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.

The unfortunate case of Malaysia’s prime minister

The feeling that Malaysia is now in an abyss is real. Malaysians fear terrible things are happening to them and their country because of poor leadership. The man who – rightly or wrongly – will be blamed for all of Malaysia’s woes will unfortunately be the current prime minister.

The feeling that Malaysia is now in an abyss is real. Malaysians fear terrible things are happening to them and their country because of poor leadership. The man who – rightly or wrongly – will be blamed for all of Malaysia’s woes will unfortunately be the current prime minister.

In June this year, the minister responsible for transforming the Malaysian economy – Idris Jala – in an open letter to Bloomberg , complained that he hardly recognised the country that Bloomberg columnist William Pesek was writing about. In the open letter, Idris Jala provided a robust rebuttal to William Pesek’s derisive commentary on Malaysia.

Last week, Prime Minister Najib Razak was compelled to assert that Malaysia is not a failed state as public outrage reached a crescendo. Some even suggested that Malaysia is heading towards both a dictatorship and a  failed state. Najib Razak countered with statistics and examples.

Both the prime minister and his minister for economic transformation are correct that – on balance – the available analyses suggests that the Malaysian economy is healthy and the prime minister is not yet a dictator. Yet, both men also know that despite evidence to support their arguments; and after spending hundreds of millions of ringgit to prosecute their case, and also improve the prime minister’s image, the majority of Malaysians still thinklittle of him, his administration and the country’s performance. After the fatal mistake where he admitted that he “accepted” $700 million from a foreign donor (after first denying it) for the ruling party’s political activities (a story that is still unfolding), significant portion of his own supporters (from the United Malays National Organisation/UMNO) have also lost faith in him. This is most unfortunate for Najib Razak, but also his cabinet and the Barisan Nasional. 

During the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98, then Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad (Tun Mahathir) managed to successfully pin the blame for Malaysia’s economic woes on the Jews. Najib’s party, UMNO, Razak is attempting a similar tactic of deflecting attention elsewhere by describing the Democratic Action Party as being funded by Jews, a charge strenuously denied by party officials. There is/are no external force/s that he and his allies can pin the blame on. He is being attacked by people from within his own party for what they perceive as unforgivable mistakes that are weakening the Barisan Nasional and UMNO further; and that these mistakes are of his own making. The majority of Malaysians have long registered their preference for another coalition and leader.

The leadership of Barisan Nasional and the present cabinet strongly backs Najib Razak. Beyond that small but powerful circle, support is thin. He is now being made thescapegoat for the Barisan Nasional’s, the UMNO’s and the country’s poor performance. All calamities befalling Malaysia and Malaysians are now being placed at his feet.

Despite being a prized product of the UMNO and Barisan Nasional system, Najib Razak is now a curse to many within the system that produced him.  The son of the architect of  the New Economic Policy and an UMNOthoroughbred, Najib Razak once glorified, is now houndedby the very people who made him the king of the hill. He has become a plague. It is no longer 1MDB but the prime minister that is the symbol of everything that is wrong with Malaysia.

On the 29th and 30th of August, 2015, rallies have been organised not only in Malaysia, but all over the world by Malaysians calling for Najib Razak’s resignation.

Will Najib Razak survive the weekend?

Stay tuned.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

Note: (1) I am holding off my article on the intra- and inter-institutional fights for awhile as I await new information. (2) Videos of grassroot UMNO leaders openly (and sometimes rudely) calling for his resignation are available on the internet. Here is a selection: [Video 1;Video 2; Video 3]. While other videos[Video 4] have exhorted the importance to attend the rally to demand change [Video 5].

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.

Can Malaysia’s prime minister survive?

It is one thing for the Prime Minister of Malaysia and President of UMNO to pick off his rivals within or without UMNO one at a time. But it is altogether a different ball game when the Rakyat, the opposition parties and significant segments of UMNO are united in scalping the Prime Minister.

It is one thing for the Prime Minister of Malaysia and President of UMNO to pick off his rivals within or without UMNO one at a time. But it is altogether a different ball game when the Rakyat, the opposition parties and significant segments of UMNO are united in scalping the Prime Minister.

The President of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is always the Prime Minister of Malaysia. It is UMNO that decides who becomes the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Leadership crisis in UMNO always have serious implications to national leadership and Malaysia.

The leadership crisis within UMNO occurs almost every decade. The outcomes of these leadership crisis are balanced as the context is important in determining the survival of the incumbent.

The first leadership crisis happened almost as soon as UMNO was established. Leaders from UMNO’s Islamic Department left in 1951 to form the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party of Tanah Melayu, now known as the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS. Then, this group argued for the centralisation of Islamic affairs, something that the then leaders of UMNO were not prepared to do. The incumbent was not challenged directly and survived. 

The third leadership crisis was the “palace coup” within UMNO. A poor showing by UMNO in the 1969 elections lead to a pogrom against Malaysian Chinese as segments of the Malay community vented their anger at the Malaysian Chinese minority in selected locations. The numbers are disputed but at least some 6,000 Chinese homes and business were destroyed and 184 were killed. Tun Abdul Razak (the father of the current prime minister) took over as prime minister replacing the liberal Tunku Abdul Rahman. A new “more assertive” Malay leadership group replaced the old “more accommodating” one. This “new leadership” included Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Musa Hitam and Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, launched the New Economic Policy (NEP) – an extensive affirmative action policy which covered all aspects of the Malaysian economy and society – aimed at reducing socioeconomic disparity between the ethnic Chinese minority and the Malay majority on the Peninsula as well as the indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak collectively termed Bumiputera (“sons of the soil”). The incumbent was forcefully removed. 

The fourth leadership crisis came about when a rival faction – led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Musa Hitam – almost succeeded in toppling then incumbent President of UMNO and Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad in the 1987 party elections. Mahathir Mohamad then purged the leadership of the government and party of his challengers which included more than half the cabinet members (including Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s fifth prime minister. Anwar Ibrahim, Najib Razak and Muhyiddin Yassin sided with Mahathir). In the post party election tussle, the High Court declared UMNO to be an “unlawful society” following irregularities in the party elections that Dr Mahathir had just won narrowly. Dr Mahathir then founded a new party called UMNO Baru (New UMNO) with all the institutional resources of the old UMNO. The purged members would form a new political party called Semangat 46 in 1989.  In 1990, at the 8th general election, for the first time in Malaysian history, two formal opposition coalitions would be formed to take on the BN. Members of Semangat 46 disbanded in 1996 to return to UMNO. But the idea of opposition parties collaborating with dissidents from the ruling party and receiving strong support from the electorate was now a reality. The incumbent was challenged directly and survived. 

In 1998, Dr Mahathir had his deputy, and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim put on trial for sodomy and corruption creating the fifth leadership crisis. This action, together with other social, economic and political development would polarise Malaysian society further between supporters of UMNO and supporters of Anwar Ibrahim. It would also give birth to the Reformasi movement that would catalyse the engagement of large swaths of Malaysians in politics for the first time.  Although short lived, once again, opposition parties would collaborate through Barisan Alternatif. This collaboration between civil society, opposition parties, dissidents from UMNO and ordinary Malaysians would lay the groundwork for UMNO’s greatest challenge a decade later. The incumbent pre-empted a direct challenge and survived.

Dr Mahathir resigned on 31 October 2003. There were growing signs that UMNO – let alone vast segments of Malays and Malaysians – were not happy with Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He accepted this signal and paved the way for his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to take took over, thus averting a leadership crisis and revitalising UMNO’s fortunes. The incumbent averted a direct challenge by resigning.

Prime Minister Badawi performed well in the 2004 election. UMNO alone had 109 out of 219 parliamentary, just one seat shy of being able to govern in their own right. Badawi’s popularity and UMNO’s and the ruling coalition’s might did not go towards greater societal outcomes, as perceived by Malaysians. Instead corruption at the highest levels, rising religious and racial tensions, and other issues (such as crime, rising cost of living, etc.) began to erode Badawi’s support from the electorate. Also, after the 2004 elections, Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction for sodomy was surprisingly overturned in attempts to mend fences. However, upon his release from prison, Anwar launched a political campaign that saw the opposition coalition registering its best ever performance. At one point, he claimed that he had the numbers to form government in 2008. After Badawi’s dismal showing at GE12, he accepted the signals coming from UMNO and society. The incumbent averted a direct challenge by resigning.

UMNO’s current and sixth major leadership crisis – where Prime Minister Najib Razak has sacked his Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin – is likely to be its last.

A key issue appears to be the inability of Prime Minister Najib Razak to “listen, hear, read or see” the signals.

Despite spending more than MYR58 billion (US$15 billion) , with the support of an electoral system designed to keep the ruling party in power against an opposition that various administrations have hounded since independence, and against an opposition leader that UMNO had sought to destroy for more than decade, 51% of the electorate voted against Prime Minister Najib Razak. He was unable to listen, hear, read or see this signal coming from the Rakyat.

More importantly, he is also unable to listen, hear, read or see the signals coming from within UMNO. This could be fatal. Powerful segments within UMNO are genuinely concerned that Prime Minister Najib is condemning UMNO to oblivion.

The alleged scandals linked to the current UMNO President and Malaysia’s current Prime Minister are simply too many and too large to ignore. That may be the primary reason why the Prime Minister is unwilling to go.

The doors within UMNO also appear to be closing for a direct challenge against the incumbent. This means the challenge will be taken outside the UMNO general assembly. This could be potentially disastrous for Malaysia.

What will the incumbent do?

Watch this space. The best is yet to come.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

Malaysia struggles to escape the middle-income trap

Malaysia’s economic reforms are under question.

The term ’middle-income trap’ possibly first entered Malaysia’s official policy lexicon when Premier Najib Razak referred to it as Malaysia’s greatest development challenge. He noted:

We have become a successful middle-income economy. But we cannot and will not be caught in the middle income country trap. We need to make the shift to a high income economy or we risk losing growth momentum in our economies and vibrancy in our markets.

The use of the term by the premier was courageous, as it was then still in its infancy. It had only been introduced into mainstream economics two years earlier through the World Bank publication, An East Asian renaissance: ideas for economic growth. This publication, timed to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the East Asian Financial Crisis (1997–98) and confirm East Asia’s return to a high-growth era, was overshadowed by the subprime crisis and the subsequent great recession (2008–09).

Nevertheless, the term and the concept gained traction. In the five years since, the middle-income trap has become shorthand to describe the challenges faced by rapidly growing economies.

It is not surprising that the middle-income trap (trap) hypothesis has gained traction, as more than 80 per cent of countries in the world are in that income band or lower, and it is a political imperative for all leaders and governments to raise the income levels of their citizens.

But becoming a high-income country is challenging and a long-term process. The majority of the countries that are now in the high-income level were in the middle-income level more than 100 years ago.

The Lead Economist with the Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, Jesus Felipe (p.4), quoting the works of Angus Maddison, noted that the first country to reach $2000 per capita was The Netherlands in 1700, with Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, moving into the middle-income levels (lower and upper) at the end of the 19th century (around 1870).

This same study covering 124 countries, between 1950 and 2010, demonstrated that in 2010 there were 40 low-income countries (below $2000), 38 lower middle-income countries ($2000–$7250), 14 upper middle-income countries ($7250–$11750), and 32 high-income countries (above $11750).

A further study identified there were 101 middle-income countries in 1960. Only 13 of these became high income in 2008—Equatorial Guinea; Greece; Hong Kong SAR, China; Ireland; Israel; Japan; Mauritius; Portugal; Puerto Rico; Republic of Korea; Singapore; Spain; and Taiwan, China.

Stated differently, moving into high-income is the exception rather than the norm. The norm is therefore, for an economy/country to be in the middle-income level.

The World Bank classifies countries according to incomes (which is the global convention): lower income ($1035 or less); lower middle-income ($1036-$4085); upper middle-income ($4086-$12 615); and high income ($12 616 or more). It is relatively simple to move from lower income but tedious to move from lower to upper middle-income levels. For example, it would take a country 19 years at 5 per cent annual growth rates to move from $400 to $1035. It would take the same country 50 years to move from $1035 to $12 615 at the same growth rates.

The more challenging aspect of the middle-income trap debate, beyond issues related to classification, is the ability to differentiate between countries that are experiencing temporary growth slowdown and those which are in a trap.

According to one approach, a country is in a trap if at its growth rate, it will spend longer than the median country in that same income category (lower middle income or upper middle income). A country avoids the trap if it crosses the lower middle-income segment in less than 28 years; the upper middle-income segment in less than 14 years and experiencing growth rates that are more than 3.5 per cent. According to this approach, Malaysia entered the lower middle-income economy in 1969 and joined the ranks of upper middle-income countries in 1996. In this conceptualisation, Malaysia is a borderline case as it has been in the lower income for 27 years, and 15 years in the upper middle-income (in 2010) with average growth from 2000–10 at 2.6 per cent.

Another approach examines the middle-income trap as a special case of conditional growth slowdowns—i.e. the contribution of institutions, demography, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, and output structure and trade structure in to growth slowdown. The focus is also on relative, sustained growth slowdowns. The findings suggest that middle-income countries are more likely to experience growth slowdowns, and that Malaysia is experiencing growth slowdown caused by institutional factors.

Najib Razak was partially correct when diagnosing that Malaysia was experiencing a middle-income trap. Others are suggesting that Malaysia is experiencing a special case of growth slowdowns. The bigger question is whether in making this diagnosis the premier had identified the correct economic reforms, and measures to implement them.

The outcomes are just as contentious as the debates on the middle-income trap. While Malaysia continues to record credible rates of economic growth (4.3 per cent for the period 2009–13), the sources of this growth are being questioned.

It has been argued that growth is being driven by pump priming of the economy through populist measures financed through debt. Najib Razak’s flagship policies to address the middle income trap—1Malaysia, the Government Transformation Programme and the Economic Transformation Programme—have largely faded into the background as pressing issues on race and religion, corruption and crime have persistently taken centre stage. At the recent general elections, the majority of Malaysians rejected these policies.

Despite the rejection, the premier continues to insist that his policies are sound. Notwithstanding, he was correct however, when he warned that unless Malaysia undertook the reforms successfully, it would risk losing growth momentum in our economies and vibrancy in our markets’.

This article first appeared in Asian Currents

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