In Malaysia, there is only UMNO

International supporters of Barisan Nasional – Malaysia’s longstanding ruling coalition – maybe pleased to see the demise of Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysia’s most successful opposition coalition. It justifies their bets on Prime Minister Najib Razak and his party (UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation) the backbone of the Barisan Nasional.

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International supporters of Barisan Nasional – Malaysia’s longstanding ruling coalition – maybe pleased to see the demise of Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysia’s most successful opposition coalition. It justifies their bets on Prime Minister Najib Razak and his party (UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation) the backbone of the Barisan Nasional.

The key argument being that UMNO has proven to be a stable and reliable partner to proponents of the current international order. This is not a new development. UMNO since its formation in the late 1940s and emphatically since independence, the rhetoric of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed not withstanding,  has been a strong supporter of the West. The stability of a ruling party and its ability to ensure order within its borders is a premium in a region such as ASEAN where political turmoil and large scale violence (think Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines) is the norm, rather than the exception.

This is all the more remarkable as UMNO has managed this without upsetting its liberal patrons in the West or its conservative Muslim political base; and in treading a fine line between Malaysia’s allies – primarily the US but also Australia, Singapore and the UK) against Russia in the past, China presently. International supporters ofUMNO also point out to the fact that at its core, UMNO remains a political party that supports liberal values (as espoused by Prime Minister Najib Razak or its rising star, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin) while understanding full-well its needs to pander to its domestic constituencies in moments of crisis. In fact, international supporters claim that UMNO’s ability to champion the plight of the underdog – whether the oppressed members of the Ummah (the global Muslim community) in Palestine or Bosnia or the oppressed third world countries at forums such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organisation – makes them (UMNO/Malaysia) a potent ally to have in influencing Muslim communities or developing countries in support of the current international order.

The results have been a “win-win” for both UMNO’s international supporters and UMNO. Malaysia remains a stable and prosperous developing country, with much of the benefits accruing to UMNO. UMNO remains firmly in the driving seat in Malaysian politics. Malaysia in turn has not done anything to upset the international order and have been a firm supporter of wide ranging initiatives – such as the War Against Terror or the US pivot in Asia to the Transpacific Partnership Agreement – to stabilise the current international order.

While Barisan Nasional and UMNO are undergoing unprecedented turmoil that is changing the fundamental nature of UMNO, theBarisan Nasional and Malaysia, its international supporters are left pondering on its next moves.

But clearly, without a viable opposition – who have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to cooperate amongst themselves –UMNO’s doubting international supporters will have no choice but to stick with the devil they know.

This article first appeared in Forbes

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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