A tale of two coalitions: Malaysia heads to the polls

The Pakatan Rakyat coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim will need to form ties within Malaysia’s diverse and biased electorate system to defeat the ruling coalition in Sunday’s election.


Malaysia’s general elections on Sunday (GE13) will be a battle of the coalitions, pitting the world’s most successful ruling coalition – the 13 party Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front) – against the four year old, three party Pakatan Rakyat (PR/People’s Alliance).

Recent polls suggest a close race, but polling in Malaysia remains unsophisticated and inaccurate. There are also significant unknown variables, such as more than 2.6 million people voting for the first time and the extent to which electoral irregularities will affect the outcome of the election.

Given there is no reliable poll data to base predictions on, the best bet is that BN will win the majority of seats but lose the popular vote. Polling has focused on leaders, specific constituencies or exit poling for overseas voters (largely pro-PR), none of which can act as a good prediction of the outcome.

Therefore, there remains much that needs to be understood about the Malaysian political landscape before polling day.

The legitimacy of the coalition leaders – current prime minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – is often the focus of analysis and polls. This misses the realities of Malaysia’s complex and diverse electorate, and its biased electoralsystem, which makes coalition politics central to winning an election.

Ultimately, it will be the ability of either coalition to aggregate support from a disparate electorate in Malaysia’s gerrymandered and malapportioned constituencies in the peninsular and the two states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

What is popular support in Malaysia?

Malaysia provides a complicated picture of popular support. The democratic “one vote one value” principle does not hold true in Malaysia. There, the value of one rural vote is equivalent to six urban votes on average. This practise favours the ruling coalition, the BN, which has been traditionally stronger in rural areas.

More interestingly, in the 2008 general elections, the BN won 112 out of the smallest 139 federal seats (out of a total of 222 parliamentary seats), giving it a simple majority in parliament with just 18.9% of the popular vote.

This practise of malapportionment (unequally-sized constituencies) and gerrymandering (the manipulation of electoral boundaries) allowed the BN to win 62 of the smallest federal seats with just 6.2% of the popular vote in 2008.

The two coalitions

The nature of Malaysia’s disparate electorate and biased electoral system makes coalitions central to winning elections. The BN’s 13 party coalition is made up of the ethno-nationalists United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which is strong throughout peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. UMNO’s strategy since the last election has been to shore up its base support on the peninsula.

While it may succeed in doing this, it will have to come at the expense of its other coalition members on the peninsula. These parties represent Chinese and Indian minorities on the peninsula. As a result the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the People’s Movement Party (GERAKAN) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) are likely to be wiped out at GE13.

The world’s most successful ruling coalition – the 13 party Barisan Nasional suffered a blow in the 2008 elections, but have the upper hand in rural areas. EPA/Ahmad Yusni

Najib Razak has reached out through populist measures – increasing cash handouts to the poor and renewing his approach to education policy. But he is unlikely to make any headway either with the urban voters on the west coast, or the staunch Islamists in the Malay heartlands.

PR is on the offensive. By targeting mixed constituencies in previously BN safe seats, and knowing that the minority parties in BN have lost their credibility, they are relying on the popularity of the prime minister and the Malay votes to retain their federal seats.

Key battleground areas

This makes Sabah and Sarawak the key battlegrounds.

Here, the BN is on better footing, with Sarawak more certain than Sabah. At GE12, the BN won 30 out of the 31 federal seats in Sarawak and 24 out of the 25 seats in Sabah. In Sarawak, despite widespread poverty in a resource rich state and corruption by possibly the world’s longest serving chief minister of a state (1981 – present), the incumbent appears untouchable.

At the recent state elections (2011), Sarawak chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and the BN coalition achieved an impressive victory garnering 55 out of the total 71 seats, despite the opposition having its best results in 24 years, winning 15 seats. Nevertheless, Taib and his coalition in Sarawak remain strong with deep pockets and popular support from the public.

Meanwhile, Sabah also suffers from widespread poverty, corruption and community dissatisfaction, due to a large influx of migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia (estimated at 30% of the state population).

Locals have blamed the federal government for the influx of foreigners and accused it of attempting to dilute the power of the local Christian Kadazan-Dusuns ethnic group. However, the local BN affiliates and their broad based coalition that incorporates many local ethnic groups remain strong.

Voters in Sabah and Sarawak have long rejected politicians from the peninsula and even Anwar Ibrahim’s political skills have not been very effective in forging a successful coalition with local elites. The opposition leader has relied on former BN leaders, who have defected to spearhead its challenge, while the Malaysian Islamist party (PAS) does not have any significant support.

The geographical terrain of Sabah and Sarawak with its diverse ethnic groups, low levels of economic development, resource driven economy and the general mistrust of peninsular politicians make it a tough challenge for the PR.

Despite having only 16% of the total electorate, Sabah and Sarawak has 25% of the parliamentary seats, making it a valuable prize in the crown of the next government of Malaysia.

If PR does not get its coalition right in these two crucial states on the island of Borneo, all its valiant efforts on the peninsula are likely to come to naught at GE13.

This article first appeared in The Conversation

Malaysia at (yet another) crossroads

While Malaysia has achieved admirable economic success under its dominant coalition government, this has come at the expense of human rights and the free press. Now, the opposition is offering greater transparency,

The Malaysian government and its multiple state governments have become caretaker governments and elections will have to be called before June 28, 2013 if the country wants to maintain the semblance of an electoral democracy.

Everything is at stake at these elections. Malaysia has been ruled as a country by one coalition since independence in 1957 and its hold on political power has been tenacious. The economy and society remains formidable.

Opposition coalitions have tried at every election to make inroads in a system clearly stacked against them. In 2008, there was a real breakthrough, with the opposition capturing five out of the 13 states of the federation and breaking the ruling coalition’s psychologically important 2/3 majority it had become accustomed to.

It is not easy to categorise the two opposing coalitions and its members, as they are disparate, complex, and, with multiple agendas, often fractured. The ruling coalition is run by UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, with other constituent parties largely serving the Chinese and Indian populations as well as some indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak.

This consociational model of politics provided each major ethnic group a share in the political domain under the leadership of the Malays and an increasingly Islamicised UMNO. In return, the basic social, cultural and economic rights of the non-Muslims were guaranteed. With a plethora of positive discrimination for the Malays to become upwardly mobile, a new Malay middle class was created, which secured a peace between and among what in Malaysia are referred to as racial groups.

This coalition and its grasp on power has maintained this status quo, which has served the elite very well and achieved real economic success, at least on a national level, with Malaysia almost eliminating absolute poverty, recording impressive socioeconomic outcomes, building state-of-the art infrastructure, and achieving upper middle income status in less than half a century after independence.

However, outward peace and economic success were built on enduring human rights violations, a lack of a free press, corruption, and the capitulation of the civil sphere to reactionary and extremist nationalist and religious zealots.

The opposition promises to unmake some of these strictures and aims to provide a more transparent form of governance, which it demonstrated in two of Malaysia’s most populous, rich and industrialised states – Selangor and Penang – which it has governed since 2008.

But the opposition coalition is a looser coalition, made up of a predominantly Chinese party with socialist ideologies, Malaysia’s only Islamist party, and the People’s Justice party, headed by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. He remains a divisive figure in Malaysia. His democratic credentials (as well as his economic liberal ones) are well known in the West, but in Malaysia punters are more concerned with his sexuality. The ruling coalition will continue to pursue any opening it can to destabilise his appeal as elder statesman.

Prime minister Najib, meanwhile, is ignoring corruption charges in a French court over kickbacks in the purchase of French submarines and, more disconcertingly, questions about his involvement in the murder of a Mongolian model in Malaysia, who had acted as a translator in the said French submarine deal.

The campaign thus far has been fought by chipping away at both leaders’ capacity to elder statesmen and their ability to lead a divided country. The ruling coalition has, upon advice from an American PR company, rolled out a more inclusive image of its administration and vision for Malaysia, epitomised under its “1Malaysia” concept that now features on shop fronts, medical centres and government offices.

It has not, however, reined in the divisive reactionary movements and NGOs that call for Sharia to be the supreme law in the country or that continue to call non-Malays ‘sojourners’ in ‘their’ land.

To overcome the divided body politic, it will require a leader of substance and integrity. For many, that continues to be Anwar Ibrahim, while others are less sure. But without any alternatives, the stage is set for a bruising and expensive campaign with the highest of stakes and the lowest of strategies – in terms of quality – to get there.

Australia has largely been able to accommodate and deal with even the intransigent Mahathir, so continuing with a Najib administration will suit it just fine. In fact, Najib signed off on the Malaysia solution, or refugee swap deal, has furthered economic ties, and has been a gracious host to Australian delegations, bar one.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon learnt the hard way, being the wrong person at the right time for Najib Razak and UMNO to show their mettle domestically. UMNO moving into overdrive in the home stretch made it clear that there is a magic, invisible line foreigners should not cross when ‘meddling’ in Malaysia’s affairs. Any commentary on the democratic process in Malaysia is not sought from the officials and Australian interventions, even in election observation, is not tolerated. These are the limits of good neighbours like Malaysia in its current political climate.

If the opposition wins, it is unlikely that there would be any fundamental departure in the overall Australia-Malaysia relationship as it is on solid footing. If anything, it would further improve bilateral relations as the opposition coalition’s stated aspirations of social justice are quite similar to Australia’s core values.

There are two outstanding issues currently – the Malaysia solution and the Lynas rare earth plant. In relation to the Malaysia solution, Australia would have to renegotiate and reassess its border protection plans as at present the opposition coalition does not have a clear refugee policy other than stating its commitments to current international norms. They may sign a range of international conventions including ones that would protect the rights of the refugees, and require that Australia process them onshore.

However, in signing the various international conventions, the ‘Malaysia solution’ would also meet the requirements of the Australian High Court decision and leave open the possibility of renegotiating them. The Lynas issue is more complex as it involves an approved investment. The issue has created a groundswell of popular domestic dissent, but the opposition has been ambiguous on what it would do if it comes into power.

But for now, all we can do is wait for the election to be (finally) called.

This article first appeared in The Drum

Return to higher principles in Malaysian politics

Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Rakyat is making a terrible mistake to take on UMNO at its own game.

Can anyone ‘out-devil’ the devil?

In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim has learnt the hard way that it is impossible to outmanoeuvre Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front), Malaysia’s long-standing regime, using unethical measures. Since 8 March, 2008, BN has been at its weakest when facing the ‘Rakyat’ (citizens) at the electoral ballot but strongest when using dubious practices. The Pakatan Rakyat(PR/Citizens Alliance)-led state government in Perak lasted barely a year, brought down through the use of dubious tactics by BN. This episode must be a lesson for Anwar to desist immediately with the strategy of forming government through defection and return to higher democratic principles. Governments are best formed through elections and not defections.

The story of the Perak power grab is a remarkable one. Two PKR legislators who were charged for corruption in August 2008 – procuring monetary and sexual favours in return for approving a building project – went missing for five days.

Rumour has it that, during those five days pressure was brought on the duo (offered money in addition to having their charges dropped) to defect to BN. This waspreceded by the defection of an UMNO legislator to PKR who has since rejoined UMNO. More surprising was the news that a 20 year DAP member and Deputy Speaker of the House also defected.

It looks increasingly as if Malaysia will return to an era of near-dictatorship and flagrant abuse of power under Najib. That Najib would accept two legislators who have corruption charges pending against them to regain power instead of instituting reforms to clean up the ruling coalition is worrying. Najib has sacrificed real reforms and long term gains for BN in favour of short term gains for his ambitions.

Malaysians are disgusted with how BN grabbed power in Perak. The way in which Najib orchestrated these defections (with legislators going missing) is also a worry. The fact that the private investigator who made a statutory declaration that Najib is involved in the murder of a Mongolian national is still missing only compounds this worry.

There are also constitutional concerns. When the Speaker of the House declared the two seats vacant, the Election Commissioner, went beyond his constitutional authority and ruled that the seats were not vacant. The Election Commissioner, in doing so, took upon the powers of the Speaker and the Judiciary in determining the validity of the resignations.
Anwar and PR must take full stock of these developments. There is no way that PR can outmanoeuvre BN through unethical means. PR needs to strengthen its capacity to govern, and take that message directly to the people.

As PR is a new alliance, more resources will need to be spent on strengthening it. There were clear indications that all was not well within the Perak DAP – the main reason for the DAP member’s defection. The PR government failed to stand down the two legislators who were accused of corruption, allowing BN to use the state apparatus against them. And importantly, Anwar lost the moral high ground when he accepted the defection of the UMNO member into PR.

It is becoming clear that PKR is a party without an ideology. Since its formation in 1998, it has been mostly filled with unhappy ex-UMNO politicians. There are several high ranking PKR members who have since returned to UMNO. Without any clear ideology, PKR has an uncanny ability to attract dubious characters looking for quick pay-offs from the political process, rather than with broader political ambitions. The other members of PR – the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), the Democratic Action Party of Malaysia (DAP) and the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) – are used to being in the opposition, and attract individuals who are more committed to public service.

The lesson for Anwar from the Perak debacle is the need to return to higher principles. PR must challenge the validity of the BN government in Perak but it must also focus on strengthening the alliance in governing the four PR-led states.

The current global crisis presents a unique opportunity for Anwar to showcase his leadership qualities by providing sound policy proposals to lead Malaysia out of the morass it is in. Domestically, Anwar and PR should fight hard to develop a stimulus plan that allows Malaysia to weather the current global economic crisis, as well as to prepare the Malaysian economy for the future. In the region, ASEAN badly needs a charismatic figure to lead them out of the paralysis that key ASEAN members (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines) are facing. Anwar has all the pre-requisites to be a leader. But Malaysians want him to become a leader democratically and with high principles.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Anwar’s victory boosts Malaysian democracy

Anwar Ibrahim’s return to politics is set to boost democratic participation in Malaysia further.

Mr Anwar Ibrahim, returns to Parliament today (28 August 2008) as Opposition Leader, 10 years after he was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Malaysia and heir apparent to the ‘throne’ of Dr Mahathir.

In many ways, the sacking of Anwar was probably the single most important event in the process of Malaysia becoming a mature democracy. For once, Malaysians had ‘a shared history’ – a story or a myth that brought Malaysians together.

Prior to Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking this common myth was May 13th – the race riot that was used over and over by the ruling Barisan Nasional (United Front) to blackmail Malaysians into submission. This myth was perpetuated by the successful developmentist state. Credit, no doubt must be given to Barisan Nasional, of which Anwar Ibrahim was part and parcel of for a good 14 years, for delivering on economic growth, peace and stability (read here).

Malaysia’s fortunes turned after the 1997/98 East Asian Financial Crisis which led to Anwar’s sacking. While having recovered, economic growth has not matched any of the government’s own projections and has paled in comparison to the likes of India, China and Vietnam, FDI has been on a downward trend while corruption has been on the upward trend.

Malaysians were relieved when Mahathir handed over to Prime Minister Badawi, in the hope of revising Malaysia’s fortunes. After having the strongest mandate ever for an incumbent Prime Minister, Badawi, managed to blow all this gain within the span of four years.

Enter Anwar Ibrahim. He successfully managed to bring together a social democratic party (The Democratic Action Party), a theocratic Islamic party (Parti Islam SeMalaysia with a strong theme of social & economic justice), with his Justice Party (whose economic leanings are at best unclear, and at worst populist) to form an alternative grand coalition called the Peoples Front. The 12th Malaysian General election has been described as a political tsunami for the significant shift away from the ruling party (read here). Anwar’s return to Parliament follows the evident disgust that Malaysians have for the ruling party.

What do Anwar Ibrahim and the Peoples Front bring to Malaysia?

The single biggest contribution evidently is the return to a more vibrant democracy. The election had seen a cleansing of the old guard (with dubious records) and those having survived it, being replaced. The pressure that Mr Ibrahim has put on the government has already delivered results. Several far reaching measures in restoring the independence of the Judiciary, the Anti Corruption Agency are now being put in place. Furthermore, the Peoples Front is running four state governments along the West Coast – the economic heartbeat of the nation. The reform measures they have put in place are now setting benchmarks in better governance.

At the same time, Mr Ibrahim has been criticised for focusing on forming a new government through defection and sidelining his coalition members. Mr Ibrahim has been been taken to task for not strengthening and/or institutionalising the Peoples Front. A shadow cabinet has yet to be formed and it is still unclear how policies from the Peoples Front are and will be formulated. Mr Ibrahim would do well to remember the mistakes made by previous opposition leaders who relied on their personality and failed miserably rather than strengthening the institutional framework for the opposition parties to work together.

A bigger threat and one that the more sober commentators hope will diminish with Mr Ibrahim’s return to Parliament are select, albeit limited, populist measures that have been introduced by the Peoples Front run state government. The PAS manifesto for the general elections was ‘The Welfare State’ while Mr Ibrahim has promised to continue expensive fuel subsidies if the Peoples Front forms the government. While it is understandable that these policies are being formulated to gain support from the people, it is hoped that these policies do not become a permanent solution.

For the international community – not much will change. Mr Ibrahim believes in orthodox economics and will not bring much change in policy. What will be of interest is the emphasis on good governance and a move away from ethnic based affirmative action through socio-economic policies to a more needs based affirmative action.

It is heartening to see that democracy is alive and well in Malaysia. The people of Malaysia are taking a risk with this new coalition, and are to be commended for that. The ruling party should also take a bow – for having delivered on economic growth, they now see its citizens make their own decisions in determining their future. Barisan Nasional, probably the most successful party to run a country (or maybe PAP of Singapore deserves that laurel) can be proud for not allowing Malaysia to descend into chaos (ala Zimbabwe) after its fortunes reversed.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum