Committees (JKKKP) that report directly to the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development. In the recent redrawing of election constituency boundaries, many individuals reportedly supporting the exercise and the new Selangor boundaries were in fact representatives of the JKKKP federal committees.

Malaysia’s richest states Selangor and Penang have had to contend with Federal Government interventions in multiple ways over the past decade, including federal instructions to civil servants that ran counter to the states’ agendas. Although civil servants are supposed to serve the government of the day, states’ senior civil servants (except in Johor) are appointed and promoted from the Federal Service and hence are put in the difficult position of serving two masters simultaneously.

For example, in 2010 when the Selangor state secretary was due to be replaced, the federal Public Service Commission announced the name of the new state secretary without the Selangor Chief minister’s consultation. The Chief Minister called for a special state assembly sitting to amend the state constitution, which would give the Chief Minister and the Sultan of Selangor the power to choose senior state officials. But this proposed amendment did not get the required two-thirds majority in the state parliament, and the Chief Minister had to accept the federal government’s choice of a new State Secretary against his will.

However, because these two states are highly industrialised and urbanised, they have had a different experience to previous opposition (non-BN) states, which were primarily rural in nature (Kelantan, Terengganu and Sabah). In the past, the BN Federal Government punished rural states by withholding funding and development, but it was no longer able to do the same in Selangor and Penang. These states have drawn from existing thriving industry, state-linked companies, and land development for their resources. Because these states also contribute disproportionately to the national economy, it was also foolhardy to threaten the economies of these states.

Over the past decade, both Selangor and Penang have sought to promote themselves as better-run states, demonstrating better budget outcomes and economic management, people-friendly services and policy delivery, and the ability to maintain investments and a strong economy. Such messages have been used by both states to position themselves as an alternative federal government model. In fact, some state policies have been imitated at federal level: Selangor’s Rumah Mampu Milik low-cost housing programme arguably inspired the federal-level PR1MA programme.

Selangor used its legislative assembly’s Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (SELCAT) to investigate corruption cases under the previous chief minister Khir Toyo of UMNO-BN. Selangor’s UMNO has not been able to recover from these negative perceptions, and lacking a strong leader, the state opposition has been weak. Previous state patronage systems have also been redirected, resulting in curtailed revenue streams that would have previously accrued back to central UMNO headquarters. Both Selangor and Penang state governments introduced Freedom of Information Enactments and implemented asset declaration systems for their Exco (state ministry) members. These two measures are unprecedented, and have not been replicated by other state governments nor the federal government.

THERE WERE MANY occasions in which overlapping jurisdictions have caused confusion in opposition-held states. The Selangor Government bore the brunt of dissatisfaction over several water shortage incidents in the state over the past decade. ‘Water supplies and services’ was transferred from the Federal Constitution’s state list to the concurrent list in 2005, where both Federal and state governments have joint control over how water is treated and distributed in states. The restructuring has been a long drawn out process because of disagreements between the Federal and state governments, made more complicated because there were four separate concessionaires to negotiate with. But voters cared little for the details, and demanded the issue be resolved quickly.

Such federal–state political competition has allowed other states to embolden themselves. For instance, the states of Sarawak and Sabah have become increasingly vocal in their demands for greater autonomy and to restore the terms of the Malaysia Agreement of 1963. The Sarawak state assembly passed a motion to demand a 20% royalty, instead of the 5% that the state currently receives in petroleum revenue sharing agreements with the federal government, Petronas and international oil companies. Sabah opposition politicians followed suit to demand the same. Negotiating with Putrajaya has resulted in Sarawak being able to set up its own oil and gas company, Petroleum Sarawak Berhad (PETROS), which is to work with Petronas and become an active player in the oil and gas industry by 2020. BN-led Johor has also fluffed its feathers, where Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibrahim declared in 2015 that the state had a right to secede from Malaysia if the terms of the federal agreement are violated, and the term “Bangsa Johor” (the Johor race) has been used repeatedly to mark out a specific state identity.


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Penang’s Chief Minister–Lim Guan Eng

Having an opposition coalition leading at the state level offers voters a glimpse into how it will govern at the national level. The picture isn’t always rosy, where there have been complications, in part due to the intra-coalition conflicts on religion and race. More so in Selangor than in the more ethnically homogeneous states of Penang, Kelantan and Kedah. Selangor has had to deal with sensitive issues such as alcohol, entertainment centres, the relocation of a Hindu temple, and the confiscation of Malay version Bibles. In so doing, the state government has had to find a delicate balance where all parties—of various inclinations—will agree to compromise. Although the Islamist party PAS is no longer part of this coalition, its representatives were in the Selangor Exco right up to the recent dissolution of the state assembly. Selangor PAS was less vehement in its criticisms of other coalition partners like the DAP, compared to their national counterparts. Hence the state Pakatan Rakyat coalition outlasted its national coalition (which has now regrouped with different partners as Pakatan Harapan).

There have also been allegations of continued patronage within the states of Selangor and Penang, through well-oiled deals with private developers and contracts at local councils, demonstrating that opposition-led states are unable to break out of the BN model of patronage politics. Unless political party financing is reformed, all parties will depend on such patronage systems for survival. Politicians in Malaysia are expected to provide their constituents with money—gifts for funerals, weddings, mosques, associations and so on. And being in opposition is no exception. In fact, the political culture of clientelism is so deeply rooted that the constituents expect it of their elected representatives.

Selangor and Penang would have likely remained under opposition hands at this GE14, except for the federal Election Commission’s (EC) redelineation exercise which has significantly redrawn constituency boundaries in Selangor—the state the BN desperately wants to win back. BN holding federal power and influence over the EC has resulted in drastically malapportioned seats in the state. In short, states are helpless against federal interventions into its constituency boundaries, directly affecting electoral outcomes.

In some—but not all—cases, the successes of Selangor and Penang have been used as a narrative to convince voters of the economic possibilities these states can achieve in opposition PH hands. Whether such successes can be replicated is dependent on the nature of the state, and only Johor is similar to Selangor in urban and demographic makeup. Other states the opposition hopes to win over like Kedah are more rural. There are other indications that voters in Kelantan are likely to support BN over PAS, given the latter has been unable to contribute meaningful economic development to the state—thanks primarily to issues described above where rural opposition states are cut off from federal resources.

Healthy political competition between the Federal and State governments has expanded policy possibilities, as both levels observe, challenge, adapt, learn from, and imitate the other. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that states—especially those led by the opposition—are becoming increasingly conscious of their distinctive state identities. Some have expressed their desires for greater autonomy and independence, and are challenging what was previously considered a de facto centralised federal government. This new federal–state dynamic is something any ruling federal government will have to get used to.

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Ms Tricia Yeoh (pic above) is Chief Operating officer at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). she is on PhD study leave at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, researching federal-state relations in Malaysia. She is the author of ‘States of Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang’, editor of ‘The Road to Reform: Pakatan Rakyat in Selangor’, and director of the award-winning documentary ‘The Rights of The Dead’, about the mysterious death of Teoh Beng Hock in 2009. Tricia was also an aide to the previous Selangor Chief Minister, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim.