The Struggle for Political Islam in ‘new Malaysia’

July 6, 2018

The Struggle for Political Islam in ‘new Malaysia’

Despite PAS’ electoral wins, the new government belies the cliches of monolithic Islamist politics.

There was a limit to playing identity politics during the 14th General Elections (GE14), but it’s now too simplistic to say there’s a “new politics” where race and religion no longer matter in Malaysia. Malaysia is not totally free from elements of Bumiputraism and Islamism, yet there are diversifications and transformations of discourses and practices in political Islam. And these changes will continue to shape and be shaped by political contestations in this “new Malaysia”.

Opposition party PAS and victorious Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition party Amanah are unlikely to cooperate in the name of Islam. Although both claim to be Islamic parties, their approaches are rather different. PAS is a more Malay-oriented Islamic party with its strongholds in Kelantan and Terengganu, while Amanah is a more cosmopolitan and reformist-inclined Islamic party with a support base in the urbanised Klang Valley. Such Pas–Amanah competition might be also framed as a contestation between orthodox versus moderate Islamism, Islamism versus post-Islamism, or political Islam 1.0 versus 2.0; of course, the realities are more much more complex than these differentiations. Hence, it is a mistake to claim that Malay Muslims in the Klang Valley are less “Islamic” than those in the east coast states, just because they did not vote for PAS.

Image result for political islam in ‘new malaysia’

At GE-14, PAS won 18 parliamentary seats while Amanah secured 11 seats. However, the “Islamic voice” in the winning PH coalition also exists in its other component parties PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) and even PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia), as there are leaders with ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) and IKRAM (Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia) background in both parties. In short, PAS is no longer the only dominant force representing political Islam in Malaysia, as it’s facing strong challenges from other political parties and also NGOs with Islamic credentials.

Many Malaysians, including Malay Muslims, voted against Najib Razak and issues such as the GST and corruption in GE-14. Yet where these Malay protest votes go are configured by political orientations among Malay Muslims, depending on regions. In the southern states such as Johor, Malay nationalism is strong and PAS is not an important force. Hence the anti-Najib voters’ swinging to PH.

Image result for political islam in ‘new malaysia’

Also Read here:

But in the east coast states, PAS is strong on its own. After successfully denouncing Amanah and consolidating its hardcore supporters, the party ran extensive campaigns against the GST and corruption to attract anti-Najib voters. It may be inaccurate to claim that many Malay Muslims in Kelantan and Terengganu were voting for RUU355, a parliamentary bill proposed by PAS president Hadi Awang to enhance existing Syariah laws.

In the Klang Valley, potential PAS voters are much more diverse and sophisticated than those in the east coast. Aside from the PAS hardcore, there are also supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, ABIM, Ikram, and other Islamic movements. At GE14, the PAS hardcore stayed loyal yet others, especially those from ABIM and IKRAM, ran effective campaigns for PH, lending the coalition much-needed Islamic credentials. They have successfully persuaded many former PAS voters in the Klang Valley to vote for PH.

Many observers have focused on PAS’ winning Kelantan and Terengganu states on its own, attributing its victories to religious factors and describing PAS voters as a “moral constituency”. However, such analyses often wrongly suggest Muslims who have voted for PH are less “Islamic” and less concerned about “moral issues”. Many have also taken urban Muslim supporters of PH for granted.

Take the case of Sungai Ramal (formerly Bangi), a Malay-majority urban state seat in Selangor. By exploring how PAS and PH (represented by Amanah) competed to win over pious urban Muslim voters, by offering different approaches to political Islam, its results tell us more about the transformation of political Islam in urban Malaysia.

Like Shah Alam, Bangi or to be more accurate Bandar Baru Bangi (Bangi New Town) was an urban development project under the New Economic Policy (NEP) to increase the urban Malay population. The state assembly seat of Bangi, renamed Sungai Ramal in 2018, had previously been won by PAS in 1999, 2008, and 2013. Yet it was captured by PH in 2018. The main offices of ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) and HTM (Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia) are located in Bangi, while many ABIM and IKRAM activists also reside in this township.

Bangi is generally seen as a “middle-class Malay Muslim” township. It’s also known as “bandar ilmu” (“knowledge town”, where UKM and KUIS are located) and “bandar fesyen” (“fashion town”, where many Muslimah boutiques and halal eateries are situated). During the GE14 campaign, some Amanah leaders also called Bangi “bandar Rahmatan lil-Alamin”—an inclusive Islamic township which is “a blessing for all”.

After the controversial redelineation exercises nationwide by the Election Commission (EC), the state constituency of Bangi not only got a new name (Sungai Ramal) but also an increase in Malay voters, from about 66% to 80%. Such demographics might have indicated a higher chance for PAS to retain the seat or perhaps enabled UMNO to wrest the seat back. However, as I have observed during the election campaign, Bangi was a battleground between PAS (represented by Nushi Mahfodz, a celebrity ustaz) and Amanah (represented by Mazwan Johar, a lawyer and ex-PAS activist), given that UMNO was not popular among many urban, educated middle-class Malay Muslims.

In order to engage with its middle class and youth members, as well as to win over support from a broader set of pious Muslims, the PAS leadership in Selangor knows its religious credentials alone are not enough. Party strategists have introduced the idea of “technocratic government” (kerajaan teknorat), running events such as “town hall” meetings featuring the party’s youth leaders from professional backgrounds. But religious issues are still central to the PAS campaign. It fielded Nushi Mahfodz, a lecturer at KUIS (Kolej Universiti Islam Selangor) and a celebrity ustaz, as an attempt to win over pious voters. PAS also had certain controls over mosques, religious schools and kindergartens across Bangi.

But there were some uncertainties and dissatisfaction among PAS supporters during GE-14, and they posed challenging questions to party leaders over the campaign. According to PAS ceramah attendees I met, there were different levels of support toward the Islamist party. Some were hardcore PAS members, some were dissatisfied members considering voting for PH, while others who were unhappy with the party leadership still stayed loyal to the party. One of them used the analogy of a classroom: “the teacher might be wrong, but the textbook is always correct. We can criticise the teacher, but we can’t throw away our textbook”.

Pakatan Harapan was well aware it was not enough to campaign solely against the GST and corruption if it wanted to win over pious Muslim voters in Bangi. So it wasn’t a surprise that Amanah arranged a dialogue in Bangi during the GE14 campaign featuring Ustaz Nik Omar, the eldest son of the late Nik Aziz, the revered former PAS spiritual leader. In that dialogue, Nik Omar suggested that his father was not only fighting for the party (PAS), but also more importantly for Islam and for dakwah. For him, dakwah was an “Islamic outreach” towards the broader Muslim community and non-Muslims as well. Compared to “inward-looking” PAS, Nik Omar found PH a better platform for dakwah. In some ways, he carried the legacy of his father, emphasising the need to engage with broader societies while upholding an Islamic agenda.

But Nik Omar himself suffered a heavy defeat in Kelantan, where PAS hardcore supporters in the east coast were ideologically committed and highly loyal to the party. Yet Nik Omar played an important role in helping PH win over fence-sitter Muslim voters, especially in the Klang Valley. If Dr Mahathir Mohammad with his “Malay nationalist” outlook convinced some previously UMNO voters to switch their support to PH, Nik Omar with his “Islamic credentials” persuaded some previously PAS voters to swing their support to Harapan.

By hailing Nik Aziz as an exemplary Muslim leader in its elections campaign, Amanah emphasised social inclusiveness, working with people from all walks of life including non-Muslims. Yet, at the same time, it maintained certain conservative religious and moral viewpoints. For example, some of its leaders committed PH to not allowing cinemas and alcohol sellers in Bangi. In addition to Nik Omar, many ABIM leaders living in Bangi including its first president Razali Nawawi and fourth president Muhammad Nur Manuty also gave their support to PH candidates. A local PKR leader who ran one of the campaign offices was also from an ABIM background. The main campaign team for the Amanah candidate included youth activists from IKRAM.

As the results showed, a combined effort by Amanah, PKR, IKRAM and ABIM activists defeated the incumbent PAS candidate in this urban Malay Muslim-majority seat. The PH coalition won with 24,591 votes, with PAS securing 13,961 votes while UMNO only got 9,372 votes. As compared to the 2013 elections, there was a huge decrease in both PAS voters (dropping to 13,961 from 29,200 previously) and UMNO voters (to 9,372 from 17,362 previously). In other words, about half of previously PAS and UMNO voters swung their support over to Pakatan Harapan.

Various reasons contributing to this change of voting patterns include the possibility that a significant number of former PAS voters are also supporters of PKR, ABIM, IKRAM, and other Islamic organisations. They are pious voters who consider Islam as an important factor in their voting but they’re not loyal PAS supporters. At GE14, many of them indicated their acceptance of PH as an “Islamic alternative”. Despite that, PAS was still able to keep its 30% support base of Muslim voters in Bangi, suggesting that the Islamist party still has influence among urban Muslims in the Klang Valley. It might be premature to conclude that PAS is only a regional party with influence in the east coast and northern states.

The GE-14 result reflects the enduring influence of PAS and it remains one of the key players of political Islam in Malaysia. Yet at the same time, Amanah and PKR, and to a lesser extent, PPBM, together with IKRAM and ABIM, have offered a viable “Islamic alternative” for pious Muslim voters. Over the next few years, can PAS rejuvenate or expand its support base in the Klang Valley? Can Amanah make further inroads into the east coast states?

The competition for pious Muslim voters will continue to shape and be shaped by Malaysian politics. Anwar Ibrahim recently visited his comrade Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, while Nik Omar and some Amanah leaders have also made references to Erdogan. Some liberal Muslims have questioned the suitability of Maszlee Malik as the Minister of Education because of his perceived “Islamist” background, and he replied such critics by pointing out “being religious is not a crime”.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stated his intention to revamp the federal government’s Islamic affairs bureaucracy JAKIM, leaving the room open for further competition among different Islamic groups in Malaysia. Such competition will also be configured by the engagement of Muslims from various backgrounds—from traditionalists to modernists, from secular-minded to Islamist-minded, from progressive to conservative. And there are the interactions with non-Muslim Malaysians to consider as well.

DUN Sungai Ramal(formerly Bangi) 2018Total voters: 54,961

Malays 80%   Chinese 9%

Indians 10%   Others 1%

2013Total voters: 53,268

Malays 66%   Chinese 19%

Indians 13%   Others 1%

BN-UMNO 9,372 17,362
PAS 13,961 29,200
PH-Amanah 24,591

Election results in the Sungai Ramal state seat (formerly Bangi) in 2018 and 2013 [data from]

The Myth of Supremacy Politics and the Fourth Estate

July 4, 2018

The Myth of Supremacy Politics and the Fourth Estate

by Bob Teoh

COMMENT | Ousted former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is trying desperately to save his skin in the shadow of his impending trial over allegations of massive corruption by espousing the myth of Malay supremacy.

Image result for najib razak arrested

Therein lies the challenge to the fourth estate: to check the return of such extremism in the public square.

Such blatant use of the race and religion card is not new to UMNO; it was the bedrock of the finally defeated BN coalition. But it was in the decade of Najib’s regime that this fascist tendency of suppressing his critics and opposition by any means, and the use of the Malay supremacy ruse, became an art form for political survival.

At one time, Najib seemed invincible and unstoppable. Indeed, he had become a god of his own making, until the rakyat overwhelmingly removed the altar from under him in the May 9 general election. Even Umno members deserted him en masse, leading to the party’s unprecedented defeat.

Malays, by and large, do not fall for Najib’s racist supremacy bait. Otherwise, how do we account for UMNO’s massive loss of Malay votes? The doctrine of supremacy is both a fallacy and a myth.

Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor have nowhere to run to, now that they are prohibited from leaving the country. Like a drowning man would clutch to a straw, he now tries to incite the paranoid Malay elements to rally around him by telling them they have become terbangsat (bastardised) on their own turf, now that UMNO has lost power.

And he takes pride in his misplaced prophesy, by saying in words to the effect of “I told you so three years ago.”

Why ‘terbangsat’?

Terbangsat is a nuanced Malay word that is difficult to translate. It could mean ‘despised’ or ‘contemptible’. But Najib uses the prefix ter-. This elevates the word to a superlative of the highest form. This could mean ‘truly despised’ or ‘terribly damned’. Malaysiakini used the term ‘bastardised’, but regardless of the translation, what is certain is that it stinks – literally. The word derives from bangsat, a kutu busuk or bedbug.

When I was small, it was not unusual to find bangsat on our mattresses. We couldn’t swat the bangsat – not only would the blood leave an ugly stain, but a smell on the fingers that would not go away, even after washing.


There is no doubt, therefore, that Najib’s use of the word was meant to be incendiary. He posted the comment on his Facebook on the same night of UMNO’s triennial election, on June 30.

Image result for UMNO in Tatters

The End of UMNO?

“UMNO members need to put the party’s interests as a priority in order to rebuild the party strength. We also have to learn from past mistakes, strengthen unity and care between UMNO members. We should stop arguing and avoid making imputations that can affect UMNO unity if we want to restore the power of the party and lift the struggle for religion, race and country.

“Malays cannot rely on the government of Pakatan Harapan to defend and fight for their destiny. This is because the power of their Malay party comes from the support of non-Malays. So far, the Harapan government has allowed a violation of the Malay language, and the Islamic and bumiputera agenda will not be prioritised in their administration. I had said Malays will be terbangsat in their own country if UMNO lost power.

“We have lost power and must be strong in the face of this challenge laid before us by Allah. God willing, with stronger unity and love for the party, UMNO can restore people’s confidence, especially the Malays,” his post read.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

If Malays were indeed in danger of being terbangsat three years ago, why then did Najib not do anything to save their fall from grace?

Did he promote the use and stature of the Malay language? Why did he allow contractors from China building the heavily debt-laden East Coast Rail Line to use only Chinese in their signage and speeches? Did they use Malay subcontractors? Who was it really that hastened the terbangsat downslide of the Malays?

It seems like anytime anyone cries wolf, the pack goes on the hunt for something Chinese to vilify. Even the Oxford-educated Khairy Jamaluddin had no qualms in using the race card in his bid for the top post in the party.

His Ketuanan Melayu politics failed him

Five days before the polls, Khairy (photo) chided Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng for issuing a trilingual press statement that included one in Chinese, accusing him of undermining the status of Bahasa Malaysia.

“My concern is this act will continue to fan the flames of anger among the majority who are feeling increasingly threatened in recent weeks,” he said on Facebook. It is pathetic coming from Khairy, the best of the worst UMNO has to offer.

For six decades UMNO ruled the country without any real opposition, and yet Malays in their eyes are terbangsat. Or are in danger of falling down the slippery slope – in Khairy’s logic – because of one press statement.

Right on cue, up popped former Johor Menteri Besar Mohamed Khaled Nordin to describe Lim’s action as insolent and an insult to the status of Bahasa Malaysia.

Race card up the sleeve

The manner in which UMNO leaders, particularly Najib, use the race card to incite Malays would presuppose that they cannot think for themselves.

For instance, just a month before the recent general election, Najib raised another ruse. He had told the audience at a dinner for the armed forces and police that a “Malaysian Malaysia” – referring to the Chinese-dominant DAP – might spell the end of the Royal Malay Regiment if the wrong leadership takes control of the country.

Fortunately, the armed forces veterans group Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan (Patriot) retorted that it would be “virtually impossible” for any party to disband the regiment due to constitutional safeguards, as well as the unit’s long history.

Image result for Patriot President Mohd Arshad Raji

Patriot President Mohd Arshad Raji (pic above) said Najib’s remarks were also clearly targeted at opposition parties and would not augur well for overall national unity.

The monarchy, special position of the Malays, Bahasa Malaysia and Islam, and other Malay institutions, are so heavily protected by the Federal Constitution and state constitutions that one would not dare to imagine anyone in his right senses would even try to undermine it.

Rest assured, the Malays are secure. But the new democracy we voted for on May 9 is still a work in progress. Illiberal, conservative forces still lurk in our midst to undermine our newfound freedom.

Given this situation, the press, as the fourth estate, must learn to discard its fear of pointing out racism and xenophobia. This is because the role of the press is to safeguard public interest and democratic values by pursuing an informed discussion – fearlessly and honestly.

BOB TEOH is a media analyst.

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

Trump’s true talent is marketing failure as success

May 28, 2018

Trump’s true talent is marketing failure as success

by Dr.Fareed Zakaria
Image result for Trump the con artist

 “As talks fail, deals collapse and negotiations founder, Trump continues to tweet triumphantly about his great success. It makes one realize the President’s true talent. He has the confidence, bravado and skill to market failure as success. He can take a mediocre building, slap some gold paint on it and then convince people it’s a super-luxury condominium. Call it the Art of the Spin.–Fareed Zakaria

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s recurring criticism of his predecessor is that he just didn’t know how to make a deal. “Obama is not a natural deal maker,” he tweeted in 2016, complaining that there was no accord on Syria. “Obama will attack Iran because of his inability to negotiate properly,” he predicted incorrectly back in 2013. Trump was scathing about President Obama’s lack of legislative success, pronouncing him “unable to negotiate w/ Congress.” “We need leaders who can negotiate great deals for Americans,” Trump tweeted in 2015, and the implication was obvious — he was the ultimate deal-maker.

It is almost 500 days into the Trump administration. Where are the deals? Where is the renegotiated NAFTA, the bilateral trade agreements that were going to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new and improved Iran nuclear pact, the China trade deal? Trump’s record in Congress is even less impressive. He has not been able to strike an accord with Democrats on anything, from immigration to infrastructure. The world is laughing at us, as he would say.

Well, what must the world be thinking now, as it watches the Trump administration careen wildly on everything from North Korea to China? What must it have thought as it watched the master negotiator in a televised session with congressional leaders on immigration, where he seemed to agree with the Democratic position, then agree with the (incompatible) Republican position, all the while asserting that they were going to make a deal? They didn’t.

By now it is obvious that Trump is actually a bad negotiator, an impulsive, emotional man who ignores briefings, rarely knows details, and shoots first and asks questions later.

Consider how the administration has handled the North Korea summit. First, the meeting was announced with great fanfare, with Trump soon lavishing praise on Kim Jong Un. Agreeing to the meeting was an enormous symbolic concession to the North Koreans, while getting almost nothing in return. This was to be a head-of-state summit, though there was little preparation and no determination that the two sides were close enough to have a serious negotiation at that level. Trump got excited enough to start hyping the prospects for a breakthrough agreement despite little evidence of any movement in the North Korean position. Next, Trump’s advisers embarked on a strange series of comments that seemed designed to threaten, scare and intimidate North Korea. Was this the plan? Did the administration regret its early overtures? Or was this all just incompetence? Is it any wonder that the whole thing has collapsed?

Trump has been even more ham-handed in his dealings with China. Just before entering the White House, he dangled the possibility of recognizing Taiwan. Beijing quickly shut down contact with the United States and, humiliatingly, Trump had to walk back his comments in a phone call with President Xi Jinping.

Image result for Trump the con artist

The current trade talks with China are a case study in bad negotiations. It’s hard to know where to begin. The U.S. government does not seem to know what it wants. Some days it appears that Washington is fixated on the size of the trade deficit. Other days it focuses on technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property. The White House began its attacks by imposing tariffs on steel, which mostly affected American allies, ensuring that it had no partners in its attempt to pressure the Chinese. After insisting that no countries would be exempted, the administration once again reversed course and doled out exemptions to the top five steel exporters to the U.S, though it threatens to reverse itself again.

American negotiators leak furiously to the press to undermine each other’s positions and even squabbled among themselves in front of a Chinese delegation earlier this month. Trump himself seems to switch gears repeatedly. After his administration announced that it would punish ZTE, a huge Chinese tech company that committed serious trade violations, Trump suddenly changed his mind, citing concern for the impact on Chinese jobs. Imagine the outcry if Obama had backed away from pressure on the Chinese to help their economy!

On the legislative front, Trump chose to begin his presidency with the divisive issue of healthcare rather than a unifying one like infrastructure — and failed to get Obamacare repealed anyway. Oh, and don’t forget, he and son-in-law Jared Kushner were going to broker the ultimate deal, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. How’s that going?

Image result for fareed zakaria

As talks fail, deals collapse and negotiations founder, Trump continues to tweet triumphantly about his great success. It makes one realize the President’s true talent. He has the confidence, bravado and skill to market failure as success. He can take a mediocre building, slap some gold paint on it and then convince people it’s a super-luxury condominium. Call it the Art of the Spin.

Fareed Zakaria:

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Malaysia: Can Pakatan Harapan handle Change– Mixed Signals

May 20, 2018

Malaysia: Can Pakatan Harapan handle Change– Mixed Signals

by Mariam Mokhtar

…a substantial coterie of Malay nationalists and religious zealots remains in place, with members of the defeated United Malays National Organization (UMNO) still machinating on how to thwart the new government.”–Mariam Mokhtar

Image result for Pakatan Harapan Menteri Besar of Johor


Changes of government –especially after six decades of misrule —  are usually followed by joy-filled, tearful scenes in the streets and mass gatherings eager to embrace a fresh start. A celebration of the throwing out the old, corrupt regime, and welcoming in the new administration.

As the dust settles, there appears fat chance of that happening in Malaysia, where a substantial coterie of Malay nationalists and religious zealots remains in place, with members of the defeated United Malays National Organization (UMNO) still machinating on how to thwart the new government.

One day after the polls, a subdued but delighted crowd gathered outside the palace until 11 pm, waiting several hours for the swearing-in of the seventh Prime Minister — Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year combatant who had led a months-long, take-no-prisoners charge to rid the country of his onetime protège, Najib Razak, saying he had been personally betrayed.

Having secured victory, Mahathir has acted like a man possessed, trying to rebuild Malaysia and restore its reputation seemingly overnight.  He has wasted no time in getting his cabinet in order. This was the old Mahathir, methodical, meticulous and masterful at political machination. If members of his winning team thought they could have a well-deserved rest following the two public holidays that Mahathir had earlier declared after  winning the 14th General Election, they were sorely disappointed.

Having said in previous interviews that he had little time left to rebuild Malaysia, Mahathir held several meetings to form a credible government, appointed three Cabinet ministers, pushed for a royal pardon for his former adversary, Anwar, and still found time to meet the Sultan of Brunei, the Prime Minister of Singapore, and the Governor of Sarawak, Taib Mahmud.

Image result for Pakatan Harapan Menteri Besar of Johor

He blazed his way through matters of state, ordered travel bans on Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, and several prominent politicians and cronies including the former Inspector of Police. He ordered the Police to raid several apartments belonging to Najib’s family members and ordered the Attorney-General, an UMNO hack who had “cleared” Najib of complicity in the 1MDB scandal, to go on a long leave, while sealing his office to prevent important documents from being taken away, or shredded.

Police who raided Najib’s residences seized an amazing amount of loot in more than 350 boxes and bags containing cash, jewelry and designer handbags early Friday including 284 boxes of handbags and 72 pieces of luggage containing cash, jewelry, watches and other valuables, said Amar Singh, Chief of the Police commercial crimes unit. How much of that might be related to assets being seized by the US in its kleptocracy case against Najib, family members and others is unclear.

If Mahathir moved with blistering speed, ironing out what had to be done for the nation, one couldn’t say the same about individual states like Johor and Perak.

Image result for Pakatan Harapan Menteri Besar of Johor

The New Menteri Besar of Johor

Johoreans were furious to find that their new Chief Minister candidate from the winning Harapan coalition was acting like a thoroughbred UMNO politician. He nominated an UMNO officer as his adviser and told UMJNO members, now a minority in opposition, that they weren’t eligible for any state funding. Those actions, reminiscent of the former Barisan Nasional leadership, incurred the ire of the Johoreans.

The practice of party-hopping, which is picking up speed in East Malaysia, was condemned by the campaign reform organization Bersih and various politicians. People took to social media to vent their frustration, and one human rights NGO named ENGAGE penned an open letter to Pakatan Harapan leaders, saying  the nation doesn’t want to see the winning coalition become another “BN 2.0” after several parties affiliated with the Barisan broke ranks and said they planned to join Harapan.

The party-hopping, which was taking place in Sabah, Sarawak and Perak, has eroded voter confidence.

Up north, despite the promise by the new government to ensure press freedom, RSN Thayer, the Democratic Action Party MP for the Jelutong constituency, announced that the license for TV3, the publicly listed media company controlled by UMNO, should be revoked. He incurred the wrath of Malaysians who told him that they don’t want the new government to be a poor copy of the one just booted out. Thayer’s own party leaders distanced themselves from him.

When Rafizi Ramli, a Pakatan politician, whose whistle-blowing on UMNO’s activities had earned him a fine and jail term for violation of the bank secrecy laws, currently under appeal, criticized Mahathir for not discussing the appointment of the finance, home affairs and defense ministry, he too was slammed.

Rafizi said that PKR’s consultation was critical, and he opposed Mahathir’s bulldozing methods.  Upset that the Chinese Daily, Sin Chew had written that Rafizi was only vocal because he had been vying to be made the finance minister, Rafizi has said he would sue the paper. Some party members accused Rafizi of trying to derail Mahathir’s efforts to form a government, but others came to his defense and said change must include exposing any and all wrongdoings.

Image result for ambiga


Speaking out as he did didn’t please the lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan. She tweeted “PKR please stop your nonsense. I fully support the appointments by the Prime Minister. Please put country above all else. The rakyat (people) did!”

Rafizi merely rather sensibly criticized Mahathir’s lack of consultation among the four new government parties. In his 22 years as prime minister he often acted high-handedly and there were concerns that might be continuing. Elsewhere people who made what were deemed offensive remarks about Mahathir on social media found that police reports had been lodged against them.

Eric Paulsen, acting for the NGO Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), said that demanding police action against individuals who openly expressed criticism of the government, merely trivialized  police reports and disregarded the rights of people with differing views. Paulson himself had been charged with sedition by the previous government.

Image result for MCMC

Paulsen said that in the new Malaysia, people should be allowed to criticism unless they threatened public disorder and called for violence. He too urged the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to focus on their work and to stop wasting resources investigating these sorts of report.

The following day after the election, groups of UMNO Youth members gathered outside the party’s massive headquarters and starting fighting one another. It was the day the party would have celebrated its 72nd anniversary. Instead, they traded blows and insults while demanding the resignation of Najib, the UMNO president. For his part, Najib denies any wrongdoing, is making out that he is a victim while his party is in denial mode, with its leaders still scrambling after power, expressing regret and doing mock post mortems.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation was a Reuters interview of Anwar Ibrahim following his release from prison. The man Najib put behind bars said that a “shattered” Najib had called him twice, in prison, asking him what to do on the night he lost the elections. Anwar advised him to accept defeat and move on, advice Najib didn’t take.  Sources say he sought initially to round up army and police officials to declare martial law but both forces were split. He eventually had to concede.

As expected, few former Cabinet members came to Najib’s defense. The former Youth and Sports Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin claimed that he tried to help Najib in the campaign to no avail and apologized to party members for UMNO’s failure to cling on to power.

He neglected to apologize to the public for failing to acknowledge that Najib allegedly had stolen vast funds and corrupted the political system. Branded an opportunist by many, Khairy was regarded as vying for pole position to lead the leaderless and rudderless defeated party that had ruled Malaysia for six decades.

Initially, Khairy said that the party needs to reform and return to its original ideals, safeguard the honor of the Malays, take care of the other races, and fight for all communities. He then hinted that he was a possible leadership contender, saying the party needs someone who with the confidence of the grassroots supporters, to revive it.

The same Khairy had, in another report, claimed to have overlooked the clear signals that UMNO had a problem. He blamed the leaders for being detached from reality, for members having a feudal mindset that protected the leader and prevented them from asking tough questions. So says the man who barred reporters for Malaysiakini, almost the only independent media voice in the country, because he despised the questions they asked.

Khairy may have a battle on his hands. The former Home Minister, Zahid Hamidi, is a Malay nationalist and would not take kindly to Khairy’s suggestion for UMNO to accept members from other races. Two years ago, Zahid urged UMNO members to unite because “foreign enemies” were plotting to topple the government.

Zahid can take heart with the sentiments of the Malay nationalist NGO, Perkasa which has criticized the appointment of a non-Malay as Finance Minister.

Najib’s cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, the usually clueless former Defence Minister, has also said that UMNO needs new leadership.

The irony is that Mahathir is trying to rebalance many of his previous pro-Malay and pro-Islamic policies. One reform that he promised to implement within 100 days of being in office, is the abolition of the deeply unpopular goods and services tax that played a major role in Najib’s defeat. That will now take place earlier than expected, on June 1.

Malay nationalists and religious zealots remain,fanned by years of official recognition of their cause by UMNO in the effort to keep minority races at bay. Although Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan may have won round one, they will have to navigate carefully, or the path to Malaysian reform will be long and rocky.

Mariam Mokhtar is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel


GE-14: Battle Royale in Johor and the Future of UMNO leadership

May 4, 2018

GE-14: Battle Royale in Johor and the Future of UMNO leadership

Will Najib be the last man standing? Irrespective of the final seat count, the Johor campaign to date shows that Najib’s standing is considerably lower than it was before the campaign began. –Dr. Bridget Welsh

Image result for The Sultan of Johor and Tengku Mahkota of Johor

COMMENT | All eyes are on the majestic state of Johor, which has been declared a “frontline” state for Pakatan Harapan to win in the 14th General election (GE-14).

Polls are pointing to swings, NGOs are joining the fray with racialised warnings and on the ground the political combat is fierce, with even the Election Commission taking sides in their childish (vote-losing for BN) cutouts of Harapan chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad from billboards.

Of the 26 seats, 19 or 73 percent are competitive and can be won by either side, depending on the movement in the last few days of the campaign. The state government is also in the balance, although numbers generally favour BN among state seats.

The Johor battleground is special, not just because of the contest and the number of seats, but because of its decisive role in deciding the leadership of UMNO – even after the election.

The War Inside

Since mid-2015 and the revelation of the 1MDB scandal, there has been a war ongoing inside the party, with the state’s leaders and the rank-and-file taking sides.

Image result for muhyiddin yassin

Johor UMNO led the charge against Najib Abdul Razak, not only with the resignation of former Deputy Prime minister (now Bersatu leader) Muhyiddin Yassin (photo) but also with many of its members opening calling for Najib to resign as prime minister.


As the scandal evolved between 2015 and 2016, many of the senior Johor UMNO leaders who had been recognised for standing up to power and better governance, notably former Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairperson Nur Jazlan Mohamed and former BN Backbenchers Club president Shahrir Abdul Samad, apparently abandoned these principles to join with Najib. Muhyiddin got sacked and purged, and others who opted for the “safe” Najib route got new positions.

GE-14 tests these decisions on the ground. Pagoh, Pulai, and Johor Bahru (JB) are all competitive seats. While they favour BN, they bring to the fore the important role that Johor UMNO has always played in putting the nation on course after a crisis.

Johorean Dr (Tun) Ismail Abdul Rahman arguably was the leader that saved Malaysia after May 1969, keeping democracy (albeit narrowed from earlier years) on course. Now another Johorean, Muhyiddin Yassin, is trying to do the same.

Like Mahathir, Muhyiddin is divisive, with his own legacy issues and a mixed record at the state and national levels, but his decision to stand up on 1MDB is being assessed by the Johor electorate. Muhyiddin is banking on principles winning over patronage, a risky gamble especially within his former party given how UMNO as a party has evolved in recent decades.

This battle inside Johor UMNO goes beyond individuals. Johor UMNO has always brought talent and vision to the national stage. In doing so, they served to make UMNO as a party stronger and increased the capacity of the party to lead the nation.

Now Najib appears to be making the party into his own vehicle to perpetuate his own power. UMNO members in Johor are grappling with whether they are willing to let this happen and the price they are willing to pay to let this happen. For many party members, this election is about whether they are willing to let the party be hijacked for the purposes of one man (and his wife).

Image result for hishammuddin hussein

Hishamuddin Hussein ( photo), Najib’s heir apparent

Hishamuddin Hussein ( photo), Najib’s heir apparent and a Johorean, has been extremely quiet this campaign, as the battle is playing out. His potential leadership of the party is also at stake.


A State-focused Campaign

It is noticeable that the Johor campaign does not emphasise Najib. His face is not featured along the roadside and in billboards to the extent as his persona is elsewhere.

The BN Johor campaign is about “Team Johor” with Mohamed Khaled Nordin leading the state for the “New Decade”. The theme “We Chose Blue” illustrates the attempt to move away the focus from Najib to the broader support for BN (and especially UMNO).

This messaging is an implicit recognition that Najib is a liability politically. It showcases a desire to protect the system as opposed to individuals in the system, and rests heavily on their record in government at the state level. Five years ago, I noted that Johor was one of the best-run states in the country, and this is still the case.

This said, contention over local issues are more openly discussed than before, and BN Johor is being challenged over governance.

Harapan has accused the state government of cronyism in housing along the Ayer Hitam-Mersing Highway (where construction seems to have slowed after Hishamuddin Hussein’s Sembrong constituency). There are also discussions about investments by China (photo), over-development, the environment, failed projects, corruption allegations and more, all primarily involving land ownership and management.


One important dimension of this contention is the royalty, its role in the economy and political relationships. These issues divide Johorans, despite the deep pride that they collectively have in their state, their culture and its history.

East-West Divide

Johor with its 1.82 million voters, or 8.1 percent of the voters in the country, will determine 8.5 percent of the seats in the Parliament. It is, however, a state with important internal differences.

The most important politically is the east-west divide. The east remains the BN stronghold, from Penggerang to Mersing. The five most eastern constituencies, including Sembrong, are disproportionately rural, dominated by Felda estates.

Much of the development in these areas is industrial, with the government playing a large role in promoting these ventures. It will take massive swings in votes to even crack these Umno fortresses, and while there is more access than before – with Harapan flags in the remote village of Kahang in the middle of Sembrong, for example – this level of momentum does not seem to be happening.

The political action is in the west and south. The west is more entrepreneurial, and economically vibrant than the east. Even the rural areas on the west (perhaps with the exception of the large constituency of Pagoh) are now more semi-urban and connected.

Unlike in 2013, the constituencies with Felda areas on the West– Pagoh, Ledang, Segamat, Labis and Sekijang – are now more competitive. This largely has to do with inroads into Felda areas as a result of Bersatu, but local dynamics such as infighting within Umno and BN have also contributed to a softer ground for the governing coalition.

The BN component parties of MCA and Gerakan are also facing fierce contests, and while they hold the advantage, the Malay swing taking place in Johor is undercutting their fortunes in Ayer Hitam, Tebrau and Simpang Renggam. One of the risks for these component parties is that they rely on Malays to win support in mixed seats, a less safe bet this election.


The competitiveness in the west also stems from opposition weakness, as its machinery in Johor is uneven, and in some places not working at all.

Many of its candidates have been parachuted at the last minute and they have had little time to win over the sophisticated Johor voters. This is the case in Batu Pahat and JB, for example. Infighting and displacement of local candidates also has left disgruntlement, as in Skudai.

Splitting will make a difference as well. PAS, while weak in Johor, is aiming to play the spoiler in the close contests.

The Southern Flank

The biggest influence in Johor is Singapore. Its presence will be most felt in the southern constituencies of Gelang Patah, JB, Tebrau, Pulai and Pasir Gudang.

There are an estimated 400,000 Malaysians in Singapore whose decision to come home to vote will be critical for who wins Johor and, frankly, other seats across Malaysia given the potential closeness of some races. It is assumed that most of these returnees will be more Harapan-friendly, as they opted to leave Malaysia for work.

The other factor from the south is the narratives about the election within Singapore itself. Up until Mahathir entered the political fray, Singapore had been allowing (and even encouraging) a vibrant discussion of some of Najib’s governance issues, notably 1MDB.

While those charged and fined in Singapore were largely financial interlocutors in the scandal (rather than the “big fish”), there were prosecutions, and attention paid to the problem. This is despite the Najib government having strong positive relations with Singapore, especially in Najib’s early years.

Mahathir becoming the leader of the opposition has brought about more concern with Harapan, as it brings back old anxieties in the Singapore-Malaysia relationship.

Many Singaporeans are not comfortable with their long-time adversary leading the opposition charge. Singapore’s mainstream media coverage of Malaysia’s opposition has had marked anti-Mahathir elements.

This is, of course, on top of the fact that the PAP is most comfortable with a dominant ruling party staying in office, as this is their own preferred path at home. Having Umno in office in Malaysia allows the PAP to be seen more favorably at home.

Last Man standing

There are three scenarios as the campaign reaches its final days. First, Harapan may fall flat, failing to get the swing among Malays and support among Chinese and Indians it needs to win. Keep in mind the margins needed to swing are large.

Second, and the most likely, is a mixed bag – losses and victories in these close contests, shaped by the issues above and local candidate perceptions. Johoreans are quite discerning in their expectations.  Harapan in this scenario will make gains, but unevenly. Seats to especially look out for are Muar, Pasir Gudang, Pulai, Labis and Batu Pahat.

Finally, is the underdog victory for Harapan, where there is a combination of returning voters and momentum on the Malay ground away from Najib (as opposed to Umno).

Despite efforts to move away from Najib with a state-focused campaign, the person at the centre of the Johor battle remains Najib himself – with implications for the leadership of UMNO, for Johor and for Malaysia.

Will Najib be the last man standing? Irrespective of the final seat count, the Johor campaign to date shows that Najib’s standing is considerably lower than it was before the campaign began.

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

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


Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Last Stand

April 18, 2018

Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Last Stand

by Dr. Khoo Book

Image result for dr. mahathir bin mohamad and anwar ibrahim

COMMENT | Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim had their historic meeting on September 5, 2016.

Since then much has been written on their reconciliation, Pakatan Harapan’s formation and Mahathir’s nomination as Prime Minister if the opposition wins the 14th general election (GE14).

About Mahathir’s political return we now know many things except the puzzle that is the man himself, around whom an amazing turn of events revolves.

Image result for dr. mahathir bin mohamad and anwar ibrahim

We can tackle the puzzle by raising two questions: what is the underlying motif of his intervention? What are his deep personal motivations for fighting Najib Abdul Razak and the UMNO-BN regime?

Looking back, it seems surreal that all the opposition’s roads lead to Mahathir.

“Mahathir’s aura,” Mazlan Aliman of Anak Felda claimed, reassured Felda settlers that a Pakatan government would restore Felda and resolve the settlers’ financial burdens. Indeed, one Pakatan slogan for Felda areas is “Selamatkan Felda, Selamatkan Malaysia” (Save Felda, Save Malaysia).

Amanah leaders, such as Mohamad Sabu and Salahuddin Ayub, are confident that Pakatan Harapan’s nomination of Mahathir as ‘prime minister-in-waiting’ shattered UMNO’s propaganda that an UMNO defeat would mean “Chinese DAP domination”.

Mahathir has brought many advantages to the Harapan side. But his unsuspected value lies in his persona of a saviour. Historical circumstances and his exertions conferred that upon him.

The challenge

He was involved in the anti-Malayan Union movement that Malays regarded as the definitive event in saving Tanah Melayu and the special position of the Malays from colonial perfidy and immigrant domination.

As a young doctor, he built up a good reputation for treating the sick, an esteemed way of saving lives. As was “Dr UMNO”, he was an ideologue for the mission of saving the ‘Malay race’ from poverty and economic backwardness.

Abdul Razak Hussein co-opted Mahathir for his project to recover Umno’s pre-eminence that was battered in the May 1969 elections. In 1988, Mahathir “saved” the de-registered UMNO by forming UMNO Baru.

Image result for dr. mahathir bin mohamad and tun razak

He risked his own political survival to rescue the national economy in two crises. In 1986 he “held the New Economic Policy in abeyance”, one reason for Team B’s challenge to his leadership of Umno. In 1998 he imposed capital controls against economic orthodoxy and international condemnation.

In ‘Menghadapi Cabaran’ (The Challenge), a book he wrote when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, he endlessly lectured the Malays on their ‘unworthy values’, their tendency towards religious obscurantism, and indifference to new forms of colonial subjection. It was tiresome to them but Mahathir meant to save the Malays from themselves!

One begins to see how a man with this background offers himself as a rallying point to rescue the economy from bankruptcy, the people from suffering and the nation from continued shame.

When Mahathir began talking to the PKR leaders, Tian Chua said simply to me that, “Ultimately Mahathir’s a nationalist”. The opposition leaders made a tacit bow before his saviour’s persona when they allied with him to fight Najib and Umno-BN.

The ruling regime’s spokespeople mocked at Mahathir. They pronounced him too old and infirm. They chided him for not relaxing with his grandchildren. Such insensitivity only raised the sincerity and value of Mahathir’s sacrifice in the public eye.

Wisdom and epiphany

Mahathir did not act from political motives alone. He was probably driven by deep personal motivations between the 13th general election (GE13) and the exposé of the 1MDB scandal in 2015.

He was contemptuous of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and scarcely believed that Najib would lead UMNO-BN to a worse performance in GE13. For the next two years, Mahathir was preoccupied with UMNO’s weaknesses.

Dreading the thought of Anwar’s eventual triumph, he went to the ridiculous extent of patronising so-called ‘Malay-first’ bodies like Ibrahim Ali’s Perkasa.

On hindsight, Mahathir pulled himself back when the 1MDB story broke across the world.


With his intelligence in different senses of the word, Mahathir grasped the reality of the Najib Razak-1MDB entanglement. He foresaw the destruction of all that he had worked for his entire life.

His 22-year premiership was imperfect but it brought successes that he valued: Malay progress, economic transformation, political stability, and, dearest to him, national dignity. We were admired abroad as an ‘Asian tiger’ before, he nostalgically told his audiences.

Image result for dr. mahathir bin mohamad on Najib Razak

He found Najib’s record appalling: setbacks for Malay society and business, economic stagnation, social divisiveness and globally exposed national shame. If we are asked today where we come from, we lie that “We’re from Brunei,” he sorely joked with his audiences,

Mahathir claimed that Najib rejected advice on 1MDB and other issues. “I spoke to Najib because many people asked me to do something”, said Mahathir, “but Najib bragged that he could buy support because ‘cash is king’.”

Mahathir claimed Abdul Razak for his “idol” because of the latter’s contribution to rural development. But Razak’s son, Najib, only looked after himself, his wife, their children and their cronies. He showed not a drip of national interest, a prime minister’s ultimate sin in the eye of the ultimate nationalist.

Filicidal wrath

Is it far-fetched to think that the wisdom which comes with age came to Mahathir as an epiphany? In a flash, he saw the double injustice of his treatment of two protégés who looked to him as their political father.

On one of them, Anwar, he had visited filicidal wrath. He had elevated the other, Najib, to power. The one stood for reformasi, the other was kleptocracy itself.

The rest is not hard to grasp. It was not too late for Mahathir to atone for both dreadful errors but, past 90, he had to hurry.

He publicly humbled himself to who in power made it a point not to admit a mistake. Mahathir flayed himself for misjudging Najib: “He was not even a bit like his father.” And so, Mahathir reconciled with Anwar, apologised to him and his family for their suffering, and declared himself indebted to Anwar for accepting his leadership of Harapan.

In the ways he knew best, which he knew better than anyone else, Mahathir set out to re-enact his previous ‘destroy-and-promote’ drama. This time he would reverse the characters: he would depose Najib and he would resurrect Anwar.


From Mahathir’s lenses (without belittling Harapan negotiations) that must be the meaning of the Mahathir-Wan Azizah-Anwar sequence for the post of prime minister.

Even Mahathir cannot unilaterally determine how his new drama will end. GE14 will decide that. But as always when he set his mind on a project, he put his (somewhat ailing) heart and (probably pained) soul into leading Harapan’s charge against Najib and Umno-BN.

Yet all this might have lifted a big load off his conscience, for he is unusually light-hearted at many ceramah.

A Harapan victory will be his finest hour. He can clear up many problems and allow Wan Azizah and Anwar to succeed him. He will retire after that, forever remembered for the truly noble legacy of delivering the nation from kleptocracy at his last stand.

It is a strange scenario to contemplate. Mahathir is no more immune to hubris than other ‘patriarchs’ who cannot distinguish between their lives and those of their nations.

But if he succeeds, we will understand why that sharp and irreverent blogger, SakmongkolAK47, was awed into calling Mahathir ‘The man who can walk on water’.

Part 1: Dr Mahathir dissects kleptocracy

Part 3: Once Mahathir, always Mahathir?


KHOO BOO TEIK is the author of ‘Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad’ and a member of Aliran.

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