Anticorruption reform in a setting of widespread corruption — The case of Malaysia

Top-down anticorruption reform measures in Malaysia are unlikely to be genuine as they undermine the basis of the ruling party’s access and control of patronage and power. This is compounded by the majority of Malaysians ambivalence towards patronage and corruption.

Top-down anticorruption reform measures in Malaysia are unlikely to be genuine as they undermine the basis of the ruling party’s access and control of patronage and power. This is compounded by the majority of Malaysians ambivalence towards patronage and corruption.

Transparency International warned that Malaysia is facing a major corruption crisis. It called on the Malaysian government to ensure independent investigation into corrupt allegations, and that prosecution and punishments are followed through, irrespective of who is implicated. Courageous words but misplaced.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had introduced a zero tolerance policy towards corruption since becoming premier in 2009. His administration has taken a plethora of initiatives to implement this policy.

Why is Transparency International surprised that levels of corruption has reached crisis point in Malaysia?

Melanie Manion’s “Corruption by Design – Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong” provides one methodical way to analyze widespread corruption in Malaysia, and why reforms have failed. The excerpt of the book provides a nice synthesis of her framework:

…where corruption is already commonplace, the context in which officials and ordinary citizens make choices to transact corruptly (or not) is crucially different from that in which corrupt practices are uncommon. A central feature of this difference is the role of beliefs about the prevalence of corruption and the reliability of government as an enforcer of rules ostensibly constraining official venality (dishonesty). Anticorruption reform in a setting of widespread corruption is a problem not only of reducing corrupt payoffs but also of changing broadly shared expectations of venality (dishonesty).

Corruption is widespread in Malaysia. In a discussion, Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan – the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of governance and integrity, and Ravindran Devagunam, Performance Management and Delivery Unit’s (PEMANDU) anti-corruption director, captures succinctly the fact and the reasons why corruption is widespread in Malaysia.

Datuk Paul Low: If you have a Government that is in power for a long time, there tends to be a situation where it takes things for granted. If they have all the powers where people will not question them, then it is likely that abuse will occur. Therefore, we deteriorated in our fight against corruption. The best way is to have a check and balance. Not only in a system by itself, but also politically, where it should have a counter-balance with different views and debates on issues.

Ravindran: Corruption in this country has become an accepted norm. We have corruption in schools, kids have basically said it’s okay to take or give. It has become pervasive and society has become accepting of it.

Manion identifies the crucial first step on why Hong Kong was successful in its anti-corruption reform despite corruption being widespread.

The crucial first step was the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), an anti-corruption agency independent of the police force and civil service, accountable solely to the Governor, with its commissioner appointed by and reporting directly to the Governor. In creating the ICAC, the Governor signaled his recognition of the public confidence problem posed by an anti-corruption agency based in the police force, the government department perceived as the most corrupt in the territory. This argument is what Blair-Kerr characterized as the “political and psychological” rationale for an independent agency. The structural change was aimed not only at better enforcement but also at producing a shift in public perceptions, to challenge the prevalent view about government complacency.

Reforms in Malaysia fail because the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) is not independent. It is a department under the Prime Minister’s Department from which it receives funding for its operations. The position and tenure of the Commissioner is not secured under the Federal Constitution.

More critically, the crucial first step – of making the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission truly independent – is not possible in Malaysia for two structural reason: (i) the political economy of Barisan Nasional and (ii) the general attitude of the majority of Malaysians towards patronage and corruption.

Barisan Nasional is a patronage machine. The line between patronage and corruption is grey. Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir has alleged that Najib Razak had ‘bribed’ all the parliamentary members of UMNO. Was the ‘bribe’ patronage or corruption?

Prime Minister Najib Razak himself reminded his UMNO supporters that the RM2.6 billion ($700 million) was forthem. It is not surprising that the cabinet and Barisan Nasional leaders remain steadfastly behind him.

Beyond these quips, there is consensus in the political science field on the nature of Barisan Nasional as a patronage machine. Publications by acclaimed academics such as Nicholas J. White’s, “British Business in Post-Colonial Malaysia, 1957-70: Neo-colonialism or Disengagement” and “The Beginnings of Crony Capitalism: Business, Politics and Economic Development in Malaysia, c.1955-1970”; E.T. Gomez and Jomo K.S., “Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits”; Barry Wain’s, “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times”; but also the works of other eminent academics such as William Case, Harold Crouch, Thomas Pepinsky, Meredith Weiss, Bridget Welsh and countless others has demonstrated the centrality of patronage politics in Malaysia.

1MDB is simply an evolution of an entrenched system. The number of corruption scandals involving Barisan Nasional has grown in frequency and scale. That Malaysians had continued to vote [only in 2013 did the ruling party lose its majority] in the majority for Barisan Nasional is a testimony that patronage and corruption is accepted in Malaysia.

The fiasco surrounding the 1MDB also demonstrates why Barisan Nasional cannot initiate and implement anti-corruption reforms. It undermines the basis of Barisan Nasional’s access and control of patronage and power.

Genuine top-down anticorruption reform is unlikely to occur in Malaysia. Barisan Nasional will not reform until the attitude of the majority of Malaysians towards patronage and corruption change. Until then widespread corruption is a reality of Malaysian life.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

Malaysia’s prime minister: A dead man walking?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak broke a cardinal rule in politics. He inadvertently admitted ‘guilt’ when the Malaysian Anti-corruption Commission cleared him of any wrongdoing in accepting a political donation. His position – vulnerable since his ascent to premiership – is no longer tenable as Malaysians question his sincerity and trustworthiness

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak broke a cardinal rule in politics. He inadvertently admitted ‘guilt’ when the Malaysian Anti-corruption Commission cleared him of any wrongdoing in accepting a political donation. His position – vulnerable since his ascent to premiership – is no longer tenable as Malaysians question his sincerity and trustworthiness.

On July 2, 2015, the Wall Street Journal alleged that $700 million had gone into a personal bank account of Razak’s. The prime minister offered a non-denial denial:

Let me be very clear: I have never taken funds for personal gain as alleged by my political opponents – whether from 1MDB, SRC International or other entities, as these companies have confirmed.

Razak also labelled the report as political sabotage and threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal (more than a month after the allegation was made, at the time of publishing this article, the prime minister has yet to sue).

As the noose tightened around his neck, Razak went for broke.

On July 20, 2015, the Sarawak Report, a blog that had been systematically publishing reports on corruption and abuse of power in Malaysia, was blocked by the government. An arrest warrant for its founder and editor, Clare Rewcastle-Brown, was subsequently issued.

On July 24, 2015, the government announced that The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly, which had been reporting extensively on the 1MDB issue, were to besuspended for a period of three months.

On July28,  2015, the prime minister sacked his deputy and four other ministers in a cabinet reshuffle in an effort to strengthen his control of the government and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). With the changes to his cabinet, Razak alsoneutralized the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that had been vigorously investigating the 1MDB affair. He also removed the attorney general, who as part of a high-level task force (involving the Attorney General’s Chambers, the Central Bank of Malaysia, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Royal Malaysian Police) was believed to have been preparing corruption charges against the prime minister.

After pulling off such a brazen act with a high degree of skill, the prime ministerblinked.

On August 3, 2015, the MACC announced that the $700 million channeled into Razak’spersonal bank account came from donors. In doing this, Razak inadvertently confirmed the Wall Street Journal’s report and opened Pandora’s box.

This admission of ‘guilt’ has taken the toxicity of the prime minister to an all-time high. But even more damaging than the legal implications of the matter (i.e. was itcorrupt for Razak to solicit donations on behalf of UMNO; is it certain that the donations were for UMNO; who donated; what were the donations for; were the donations used at the 2013 general elections; did the donation break Malaysian laws; etc) is the question of trust and legitimacy.

Malaysians will now once again question Razak’s honesty and sincerity in denying all other allegations made against him, his family and his administration. After all, if theWall Street Journal’s  preposterous allegation is correct, could all the other preposterous allegations also be true?

Malaysians will begin to wonder if there is truth to the preposterous allegations made by the suspended The Edge Finance Daily and The Edge Weekly.

Malaysians will begin to wonder if there is truth to the numerous preposterous allegations made by the blocked Sarawak Report.

Malaysians will begin to wonder if there is truth to the many preposterous allegations on 1MDB made by members of the opposition.

Malaysians may also begin to wonder if there is truth to all other preposterous allegations made about the Prime Minister, his wife and his family.

Malaysians will begin to wonder if there is truth to the preposterous claims being made by Bersih 2.0, namely that elections are neither free nor fair in Malaysia.

UMNO members will begin to wonder if there is truth to the sacked Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyddin’s preposterous premonitions about UMNO’s future.

Having realized this faux pas, the prime minister and UMNO are currently engaged in rear-guard action to correct the mistake. But for an embattled prime minister already suffering a serious trust and legitimacy deficit, this may be too late.

One should not, however, dismiss Razak outright. It goes without saying that a dead man walking can be very unpredictable and dangerous.

Note: It appears that the government and its agencies (e.g. the Attorney General’s Office, the MACC, the Central Bank) are divided on 1MDB. It appears that some have aligned their efforts to protect the prime minister, while others are intent on removing him, and some who are just doing their work. I discuss this in next week’s article.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

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

Malaysia’s next general elections shaping up to be a battle of coalitions

The winner of the next general election will depend on their ability to address complex changes in Malaysian society.

Malaysia’s 13th general election, which must be held by April 2013, has been the most anticipated in Malaysian history, given the megatrends that are occurring in the country and the ability of the two main contenders to manage them.

Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) are the main contestants. BN — currently the longest-ruling coalition in the world — is a 13-party coalition based mainly around ethnic and regional interests. Umno is the single most important political party in the ruling coalition, dominating not only the coalition, but all major institutions in Malaysia except in the state of Sarawak. Najib Razak, son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, has led the coalition since becoming Umno president through an interparty compromise.

PR, in turn, is a new and informal coalition, set up in the euphoria of the opposition’s historical performance at the March 2008 12th general election. None of its three component parties has a clear majority, and all understand that their success is predicated on their ability to work together. PKR’s unelected leader Anwar Ibrahim leads the coalition by virtue of his ability to hold together three disparate groups — the Chinese-dominated DAP, the Islamists party PAS and his own band of largely ex-BN/Umno members.

Five critical megatrends face the contenders at the national level: economic performance, demographic changes, urbanisation, Islamisation and an island/peninsula divide.
The middle-income trap: The popular diagnosis for Malaysia’s stagnating economic performance is that Malaysia is caught in a middle-income trap, where it is unable to compete with low-cost producers on cost, but also by not having the institutions, human resources and technological capabilities to compete with advanced economies in innovative products and processes.

A young nation: 71 per cent of Malaysians are under the age of 40, with 34 per cent aged between 20 and 40.

An urban nation: 71 per cent of Malaysia is now urban, with only Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak still being largely rural. Urbanisation rates are below 55 per cent.

An Islamic nation: The pervasiveness of Islam as a political tool and the increasing piety among Muslims have reached unprecedented levels.

Two nations: The politics of Peninsular Malaysia starkly differ from that of the island of Borneo. Political leaders and citizens in Sabah and Sarawak continue to distrust peninsula politicians, and all politics in these two states is local.

These trends translate into electoral issues in the following ways. Most critically for BN, its successful economic strategy is now being questioned on several counts. First, Malaysia’s low-cost, export-oriented economic model has seen wages for 80 per cent of Malaysian households stagnate for the past three decades. These households earn less than RM3 000 a month, in a country where the average monthly income is RM4,025. More critically, the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysian households earn RM1,440 a month. Seventy-one per cent of this bottom 40 per cent are Bumiputeras — a Malay term translated literally as “prince of the land”. The average monthly income of the top 20 per cent of households is RM10,000.

Second, in politicising education, BN has sacrificed quality for quantity. International benchmarks and surveys consistently show that the quality of education in Malaysia, at all levels, cannot match the successful East Asian economies. Eighty per cent of Malaysia’s labour force has no more than the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) qualification (SPM is equivalent to Year 10), and the 57 universities and the more than 500 colleges are producing large numbers of poorly equipped graduates. This has led to a poorly skilled labour force and unemployed graduates, with the economy facing severe skills shortages in a tight labour market.

This has had a significant impact on Malaysia’s young voters. The majority of local graduates utilise a government loan scheme. With limited employability and mediocre wages, they end up saddled with enormous debts. The problem is exacerbated by high unemployment. Graduates accounted for more than a quarter of those unemployed in 2007, while unemployment among new graduates was 24.1 per cent in 2008.

The public sector, at the federal and state level, and government-linked corporations (GLCs) have long been used to mop up Bumiputera graduates as part of an implicit contract between Umno and the Malays. With the country experiencing economic stagnation, rising public debt, depleting natural resource rents from fossil fuels, the bloated civil service and GLCs are now a severe drag on the Malaysian economy and can no longer function as a source of employment opportunity for the thousands of Bumiputera graduates. Many non-Bumiputera graduates also suffer the same predicament, as they are locked out of the public sector and the GLCs. Many are also ill-equipped to meet the demands of the private sector, especially in businesses exposed to international competition.

Increasing urbanisation has led to a greater interaction between Malaysians of different races and also between Malaysians and the outside world. Although there is still significant segmentation among the races and social classes in urban areas, this has meant greater interaction at work and global development that have produced varied results. Most importantly, the interactions have has forced Malaysians to focus more on the issues that affect their daily lives, such as the quality of life, the cost of living, or global events such as the Arab Spring.

Urbanisation also challenges the BN’s monopoly on information. In 2010, 65 per cent of Malaysians were using the internet. Cyberspace has been a boon for the opposition and civil society, and is an arena the BN has yet to effectively control. High urbanisation rates, which are driven primarily through rural–urban migration, also connect rural areas and urban centres more strongly through social networks. Families and individuals returning to their rural homes for festivities bring with them the latest political developments, made more accessible by the internet. This is further challenging the BN’s control in rural areas.

Islamisation of the public sphere — despite Malaysia’s secular constitution — has taken a concrete foothold in Malaysian society, due mainly to the contest between Umno and PAS for the Malay votes. Global developments have also influenced this trend. Islamic fundamentalism now pervades all aspects of Malaysian life, both public and private. While Islam had always mattered in the political and social sphere as an ideology, it is now also encroaching into the economic sphere.

Politics on the island of Borneo is based on local issues and mistrust of the federal government. The 2008 general election established the importance of Sabah and Sarawak in forming federal government. Sabah and Sarawak have become increasingly assertive since. As all politics on the island is local, and as a result of their strengthened bargaining position, Sabah and Sarawak — long considered fixed deposits for BN — are no longer a foregone conclusion.

The response from the contenders is influenced primarily by their incumbency — or lack of it.

The component parties of the BN, until the 2008 general election, had long-serving leaders, which impacted severely on inter and intraparty dynamism. The incumbency of these leaders and the BN resulted in a disconnect between entrenched party leaders and grassroots leaders, as well as members and supporters. Interparty competition for resource rents and for patronage has also resulted in leaders leaving the party or being put away in “cold storage”. The incumbency of these leaders has also limited the ability of the parties to attract new members and develop new and dynamic second-echelon leaders. Most damaging has been Umno’s increased strength: this has relegated other coalition partners to minions, effectively making elite bargaining redundant — the hallmark of the BN.

In contrast, PR, despite strong leadership, has marginally more democratic processes, due mainly to limited opportunities to access and distribute resource rents. The Reformasi, Bersih and Hindraf movements, Anwar Ibrahim’s charisma, and most importantly, the government’s inability to manage the megatrends, have seen young people flocking to the PR.

The two main contenders have framed their arguments for support in a contrasting manner. Umno, through the BN, has argued that social stability delivers economic growth and that only a strong Umno can guarantee social stability.

At the 13th general election, Umno will be arguing that it has the track record in delivering social stability and economic growth. PR, instead, is arguing that good governance and social justice are critical to Malaysia’s continued economic growth and social stability. PR argues that the persistent weakening of the Malaysian economy, and social unrest, are due to BN’s mismanagement of the economy, its divisive racial and religious politics, and the abuse of the rule of law.

The 2008 general election solidified the two-coalition system, and this is unlikely to be reversed. The surprising aspect of this development is that it took opposition parties 50-odd years to co-operate effectively, considering that Malaysians never given BN, on average, more than 57 per cent of the popular votes — with its best-ever result of 65 per cent achieved only in the booming ‘90s, at the 1995 general election.

Malaysians have demonstrated time and again that, despite its hegemony, the BN is not an overwhelmingly popular coalition. While the results of the 13th general election will depend mainly on the leadership abilities of Najib Razak and Anwar Ibrahim to manage their coalitions in addressing issues, neither coalition will remain in power for long—even with the support of a rigged electoral system—if it fails to address these megatrends effectively.

This article first appeared in Asian Currents