Malaysia: Why Democratic Change Has Not Been Possible
The Malaysian model is now in a cul-de-sac. To break out of it, we need to rethink the nature of political compromises.
At times when I contemplate the state of politics in Malaysia, I am reminded of a conversation I had over lunch with a senior diplomat earlier this year. It was just after Chinese New Year, and I was asked about the possibility of an opposition victory in the next general election, whenever that may be.
Circumstances were not optimistic then – and arguably have not improved since. It was just over a year since Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s jailing, and in that time the Pakatan Rakyat coalition that he led to historical results in the 2013 general election had disintegrated following an acrimonious split with PAS. In order to maintain some semblance of opposition coherence and to absorb remnants of PAS that had coalesced into a splinter party, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), a new coalition called Pakatan Harapan was cobbled together. However, without the participation of PAS, the second largest Malay-based party in the country, it was clear that this new force faced an uphill battle to gain a foothold, especially among the Malay electorate. Naturally, this led to question marks about the viability of the Selangor state government, which was held in place by a coalition that could be described as being either Pakatan Harapan plus PAS or Pakatan Rakyat plus Amanah, depending on whose perspective is sought. In summary, the reality was painful.
Thus I replied, partly seriously and partly in jest, that there were two possible scenarios that could lead to an opposition victory. The first was to win by default in the event of a massive implosion of the ruling party, Umno. This, however, required an internal schism of the scale of those that occurred in 1998 with Anwar or 1987 with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. This time around, such a prospect did not seem likely.
The other scenario, I said, was to make a deal with the devil.
A Restaurant with More Cooks than Customers
Two weeks after that conversation, DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang and former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad held their first-ever joint press conference to announce a “citizens’ movement” to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Alongside the erstwhile foes was the unlikeliest congregation of leaders past and present that one could imagine, including Selangor Chief Minister and People’s Justice Party (PKR) Deputy President Azmin Ali, former Deputy Prime Minister and recently sacked UMNO Deputy President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Amanah President Mat Sabu, former PAS Vice-President Datuk Mahfuz Omar, and a slew of former BN cabinet ministers and chief ministers, as well as civil society leaders.
Relations between DAP and PKR suffered further strain in August when leaders from the two parties began to bicker publicly over the question of holding snap polls in Penang following DAP secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s arrest on trumped-up charges of corruption. In the end, the idea was called off amid heated disagreement.
Serious and detailed allegations were made about how funds from 1MDB had been embezzled and used to finance the extravagant purchases of fine art, prime real estate in New York, California and London, a private jet and other luxuries. As stated matter-of-factly by FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, “the Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale.” It was indeed a tale worthy of a Hollywood movie script, and ironically found itself entangled with one. Among the assets being forfeited by the DOJ include the rights to the Oscar-winning movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, said to have been bankrolled by misappropriated proceeds from 1MDB.
More crucially, Najib has been able to handle internal discord with a carrot-and-stick approach. A potential coup attempt was thwarted in July last year when he sacked high-ranking dissidents, including his own Deputy Prime Minister, another senior cabinet colleague and even the Attorney-General. Others who were luckier were given transfers or promotions. Out of the four major institutions that formed a special task force to investigate the 1MDB scandal, namely the Royal Malaysian Police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Bank Negara Malaysia and the Attorney-General’s Chambers, only the Police did not see a change of leadership in the last year. No prizes for guessing which agency has been the most loyal.
Najib’s success in maintaining control can also be attributed to his ability to leverage upon the instruments of state power. Firstly, he understands exactly what it takes – or rather, how much it costs – to stay on as Prime Minister. In the Westminster parliamentary model, leadership of the government is decided by the party in power, and not directly by the electorate. That means that as long as he is able to garner support within UMNO, he is guaranteed his job. In numerical terms, Najib has to ensure the loyalty of about two hundred people, namely the party’s 191 division chiefs plus members of the supreme council, most of whom overlap. In the context of a political economy based on rent-seeking and patronage, this is not a difficult prospect given that Najib is not only Prime Minister but also Minister of Finance and gatekeeper to the national treasury
Secondly, Najib has not been shy when it comes to pushing the limits of institutional power. While internal threats were dealt with in a surgical manner, cruder methods have been employed in dealing with the opposition. Anwar, the unifying figure that kept the opposition alliance intact, was once again subjected to a humiliating trial on charges of sodomy and eventually sentenced to a five-year imprisonment. The intended effect was achieved as the opposition soon plunged into disarray, from which they have not recovered. More recently, DAP leader Lim Guan Eng was charged on two counts of corruption, while a number of other opposition leaders currently face all manners of charges, from illegal assembly to sedition.
The jewel in Najib’s crown, however, has been the widening of rifts within the opposition. This was achieved principally through the successful courting of PAS. Partly assisted by fate following the passing of PAS spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat last year, Najib was able to reignite the controversial hudud debate. The syariah penal code, which lists among its punishments stoning, public lashing and amputation of limbs, has been a policy agenda for PAS since the early 1990s. However, exigencies of being in a multicultural coalition saw the party placing the issue on the back burner since 2008. With Anwar in jail and Nik Aziz no longer around to oppose any form of cooperation with UMNO as he was known to do, the opportunity was quickly seized upon. In a surprising about-turn, UMNO, who had hitherto opposed the implementation of hudud, announced its willingness to support PAS’s hudud efforts in Parliament. As if on cue, the PAS-controlled Kelantan state assembly moved to pass amendments to its 1993 hudud enactment, followed by the tabling of a private members’ bill in Parliament without prior discussion with its coalition partners. This proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the back of Pakatan Rakyat. Soon after, PAS’s parliamentary bill was unprecedentedly fasttracked by the government.
A New Model?–Replace the corrupt Elite Cartel led by UMNO
Before venturing into how regime change might be possible, it is perhaps important to take stock of the situation and reflect upon the results of the 13th general elections that have been held since independence. The results have, of course, been one-sided, with BN and its predecessor Alliance successfully maintaining a stranglehold on power. However, election dynamics have evolved over time and certain structural patterns should be noted.
Before 1990, Malaysian General elections were typically foregone conclusions. In a first-past-the-post voting system where winners essentially take all, the lack of a viable, cross-ethnic opposition coalition – or at the very least a coordinated electoral arrangement – resulted in the ruling regime sustaining virtual dominance. With no real alternative to BN, the political landscape was a one coalition system characterised by political consociationalism, which refers to a model of politics in divided societies where stability is achieved through the accommodation of political elites who represent different segments of society, or in the words of political theorist Arendt Lijphart, an elite cartel. In the case of BN, this consociational framework took the shape of a highly centralised power structure with UMNO and playing a preponderant big brother role by virtue of its electoral dominance, being that its MPs made up double the combined total of all other BN component parties. Coupled with a well-established system of patronage, stability was assured by sharing the pie with those who toe the line and suck to the UMNO President who is the Prime Minister.
The first break from this one-coalition system occurred in the 1990 General election, following a particularly scathing split within UMNO that resulted in the formation of splinter party Semangat 46. With Tengku Razaleigh providing cross-ethnic opposition leadership, the ensuing general election saw the inaugural emergence of a two-coalition system. As it turned out, the Gagasan Rakyat coalition failed to get very far and was all but snuffed out by the next General election in 1995. The opposition would consolidate again to face the 1999 General election through the Barisan Alternatif (BA), formed immediately after the arrest of Anwar the year before. However, it was not until 2008, through an informal electoral arrangement that was later formalised as Pakatan Rakyat, that the opposition finally made significant breakthrough, winning power in five states and denying BN its two-thirds majority in Parliament. This success was improved upon in 2013 when Pakatan Rakyat won 51% of the popular vote but was unfortunately denied victory having secured only 40% of the seats due to highly gerrymandered constituencies and gross malapportionment of voters.
It may be wiser to admit that victory will not be achieved through a system that is designed to prevent change. In other words, there is a need to recognise the limitations of a two coalition model in the context of a heavily manipulated electoral system compounded by polarising narratives of political identity. With the government continually stoking Malay insecurity, an UMNO-dominated BN coalition, as opposed to an “equal partnership” coalition, will always offer a more appealing prospect to the vast majority of the Malays. And therein lies Pakatan Harapan’s perennial problem, especially when the coalition’s political narrative is predicated upon a more equitable social compromise. Furthermore, to replicate the BN model would be impossible, and in any case undesirable, as a centralised, one-size-fits-all approach would fail to accommodate the many different identities, demands and local sentiments that are becoming more and more pronounced. In the absence of a hegemonic big brother, any attempt to bottle up all conflicting views will almost certainly end in acrimony.
Towards a True Multi-Party Democracy
An entirely new model is thus required. Having moved from a one-coalition system to a two-coalition one, the third stage of Malaysia’s political development should see the emergence of a true multi-party democracy with non-permanent, decentralised coalitions that are formed after election results are determined. This does not however preclude the necessity of having an opposition pact at federal level. In fact, for so long as BN remains in power, all efforts should be made to ensure some kind of electoral consensus to minimise multi-corner contests in federal seats. In such a model, state alliances can be completely different and localised – a concept that is not out of the ordinary in most mature democracies. This decentralised arrangement is most useful given the possibility of split voting patterns among the Malay electorate. In Johor, for example, voters may reject Najib but choose to support the BN state government, which currently enjoys high approval ratings. This trend may apply to other states as well, including Sabah and Sarawak.
Besides the fundamental difficulties in gaining Malay support, the existing coalition model’s centralised nature and tendency towards policy conformity also stifle regional and state aspirations. This was essentially the cause of Pakatan Rakyat’s breakdown and Pakatan Harapan’s instability – the failure to recognise that different regions have different needs and demands. Penang, being a non-Malay majority state, would naturally have very different dynamics compared to the virtually all-Malay states of Terengganu and Kelantan. The same goes for Sabah and Sarawak, both of which are not Muslim majority states. Therefore, any attempt to impose policies that are defined from a central, west-coast-centric perspective, or vice versa, would always be resisted, as was the case with PAS in Kelantan and the DAP-PKR split in Sarawak. Variegated nuances can be better managed through a decentralised, multiparty system with no permanent coalition. In such a system, states would be free to champion their own local issues, such as hudud in Kelantan and autonomy in East Malaysia, without it unduly affecting the electoral arrangement at federal level. At the same time, ethnicity-based parties like PAS and Bersatu would be able to face UMNO at the grassroots level without being shackled by the intricacies of an official coalition stand.
Being that it is near impossible to achieve ideological coherence or policy commitment with such a disparate cast of political actors, it would be better to have an electoral arrangement with parties contesting where they are strongest. Even if multi-corner contests cannot be avoided totally, it should not be treated as a problem – after all, no one is bound by a permanent coalition and the objective of an election is to allow the people to choose from the options available. In the event the opposition parties manage to win more seats than BN, then the next government can be negotiated through consensus based on the electoral outcome. After all, the imperatives of running a government almost always engender pragmatism, as the Selangor state government proves.
While Malaysian politics has evolved in the last six decades, it remains confined to the same structural framework of centralised and permanent coalitions. The limitations of this political model are now beginning to frustrate the growing democratic aspirations of the people, principally because it is unable to cater to the heterogeneous realities that make up modern Malaysia.
It is clear that no significant change can be achieved by doing more of the same. In other words, the way to defeat BN is not to proffer an alternative BN. And this is so not only because it is impossible to reproduce the same dish with different ingredients, but also because the current system is one designed to protect and embellish the incumbent regime. For those wielding the levers of power, the perpetuation of the status quo will simply allow them to solidify their base and provoke infighting among their rivals.
Therefore, effecting regime change will require a new political formula that detaches the periphery from the centre. At the federal level, ideological conformity should not be an objective. Any electoral pact forged should be loose enough for different interests to manoeuvre, so long as the overarching principle of maximising each party’s comparative advantage is maintained. However, this approach does not mean ditching long-held party principles. Instead, it means coming to terms with the fact that each party’s ideology and political narrative reflects the aspirations of different segments of society, some of which may be inherently divergent with others, but all of which are legitimate forms of expression. It is only with such a realisation that a real concerted challenge can be mounted against the might of the BN government.
Ultimately, the objective should be to move the Malaysian polity towards a true multiparty system with no permanent coalitions and a more inclusive electoral system incorporating elements of proportional representation. However, change will have to come first.
Su-Lyn, Boo. “What’s Behind Umno’s Support for Hudud?” The Malay Mail Online, 19 March 2015. http://www. themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/ article/whats-behind-umnos-support-forhudud.
Doherty, Ben. “Anwar Ibrahim Guilty in Sodomy Case.” The Guardian, 10 February 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/ world/2015/feb/10/anwar-ibrahim-guiltyin-sodomy-case.
Hope, B., and Tom Wright. “U.S. Links Malaysian Prime Minister to Millions Stolen from Development Fund.” The Wall Street Journal, 21 July 2016. http://www. wsj.com/articles/u-s-seeks-1-billion-inasset-seizures-tied-to-malaysian-fund1mdb-1469019540.
Kanyakumari, D. “Pakatan Harapan Unveils Political Agreement Between Parties.” The Star Online, 9 January 2016. http://www.thestar.com.my/news/ nation/2016/01/09/pakatan-harapanunveils-political-agreement-betweenparties/.
Khir Johari, Zairil. “505: The Day BN Won the Election But Lost the Contest.” Penang Monthly, August 2013.
Khir Johari, Zairil. “Hudud Threatens the Future of Malaysia.” Penang Monthly, July 2016.
Lopez, Greg. “Moving Away from the Consociational Model.” New Mandala, 2 January 2014. http://www. newmandala.org/moving-away-from-theconsociational-model-in-malaysia/.
Malaysiakini. “Citizens’ Declaration Spells Out Demands for Removal of Najib.” Malaysiakini, 4 March 2016. https://www. malaysiakini.com/news/332750.
Ng, Jason. “Malaysia’s Najib Razak Fires Deputy Prime Minister in 1MDB Rift.” The Wall Street Journal, 28 July 2015. http:// http://www.wsj.com/articles/malaysias-najibrazak-shakes-up-cabinet-amid-1mdbinvestigation-1438065854.
Peel, Michael. “Malaysia Leader’s $680m Donation Said to Come from Saudi Royals.” Financial Times, 26 January 2016. https://www.ft.com/content/33d41ad6c3e3-11e5-b3b1-7b2481276e45.
The Malay Mail Online. “Putrajaya Hiding Real Debt Figures, DAP’s Tony Pua Claims.” The Malay Mail Online, 10 October 2014. http://www. themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/ article/putrajaya-hiding-real-debt-figuresdaps-tony-pua-claims.
The Malay Mail Online. “Penang DCM: DAP Barbs Only Make Us More Resistant to Snap Polls.” The Malay Mail Online, 29 July 2016. http://www.themalaymailonline. com/malaysia/article/penang-dcm-dapbarbs-only-make-us-more-resistant-to snap-polls.
The Malay Mail Online. “No More Snap Polls for Penang, Says Guan Eng.” The Malay Mail Online, 31 July 2016. http:// http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/ article/no-more-snap-polls-for-penangsays-guan-eng.
United States Department of Justice. “United States Seeks to Recover More Than $1 Billion Obtained from Corruption Involving Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund.” 20 July 2016. https://www.justice. gov/opa/pr/united-states-seeks-recovermore-1-billion-obtained-corruptioninvolving-malaysian-sovereign.
- Malaysiakini, “Citizens’ Declaration Spells Out Demands for Removal of Najib,” Malaysiakini, 4 March 2016, https://www.malaysiakini.com/ news/332750.
-  D. Kanyakumari, “Pakatan Harapan Unveils Political Agreement Between Parties,” The Star Online, 9 January 2016, http://www.thestar.com. my/news/nation/2016/01/09/pakatan-harapanunveils-political-agreement-between-parties/.
- The Malay Mail Online, “Penang DCM: DAP Barbs Only Make Us More Resistant to Snap Polls,” The Malay Mail Online, 29 July 2016, http://www. themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/penangdcm-dap-barbs-only-make-us-more-resistant-tosnap-polls.
- The Malay Mail Online, “No More Snap Polls for Penang, Says Guan Eng,” The Malay Mail Online, 31 July 2016, http://www.themalaymailonline. com/malaysia/article/no-more-snap-polls-forpenang-says-guan-eng.
- United States Department of Justice, “United States Seeks to Recover More Than $1 Billion Obtained from Corruption Involving Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund,” 20 July 2016, https:// http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/united-states-seeksrecover-more-1-billion-obtained-corruptioninvolving-malaysian-sovereign.
- Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, “U.S. Links Malaysian Prime Minister to Millions Stolen from Development Fund,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 July 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-seeks1-billion-in-asset-seizures-tied-to-malaysian-fund1mdb-1469019540.
- Michael Peel, “Malaysia Leader’s $680m Donation Said to Come from Saudi Royals,” Financial Times, 26 January 2016, https://www. ft.com/content/33d41ad6-c3e3-11e5-b3b17b2481276e45.
- The Malay Mail Online, “Putrajaya Hiding Real Debt Figures, DAP’s Tony Pua Claims,” The Malay Mail Online, 10 October 2014, http:// http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/ putrajaya-hiding-real-debt-figures-daps-tony-puaclaims.
- Jason Ng, “Malaysia’s Najib Razak Fires Deputy Prime Minister in 1MDB Rift,” The Wall Street Journal, 28 July 2015, http://www.wsj.com/ articles/malaysias-najib-razak-shakes-up-cabinetamid-1mdb-investigation-1438065854.
- Ben Doherty, “Anwar Ibrahim Guilty in Sodomy Case,” The Guardian, 10 February 2015, https:// http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/10/anwaribrahim-guilty-in-sodomy-case.
- Boo Su-Lyn, “What’s Behind Umno’s Support for Hudud?” The Malay Mail Online, 19 March 2015, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/ article/whats-behind-umnos-support-for-hudud.
-  See Zairil Khir Johari, “Hudud Threatens the Future of Malaysia,” Penang Monthly, July 2016, 42–44.
- Greg Lopez, “Moving Away from the Consociational Model,” New Mandala, 2 January 2014, http://www.newmandala.org/moving-awayfrom-the-consociational-model-in-malaysia/.
- That said, there have been recent anomalous instances of dissent at the fringes, with royal interference vetoing centrally decided choices of chief ministers in Perlis, Terengganu and, to a certain extent, Johor.
- See Zairil Khir Johari, “505: The Day BN Won the Election But Lost the Contest,” Penang Monthly, August 2013, 44–47.