Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14

March 17, 2017

Mahathir’s Challenge to UMNO’s Najib Razak in GE-14

by Saleena Saleem

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Anwar Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in the Good Old Days when the former was heir apparent and Deputy Prime Minister. Today Anwar is languishing in Jail

Speculation is rife that Malaysia’s 14th general election, which must be held by August 2018, may be called this year. The general election comes after a protracted political scandal over state wealth fund 1MDB, with damaging financial mismanagement and corruption allegations leveled at Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Several former leaders from the ruling political party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), have left and regrouped into a new Malay nationalist opposition, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad as Chairman, and former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin as President, Bersatu will need to sell itself to a jaded public if it is to pass as a credible contender for UMNO’s Malay voter base.

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Strange brew of Malaysian politicians chasing the rainbow

These public perception challenges stem from the former UMNO leaders’ decisions and actions. At the height of the 1MDB scandal in mid-2015, the expectation that UMNO leaders, particularly Mahathir and Muhyiddin, would lead a massive break-away faction of dissatisfied party members when Najib was at his political weakest, did not materialise.

Instead, they fought for control of UMNO from within for nearly a year. It wasn’t until February 2016 that Mahathir left his old party — for the second time. It was a missed opportunity that gave Najib ample time to build support for his leadership within the various UMNO groups and to present a united front. As a high-profile frontman for Bersatu, Mahathir’s actions during this period may prove problematic for four key reasons as the new party targets the Malay vote.

First, while still in UMNO, Mahathir associated with pro-opposition civil society groups such as Bersih. Mahathir’s participation in the Bersih 4 rally, which was widely seen as a Chinese-dominated anti-Najib demonstration, leaves him vulnerable to Najib’s race-based argument that should Malays fail to support him, the government would fall to a Chinese-led political machine. Given Bersatu’s alliance with the opposition coalition, of which the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) is a key player, such fears can be magnified to its detriment during an election campaign.

Second, Mahathir initially stated he had no intention of establishing a political party upon quitting UMNO, but he did precisely that in late 2016. The timing of his departure from UMNO, which came only after his son, Mukhriz, was forced to resign as the Kedah chief minister by pro-Najib UMNO members, provides ample ammunition to those who claim Mahathir is primarily motivated by his son’s political ambitions rather than a genuine concern for Malaysia’s future.

Third, Mahathir’s past ideological differences, and the harsh treatment of civil society activists and political foes while he was in government, many of whom he associates with today, leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. For example, during the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s, Mahathir clashed over economic policies with his then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. This set the stage for Anwar’s imprisonment on charges of sodomy, and his rise as an opposition leader of the Reformasi movement, which advocated an open society and economy.

Mahathir has curtailed fundamental liberties that the opposition stands for — he used the Internal Security Act to imprison DAP’s leader Lim Kit Siang during Operation Lalang in 1987, after government appointments in Chinese vernacular schools spurred an outcry.

Fourth, Mahathir’s criticism of Najib’s alleged misdeeds over 1MDB leaves him exposed to scrutiny over his own actions while he was prime minister. He already faces criticism over the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance Limited scandal in the 1980s, and the central bank’s forex losses of US$10 billion in the 1990s, although Mahathir’s camp claims the two are not comparable.

Bersatu enters into an opposition political landscape that is already divided, and where the various parties now jostle to re-negotiate the terms of a political arrangement for the upcoming elections. A January survey by INVOKE, an opposition-linked NGO, found that a three-cornered fight between the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (which includes Bersatu), the Islamist party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the ruling party, Barisan Nasional benefits the incumbent government. This makes electoral pacts essential, even as the different ideological bents and histories of the parties in the opposition complicate matters.

The previous opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, saw public bickering among its constituent parties over various issues leading eventually to its collapse. Two examples are the political impasse that ensued over disagreements on the Selangor chief minister post in 2014 and PAS’ renewed focus on implementing hudud (criminal punishment).

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Good Luck to all Chief Sitting Bulls led by Chief Maha Bull of Kubang Pasu

The lack of agreement on seat allocations between remaining coalition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP, during the 2016 Sarawak state elections, and the recent DAP resignations of its elected representatives over simmering grievances from the past coalition pact with PAS, reinforce the perception that the opposition face intractable difficulties in maintaining a cohesive front.

The opposition’s current narrative of ‘Save Malaysia from Najib’, which was built on Mahathir’s short-lived ‘Save Malaysia’ movement may not be as compelling for voters compared to calls for change based on democratic ideals of equality, justice and fairness for all races, and which were emphasised during the previous two general elections.

When Mahathir recently criticised Chinese investment projects in Johor, he utilised the race-oriented tactics of the past, which can be off-putting to some voters who had been drawn to the opposition in the first place.

Nevertheless, although Bersatu carries the baggage of its founding members, it is a new political party with the potential to grow in strength if it can sustain itself beyond its immediate challenges. No doubt Bersatu is a potential spoiler for UMNO.

Addressing public perception issues and becoming a serious contender to UMNO may increasingly require the introduction of a younger generation of politicians. With the senior generation playing the role of mentors, this new generation could do much to project the future direction of Bersatu as a viable political party — one that looks beyond the objective of unseating Najib.

Saleena Saleem is an Associate Research Fellow at Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This commentary was originally jointly published in Policy Forum and New Mandala.


After Anwar, PKR and Pakatan have failed Malaysian Voters

December 16, 2016

After Anwar, PKR and Pakatan have failed Malaysian Voters

by Cmdr (rtd) S. Thayaparan

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”– Thomas More, ‘Utopia’

PAS friends of mine have been writing to me and saying that I am being unfair to PAS. They claim that calling their party a religious cult and branding their style of politics as UMNO collusion is extremely partisan. Amanah is a DAP creation and while in Pakatan Rakyat, PAS was a team player until it was “bullied” and vilified by DAP after the passing of Tok Guru Nik Aziz.

While I dispute this narrative, I think it is pointless hammering on PAS for deciding to go their own way. Instead, I will hammer on PKR for maintaining this charade that there is value for Pakatan Harapan to continue working with PAS.

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Sorely missed by the Fractured Opposition

Mind you, this has nothing to do with PAS. For whatever reasons, they have chosen to recalibrate their politics and while I disagree with it, this is still a free country and political parties are free to choose whom they align with. However, the problem here is not PAS, it is PKR. When I questioned why Harapan was still working with PAS, I acknowledged two salient points:

1) “Harapan should have learnt this lesson a long time ago. PAS construes the alliance as weak. They were always a virulent anti-Anwar strain within PAS which looked at the coming together of the supposed liberal reformer and convicted ‘sodomist’ – to their minds one and the same – as anathema to their zealotry.”

2) “People talk about the UMNO DNA within PKR but they forget that the only reason why the opposition was able to get itself off life support after the brutal beating they took during the short-lived Abdullah Ahmad Badawi glory days was because of the support of PAS.”

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Wan Azizah leads a fractious PKR

PKR’s Batu MP Tian Chua claim that there is nothing to be alarmed about PKR attending PAS’ mega rally points to the dysfunctionality of the opposition. There is enough evidence that the opposition only makes gains in elections when UMNO is weak and the opposition is united.

While I understand that PKR is in a difficult situation when it comes to PAS, the reality is that PAS is preying on the weakness of the opposition front and will happily turn the tables when the time is right for them, and most definitely, link up with UMNO.

Also attending that rally was Parti Ikatan Bangsa Malaysia (Ikatan), which in my opinion is the political wing of the outsourced thugs of Umno. Take the “simple” issue of PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang’s “not hudud” amendment recently adopted by the Najib regime.

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The Kedah Mamak and The Hadi–Strange Bedfellows

The public stand of Ikatan’s President Kadir Sheikh Fadzir (who was absent at the rally) on this issue was: “Justeru, semua pihak jangan cuba nak main ‘game upmanship’ (tunjuk siapa lebih hebat) dengan DAP, selain membuktikan siapa paling anti-Islam dan Melayu semata-mata untuk meraih populariti.

“PAS adalah parti besar dan antara yang menunjangi politik negara selain UMNO, justeru sudah tiba masanya PAS tunjukkan taring mereka.”

How does it look? We just had the MCA issuing a stern reprimand (or whatever that was) to the representative who “walked out” at the Perlis state assembly vote. And now we have PKR attending a rally that ultimately descended into a DAP and Amanah bashing rally.

In other words, PKR thinks there is nothing to be alarmed about when it attends a rally that supports policies that they are supposed to be against and attacks their political allies.

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Meanwhile, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s attempt to play bridge builder has achieved nothing beyond giving PAS the opportunity to vent at their former ally and recalcitrant children. Which of course is fair enough, since Amanah has declared open season on PAS and DAP has made its disdain publicly apparent.

Straight fights

Furthermore, we have to remember that when it comes to PAS, straight fights are not the top priority.  PAS Information Chief Nasrudin Hassan said, “A straight fight or multi-cornered fights (in the general election) can only be derived from the (correct) political attitude. It (straight fights) is not the main issue here.”

I have no idea what the “correct political attitude” is, but the PAS I remember was more interested in bringing down UMNO, rather than advocating the fine points of political theory or nursing hurt feelings on the political battlefield.

If the correct political attitude means working with UMNO when it comes to Muslim issues, then I would suggest that anyone working with UMNO on Muslim issues is anathema to the oppositional voices in this country, but sadly not anathema to Harapan, which has demonstrated that when it comes to Muslim issues, it is quick to fold under pressure. But I digress.

It is really no point in reminding PAS that it lost whenever it went at it alone against BN, because all indications point to the fact that, when it comes to UMNO, PAS does not need to win elections to pose a threat to UMNO. All they have to do is hamper the efforts of the Harapan and Bersatu and they would be more useful to Umno than any of the other BN members.

With this in mind, the electoral pact between Harapan and Bersatu means very little with PAS out of the picture, unless by some miracle – and at the moment I do not see how – the “other” electoral pact between Bersatu and PAS provides an opportunity for straight fights with the UMNO hegemon.

Ultimately, all these attempts at bridge building are pointless. What the opposition should be doing is concentrating on formulating policies and spreading the message of how a Harapan government differs from the present kelptocratic regime. What the opposition should be doing is building a foundation to work from, and not repeating the mistakes that led to its fracture.

This whole idea of straight fights with UMNO is merely a pipe dream now. The “compulsory” precondition of PAS will never be met, and it really does not matter how much time is given to disparate groups’ intent on preserving power instead of removing UMNO. The reality is that unless there is a tsunami in Sabah and Sarawak, there will be no change of government in the next elections.

It will be cold comfort if PAS does not do well in the coming general election but Harapan is in tatters.  Moreover, while opposition supporters think that the opposition has a chance of winning in the coming election, the reality is that the dream of changing government in this political terrain it is still a dream deferred.

Australia-Philippines Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

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Number 364 | December 14, 2016


Australia-Philippines Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

by Charmaine Deogracias and Orrie Johan

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The Philippines and Australia fought side by side in the 1944-1945 campaign that liberated the Philippines from Japanese occupation. After the war, both countries forged alliances with the United States, as Australia and an independent Philippines became increasingly friendly. Today, with their overlapping and proliferating security partnerships, Australia and the Philippines have built on seven decades of bilateral ties to become comprehensive partners.

The two countries share an interest in the continued security and stability of the region and in freedom of navigation of the seas. The rising strength of China also looms large in the security calculus of each country. Both are trying to navigate the vast economic benefits and security concerns that China’s rise presents in the region, and this focus has brought the two countries much closer together. A major difference between the two is that the Philippines has a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea while Australia does not.  This means that for a time Australia was more worried than the Philippines about being entrapped into a war against China. Now that friendly relations between China and the Philippines have been restored under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who vowed to rely on China economically, there is greater convergence with Australian interests in avoiding conflict with China. But Philippines-Australia relations are now being undermined by the new Philippine government’s allergic reaction to human rights and resulting criticisms by Australian and U.S. governments. Relations are also affected by Duterte’s skepticism of Australian and U.S. resolve in supporting the Philippines, and by Australia’s concerns about a shift by Duterte away from the U.S. and towards China. These trends pose major challenges for Philippines-Australia relations and risk causing them to deteriorate.

Australia’s Cautious Bilateralism

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Australia has chosen to respond to the risk of increased regional instability by pursuing closer ties with many of its neighbors in the region, including with the Philippines. Until recently, Australia relied on its close alliance with the U.S. for its security and did not pursue strong security relationships with many other countries in the region. China’s growing challenge to U.S. predominance in the Asia-Pacific has led Australia to shift its approach by bolstering its ties with other regional powers, such as Japan and India.

This trend was strongly encouraged by the U.S., which under the Obama administration has advocated a similar approach to others throughout the region to help develop an Asia-Pacific Principled Security Network and boost regional stability. However, this approach has also become more attractive for Australia because of concerns that the U.S. could reduce its regional presence or even surrender its regional leadership role in the long-term, given growing opposition to international engagement within the United States. In such a scenario, strong Australian ties with other countries in the region could provide additional leverage in future interactions with China.

Among these bilateral partnerships, Australia’s relationship with the Philippines has been one of its fastest growing. Bilateral security cooperation began in earnest in 2005 when the Australian government expressed interest in assisting the Philippines with counterterrorism challenges. The relationship has since deepened to include a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), which went into force in 2012.

Australia now conducts joint military drills with the Philippines, and has participated in the annual Philippines-U.S. Balikatan exercises since 2014. Australia has also supported the Philippines’ right to pursue an international arbitration tribunal’s judgement on its disputes with China in the South China Sea, over Chinese objections. However, despite these major bilateral advances, there have been signs that Australia is less willing than the Philippines to consolidate strong ties. Australia chose to sign a comprehensive partnership with the Philippines rather than the stronger strategic partnership that the Philippines sought, even as it chose to ink such an agreement with Singapore.

The reason for this appears to be that Australia has historically avoided escalating tensions in the region and chosen to refrain from pursuing a strategic partnership or alliance with the Philippines due to concerns that such an action could undermine stability in the South China Sea or force Australia into a conflict with China.

The Philippines’ Pivot to China 

Given the foreign policy shifts that Duterte is seeking, Australia’s calibrated form of security engagement with the Philippines is the kind that Duterte favors for now. His independent foreign policy is shaping up to have Russia as an ally, China as an economic partner, and have Japan compete with China to provide economic benefits and regional security for the Philippines.

Duterte would prefer to keep the status quo with the US alliance and the Australian comprehensive partnership, but their criticisms of his controversial anti-drug campaign will complicate this. Australia and the U.S. have provided a great deal of support to the Philippine military but Duterte has questioned Australian and U.S. resolve against China. He also criticized the US and Australia for meddling in Filipino affairs by condemning his anti-drug campaign that has so far resulted in over 3,000 extra-judicial killings. But his anti-U.S. sentiments are more deep-seated for personal and ideological reasons.

Changing the rhetoric on the South China Sea issue post-arbitration ruling, Duterte has chosen to take a more conciliatory approach in resolving territorial disputes with China and is poised to settle the contentious issue of sovereignty bilaterally. He has not sought a complete overhaul of his predecessor’s policies, as he expressed willingness to maintain close ties with Japan, which has become concerned at Duterte’s talk of radical shifts by the Philippines towards China. He is open to joint military exercises with Japan, but has redirected the focus of bilateral drills with U.S. armed forces from maritime security to humanitarian assistance and counterterrorism, and scrapped naval drills such as amphibious landings and boat raids altogether.

Duterte has not yet spoken of abandoning Australia or reducing the already low scale military exercises with it the way he has about the United States. But the fact is that Australia’s criticisms of Duterte’s extra-judicial domestic policies and controversial comments have put Australia on Duterte’s watch list alongside the European Union and the United Nations. It appears that under Duterte, Australian ambivalence towards stronger ties with the Philippines is beginning to be reciprocated.

Until recently, the main factor complicating Australia-Philippines relations was a divergence in attitudes to the risk of conflict against China. While that is no longer the case, differences over the Duterte administration’s policy approaches are now the primary obstacle to strengthening Australia-Philippines ties. These concerns will prevent the bilateral relationship from improving and may even undermine it in the future.

About the Authors

Charmaine Deogracias is  a journalist writing for Vera Files in the Philippines. She can be reached at

Orrie Johan is a researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He recently obtained a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

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Man, oh man!–Another Racist Political Party in Malaysia

July 26, 2016

Man, oh man!–Another Racist Political Party in Malaysia

by Azmi Sharom

Man, oh man! This new party being proposed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has really set some alarm bells ringing.

First and foremost, I think that if anyone wants to set up a political party, that’s their right to do so.Go ahead, knock yourself out, have fun.

My concern is what this does to the already incredibly messy and chaotic political scene of the country. The Opposition is in disarray. Top leaders are either locked up or being dragged through the legal process.

Pakatan Rakyat  To Pakatan Harapan– From one Mess to Another

The promising Pakatan Rakyat has torn apart with PAS suddenly rediscovering its medieval roots. The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) is still finding its feet and I do not believe it has captured the public imagination as how the Pakatan Rakyat did all those years ago.

Plus, now with PAS dancing to its own tune (figuratively of course, because I am sure the party frowns on dancing), it looks like three-cornered fights is going to be the order of the day.

If that is the case, then Barisan Nasional will stand to gain the most.All this mess, and that is without taking into consideration any internal politicking in the three component parties of the PH.

I am certain such politicking exists, although I have no idea what they may be, being an outsider and all. But even without such shenanigans, things do not look good for the Opposition.

And into this situation a new political party may jump in. We aren’t even sure what this party is all about. It appears to be concerned with working with the Opposition to get rid of the Barisan Nasional Government.

Yet, at the same time, its figurehead is saying that it may not go up against UMNO. I’m sorry. What? Maybe I am missing some subtle political point here but the last time I looked, the Prime Minister, his Deputy and many other ministers are from UMNO.

With Mahathir’s  New Party? You must be kidding, man

You want to get rid of the current Government leaders but not fight against UMNO? Can this be correct or was there a total misunderstanding and the news report I read was wrong?

Furthermore, I am most curious to find out just what this new party is all about. What is its manifesto? Is it just to fight Barisan? Or will it have other things it wants to champion?

Perhaps it is going to promise to fix the institutional disaster that we are faced with today. A disaster that can trace its roots to the regime of Dr Mahathir (1981-2003).

It would be interesting if it did want to champion this, seeing as how its de facto head does not have any inclination to admit that perhaps, just perhaps, he has to bear some responsibility for the situation we and he find ourselves in today.

Also there is a possibility that this new party is going to be a Malay party. Really? Great, that’s just what we need; another party that reinforces racial politics. I suppose since its target demographic is UMNO and PAS supporters, it wants to appeal to the Malay heartland.

Even if that is the case, it is a sad state of affairs that these people seem to think that the only way they can do this is by reverting to a political norm that has in the long term caused a divisive and divided society.

And how about their potential partners? How can the PH accept a race-based party when all three parties in PH are not race-based and have spoken out against such things in the past? Additionally, just what exactly is the relationship going to be between this new party and the PH.

Will someone like Dr Mahathir–a megalomaniac by inclination– allow himself to be merely an equal partner or will he want to dictate everything? There is no clue whatsoever as to how this new party will fit into the existing system. All this does is add confusion to an already depressing state of affairs. And I do not know if it is going to help or not.

Let’s be frank, the reason I keep singling out Dr Mahathir is because without him, this new party will not exist. He has been campaigning against the Prime Minister for a long time now and you must be naïve to think that this new party, whatever it may be, will be formed if Dr Mahathir didn’t want it to happen.

But how influential is he anyway? In the last two by-elections, there seems to be no indication that his presence can make a dent in the UMNO support.

Will his party do better? Who knows? Yet, the PH are probably hoping that the Mahathir factor can help turn that particularly Umno-centric demographic.

They obviously decided that it is worth it to consort with their former enemy to do so. The question is, what if the Mahathir factor is not a factor at all? Will it then be worth it to have him in the same team?

Only time will tell.

Azmi Sharom ( is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

By-Elections Postmortem


Washington DC

June 29, 2016

Malaysia: By-Elections Postmortem

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Getting out the younger voters in force, building up the grassroots leadership, a lesser dependence on big names and big ceramah, focusing on local issues that resonate – together, they may reduce the odds which have now tilted against the opposition. But there may not be enough time, resources or goodwill within the fragmented opposition to make these happen.–Lim Teck Ghee

The two by-elections outcome was never in doubt. However, the size of the Barisan (BN) majorities has produced an outpouring of analysis from all sides and shades of the political spectrum.

From the government and its support side, there is undoubted relief, especially for the embattled Prime Minister. A loss would have imperiled – perhaps toppled – Najib Razak. It was a victory that was savoured as it was larger than most had expected.

But was it really “such landslide results” as exulted by the Prime Minister? And so grievous a loss as lamented by the opposition leaders?

One way of looking at the outcome is not simply to view the BN majorities obtained in the two constituencies. The Sungai Besar majority of 9,191 and Kuala Kangsar’s 6,969 were certainly a vast improvement over the simple majorities of 399 and 1082 obtained in 2013. However, the combined BN votes for the two constituencies was 29,453 as against the combined opposition vote of 25,114.

This is a margin which should not provide much comfort to BN leaders and strategists given that its resources will have to be more thinly deployed at the decisive national election in 2017 or 18. Winning big in 222 parliamentary seats is an entirely different proposition from winning big in just 2.

Cohesive BN, Fragmented Opposition

Whichever way one wants to look at the voting numbers and the conclusions to draw, it is clear that the final margin was made wider by a numerically, materially and tactically superior BN electoral machinery up against a splintered opposition lacking resources, losing credibility, and for all intents and purposes, fighting against each other more than against the BN.

We have now a revitalized, more cohesive and confident BN. As for the opposition, the two losses have produced hand wringing, finger pointing and a search for answers on how and why it lost so badly; and what it means for their future prospects.

For both government and opposition sides, it is clear that Dr. Mahathir is no longer the political force or influence that the internet media and his band of “Citizen’s Declaration” loyalists have made him out to be. The 1MDB issue resonates little or not at all with ordinary voters in the two constituencies.

Throughout the nation, 1MDB and the USD700 million deposit in the Prime Minister’s personal account can be expected to recede more and more in the background of voter political sentiment and concern unless there is some massively incriminating disclosure which makes it imperative for the Prime Minister to ease himself into early retirement.

It also appears that UMNO’s grip on Malay voters – farmers, fishermen, smallholders, petty traders, small business people – in rural and semi-rural areas has tightened.

This is amidst rising living costs and difficult living conditions for the lower classes, and unresolved scandals and management blunders affecting Felda, Lembaga Tabung Haji (with its over 9 million depositors) and other UMNO dominated agencies, seems to run against political sense and logic. One could have expected that the present current socio-economic situation is tailor-made for exploitation by the opposition.

Why PAS and Amanah parties were not able to make better headway with Malay voters on both religious (and moral) and bread and butter issues is a puzzle which observers close to the ground during the campaign do not seem to have figured out.

Was it because UMNO had trumped PAS and thrown the opposition into disarray with its preemptive strike approving Hadi’s hudud bill for debate in Parliament? Was it because PAS was holding back its attacks on UMNO in the quest for Islamic unity and inter-party union? Was it because opposition leaders were obsessed with big names and big issues? Was it because of the dependence on the internet and a lack of local election workers and rapport with grassroots voters? Was it because Malay Muslim voters were little or unaware of issues such as Tabung Haji being on the brink of collapse due to mismanagement and its link with the 1MDB crisis? Or that if they were aware, were they persuaded that they could expect that the Government would ensure a bailout by other taxpayers?

Deciphering the answers to these questions will probably hold the key to success and victory in the next general election.

As for the Chinese, the return to the BN camp – even if partial – was not a surprise. The opposition implosion and incessant public squabbling as well as the community’s antipathy towards Dr. Mahathir and distrust of his motives resulted in fewer Chinese voters returning to cast their votes; and a smaller final turnout in both constituencies. Total turnout for Kuala Kangsar was estimated at 71 percent and at Sungai Besar, 74 percent; well down from the 88 percent and 84 percent respectively attained in 2013.

For those who voted, it was probably a case of “better the devil you know than the deep blue sea”, especially since Dr. Mahathir’s main objective in his efforts to bring down the Prime Minister is to save UMNO and ensure the continuity of UMNO’s leadership of the country.

There are few, if any, positives that the opposition can take away from the two by-elections. BN’s hold over the nation’s voters seems secure even with the serial mis-governance and abuses of power that have taken place.

Getting out the younger voters in force, building up the grassroots leadership, a lesser dependence on big names and big ceramah, focusing on local issues that resonate – together, they may reduce the odds which have now tilted against the opposition. But there may not be enough time, resources or goodwill within the fragmented opposition to make these happen.

Malaysian Voters abandon Reformist Political Opposition

June 26, 2016

New York

Malaysian Voters abandon Reformist Political Opposition

by John Berthelsen

Malaysian voters, disregarding arguably the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history, have given the national ruling coalition conclusive victories in two closely-watched by-elections over the weekend (June 18) and handed the scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak a sweeping mandate to continue in office.–John Berthelsen

After Sarawak and By Election Victories in Perak and Selangor, Najib’s Barisan Nasional is poised for Victory in GE-14

Malaysian voters, disregarding arguably the biggest financial scandal in the country’s history, have given the national ruling coalition conclusive victories in two closely-watched by-elections over the weekend and handed the scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak a sweeping mandate to continue in office.

The victories in parliamentary seats in Selangor and Perak, both previously held by the Barisan Nasional, as the coalition is known, were by far larger margins than in the 2013 elections. They are an indication that despite allegations that as much as US$4 billion had disappeared from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd., voters, particularly Chinese ones, are returning to the Barisan fold after flirting with the opposition in both the 2008 and 2013 general elections.

The Malay vote in the two districts was split between three ethnic Malay camps – the Barisan’s United Malays National Organization and the moderate opposition Parti Amanah Negara, which split off from the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia last year. The return of Chinese voters – many of them in strongholds more recently dominated by the Democratic Action Party – demonstrated the strength of the Barisan. It is primarily the Chinese who have served as the backbone of the opposition over the past two elections.

As much as anything, however, the vote, and a similarly decisive victory in Sarawak in May state elections, are an indication that a fragmented and frustrated opposition has blown its chance to make headway at a time when the Barisan should be floundering over the 1MDB scandal, an unexplained US$681 million deposited in 2013 in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts, and when the country is caught in a broad economic slowdown as a result of falling commodity and crude oil prices.

With Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison on sexual deviance charges that many human rights critics have denounced as rigged, his own Parti Keadilan Rakyat has degenerated into squabbling camps, one headed by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and the other headed by Azmin Ali, the Selangor state Chief Minister.  Most recently Rafizi Ramli, the Party Ssecretary-General and a Wan Azizah ally, accused unnamed Selangor officials of trading favors for money and sex.

Likewise – allegedly over skillful maneuvering by Najib to split PAS into moderate and conservative factions over the issue of Islamic law for the state of Kelantan – PAS has also been divided into two parts, neither of them strong enough to take out the other, and splitting what in the 2008 and 2013 general elections had been a formidable vote-gathering machine.

Although some election analysts have said the victories were more for UMNO than for the candidates, they are an indication that Najib’s strength is deeper than among just the 192 UMNO district chiefs who refused to vote to remove him as party head during the height of the crisis late last year over 1MDB, when an almost daily drumbeat of scandal found its way into the opposition press, which survives online. The victories are a clear indication that calls for reform have crested and sentiment is receding.

Unless Najib is indicted in one of the seven international jurisdictions investigating money-laundering charges over 1MDB, and perhaps not even then, he is likely to remain at the head of the country for an indefinite period. He has nullified opposition within UMNO, neutralized two powerful media voices in The Edge Group and Malaysian Insider, and threatened a wide range of civic leaders and groups with sedition charges to shut them up.

The Prime Minister’s strength raises two other issues – first, whether Najib, emboldened by the victories, will call a snap election ahead of the 2018 parliamentary deadline while his opponents have been badly weakened. The other question is whether he will go ahead and allow PAS to push through a private member’s bill that would allow for the implementation of hudud, or harsh Islamic law, in the state of Kelantan, which it holds as an opposition party.

Many political analysts believed the government fast-tracked the measure at the end of the most recent parliamentary session as election bait in the two Malay-dominant districts.

PAS had also pushed hard for the hudud introduction ahead of the two by-elections and is expected to use the Kuala Kangsar result despite the UMNO win, where two-thirds of voters are Muslim, to push ahead for the measure.

UMNO-BN candidate Mastura Mohd Yazid, the widow of Wan Mohammad Khair-il Anuar Wan Mohammad, who was killed in a May helicopter crash, drubbed opposition candidates from Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Parti Amanah Negara without campaigning in the Sungai Besar constituency in Kuala Kangsar in Perak.

In the Sungai Besar constituency in Selangor, UMNO state assemblyman Budiman Mohd Zohdi, 44, won with a 9,191-vote margin in a district that barely ended up in the Barisan camp in 2013, beating the PAS contender’s 6,902 votes and Amanah’s 7,609. Some 74 percent of the voters turned out in Sungai Besar and 71 percent in Kuala Kangsar.

The winning margins were far larger than the narrow 1 and 4 percent in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar respectively that were notched in the 2013 general election, and they also are an indication that the sway is severely diminished for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has made it a personal campaign to drive Najib from office. At age 90 – 91 on July 10 – his followers are increasingly concerned that his decades as a powerhouse and kingmaker may be coming to a close.