Malaysia

Vote and divide

Print edition : June 14, 2013

Prime Minister Najib Razak (second from left) and other party leaders after winning the elections in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Lai Seng Sin/AP

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, Wan Azizah, after casting their vote at Penanti on May 5. Photo: Mark Baker/AP

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (extreme left). A 1997 photograph. Photo: AFP

Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party's spiritual leader, at a campaign meeting. Photo: Lai Seng Sin/AP

DAP leader Lim Kit Siang during election campaign in Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, on April 24. Photo: Lai Seng Sin/AP

A pre-election scene with flags of the ruling coalition strung across a street in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Mark Baker/AP

The results of the closely contested general elections on May 5 are a stark revelation of the highly polarised nature of Malaysian politics. Although the united opposition won over 50 per cent of the votes, it could not secure a simple majority in the national legislature, whereas the ruling front, with just 47 per cent of the vote, took 60 per cent of the seats. Eighty-five per cent of the country’s 13.3 million voters turned out to cast their ballots in what was described as a “watershed” election. The opposition coalition, the People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the Malay language, is led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. It is a broad-based coalition, consisting of the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan) led by Anwar, the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the mildly Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).

Anwar wasted no time in alleging that the ruling coalition, the Barisan National, which has been in power since the country gained independence in 1957, had resorted to massive fraud. In a speech delivered soon after the election results were announced, he said that the PR had been denied a legitimate victory by “the mother of all frauds” and that now the battle was between “the people and an illegitimate, corrupt and arrogant government”. Despite getting a clear majority of the popular vote, the PR lost not only the national elections but also the state elections, which were held concurrently. The Barisan, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, mainly through the gerrymandering of constituencies and money power, now controls 10 of the 13 federal states in the country. The PR leader has since toned down his rhetoric and is now demanding that the election commission carry out an honest investigation into the complaints about serious electoral malpractices in key swing constituencies.

Anwar has been waging a political battle with the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the major partner in the ruling coalition, since his ouster from the party in 1999. Since the elections results were announced, the Keadilan leader has been organising large protest meetings. In the second week of May, opposition leaders announced the setting up of a “People’s Commission” to investigate the conduct of the elections. The opposition rallies have attracted hundreds of thousands people, especially the youth, all over Malaysia, representing all Malaysian ethnic groups. Anwar has also been appealing to the Barack Obama administration for redress, but the United States so far has refused to interfere in the “internal affairs” of Malaysia.

The Obama administration had no such compunctions while casting doubts on the transparent presidential elections conducted in Venezuela in March. The U.S. is the only country that has not yet recognised the victory of President Nicolas Maduro. Malaysia, on the other hand, is an ally of the U.S. Najib has given his tacit backing to Obama’s “pivot to the East”, a barely disguised policy aimed at militarily encircling China. Najib’s tilt towards the West, according to observers, was in a large part dictated by the need to neutralise the Obama administration’s growing sympathy with the opposition. Anwar is an unabashed advocate of the free market and, in the run-up to the elections, went out of his way to assure the West that there would not be any change in Malaysia’s foreign policy if the opposition was voted into power.

The Prime Minister, while describing Anwar as a “poor loser”, has called for “national reconciliation”. But it may take some time for politics in the country to stabilise and the animosities that have been unleashed to abate. The police have reported that there were more than 1,400 violent incidents since the campaign for the elections began. Most of the acts of violence were perpetrated by UMNO supporters.

As things stand, the political scenario does not look too rosy for the incumbent Prime Minister. He is the first Prime Minster in Malaysia to regain power with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Before the elections, he had promised the UMNO that he would deliver a decisive mandate in favour of the ruling coalition and regain the two-thirds majority it used to enjoy in parliament until five years ago. In the event, the Barisan’s 47 per cent vote share turned out to be its lowest since independence. Only the gerrymandering of constituencies by the government helped the ruling coalition romp home with around 60 per cent of the 222 seats in parliament. There were several well-publicised instances of vote-buying and allowing migrant labour from neighbouring countries to vote in closely contested seats. Bridget Welsh, an Associate Professor at the Singapore Management University, has, in an article titled “Buying Support —Najib’s commercialisation of GE 13”, estimated that Najib has spent $19 billion on election-related incentives since taking office four years ago.

The mainstream media gave only negative coverage to the opposition during the campaign. The opposition had to use the social media to try and get its message through. Many people living in the rural areas still have very little access to the Internet.

The print and the electronic media, which are mainly under government control, published unsubstantiated stories, mainly of a homophobic nature, about the private lives of leading opposition figures. Engaging in homosexual acts is a criminal offence in Malaysia. Anwar had to spend five years in jail, having been charged with the crime during the tenure of the long-serving Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed. Mahathir was well known for his authoritarian streak and brooked no dissent. Anwar openly disagreed with him when the Asian economic crisis hit Malaysia, by supporting the policies the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had prescribed. Anwar, who was being groomed to succeed Mahathir, has for long professed that the sodomy and bribery charges against him were trumped up. He recently said that he was “willing to forgive but not necessarily forget” his dismissal and imprisonment.

Since independence, Malaysia has had an authoritarian system of government, albeit with a parliamentary veneer. The Malaysian government has inherited the draconian laws left behind by the British colonialists, who handed over power to the Malay elite after brutally crushing the liberation struggle waged by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which is now banned. Trade union and left-wing activism is actively discouraged by the UMNO-led government. Some observers of the Malaysian political scene say that it was the fear of retribution on the part of people like Mahathir that made the UMNO go all out and ensure that Anwar was not allowed to become the Prime Minister. Mahathir, now in his late eighties, was very vocal during the campaign, urging his fellow Malays to ensure the continued dominance of the UMNO in Malaysian politics. He campaigned against the opposition in the company of Malay chauvinistic organisations such as the Perkasa, though the UMNO has officially cut all links with the group.

Mahathir was one of the key architects of the “Bumiputra” (sons of the soil) policy, which promotes Malay people in business, education and jobs, to the detriment of the minority Chinese and Indian populations. The “New Economic Policy”, the code word for the discriminatory Bumiputra policies, had led to widespread corruption and cronyism among the Malay elite. Malaysia topped the list in the 2012 Annual Bribe Givers Survey. Fifty per cent of the companies surveyed said that they had failed to get a contract as their rivals had paid hefty bribes to politicians and government officials.

Najib has already dismantled the most discriminatory aspects of the policy but is wary of doing away with it completely for fear of hurting entrenched Malay vested interests.

The opposition had promised to do away with the Bumiputra policy if elected to power, saying that not only was the policy discriminatory but that it also hurt Malaysia’s economy and competiveness in the global market. Most of the minority votes went to the opposition coalition led by Anwar. The Prime Minster blamed the poor performance of his party on what he called a “Chinese Tsunami” on election day. The Malay media have since unleashed a torrent of “Chinese-bashing” stories, describing the minority voters as being ungrateful to the ruling coalition.

It was for the first time that Chinese voters almost completely deserted the Barisan. But, as the leaders of the DAP note, it was not only the ethnic Chinese vote which deserted the ruling coalition. The majority of urban voters, Malay, Indian and Chinese, also deserted the ruling coalition. It was the rural Malay vote that helped the ruling coalition retain its majority in parliament. The Chinese-dominated DAP has more than doubled its seats in parliament this time, gaining seats from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a member of the ruling Barisan coalition. Malaysians of Chinese origin constitute more than 25 per cent of the population. Eight per cent of the population is of Indian origin.

Dangerous developments

The Prime Minister and the UMNO are implicitly blaming the Malaysian Chinese for their electoral setback. This portends danger. The country witnessed serious ethnic strife in May 1969 as Malays ran amok targeting the Chinese. The word “amok” has its roots in the Malay language. Hundreds of Chinese were killed in those riots and property worth millions was destroyed. Mahathir then wrote his book The Malay Dilemma (published in 1970) in which he bemoaned Malay backwardness and the lack of opportunities for them in their own country. The next year, the government made its discriminatory policies official.

Not that the opposition led by Anwar has emerged lily-white from the elections. During the campaign, it tried to whip up anti-immigrant feelings through social media, making allegations that migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh were being recruited by the ruling party to vote in closely contested constituencies.

The dubious circumstances under which the narrow victory was achieved by the ruling coalition has not gone down well either with the Malaysian public or the power brokers in the UMNO. Najib’s criticism of the Chinese minority for the losses the Barisan suffered has so far not succeeded in creating an anti-Chinese backlash or a Malay consolidation in favour of the UMNO. The opposition said that its protest rallies had shown that it was a truly Malaysian “tsunami” that shook the government in the elections. Opposition leaders have been stressing that what the Malaysian public wants are the holding of genuinely fair and free elections and an end to government-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race.

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