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

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.

Malaysia: the political tide runs out

Will Prime Minister designate Najib Razak bring about new politics to Malaysia?

Last year was a watershed in Malaysian politics. After 50 years of comfortably winning elections, the twelfth general elections saw the Barisan Nasional (National Front/BN) caned by the normally docile Malaysian electorate. The BN, a coalition of 14 mostly racially-based parties, commandeered by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), still won comfortably but for the first time in its history, lost control of five state governments on the Peninsula and was denied the psychological two-thirds majority in Parliament required to change the constitution when Pakatan Rakyat (The Peoples Coalition), led by Anwar Ibrahim, won 82 out of the 222 parliamentary seats.

Malaysia is often paraded as a model developing economy. By most internationally accepted measures, Malaysia has done well. It is touted as a moderate Muslim majority nation that has successfully managed to address issues related to communist insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism and racial tensions in addition to conventional economic development challenges. This success, however, has come at the expense of democratic freedom. BN developed a narrative that a strong government was necessary to ensure continued peace and prosperity. But strong government under BN papered over the many problems that face Malaysians and abuse of power, corruption and mismanagement were rife. In the run-up to the general election, and since, there has been a sustained onslaught against the façade that the BN had created.

Significantly, the 12th General Election saw the near demise of BN’s major non–Malay parties. This was a clear indication that the non-Malay community in the Peninsula had rejected the BN. If it were not for East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and dubious electoral practices, the BN would now be in opposition at the federal level. The people of East Malaysia continued to support the ruling party, although socio-economically they are the poorest among all Malaysians. The catalyst for BN’s unravelling is difficult to pinpoint. But the increasing dominance of UMNO in the ruling coalition, the racial arrogance it displayed in public and BN’s contempt for the rule of law all played some part.

The event that galvanised the Malaysian public was the ‘Bersih (Clean) Rally’ on 10 November 2007. An estimated 30,000 Malaysians, the largest demonstration since the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim, gathered in front of the Royal Palace to demand free and fair elections. This was quickly followed by the HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) rally, which brought together another 30,000 from Malaysia’s Indian community to voice their grievances against the government. Malaysian Indians had always been loyal BN supporters. Years of continued marginalisation forced the community to use direct democratic action after pleading through the community’s political representatives in the coalition (Malaysian Indian Congress/MIC) failed to produce measures that addressed their worsening conditions. These demonstrations took place despite the threat of tough action and arrests from the police.

As Malaysians shed their fear of BN, loyalty to parties based on race became increasingly vulnerable. Civil servants, business people, politicians – many of whom had benefited from BN’s policies – turned against them for various reasons. This opened a can of worms as individuals with ‘privileged’ information, aided with technology, laid bare the extent of BN’s corrupt practices. From the fixing of judges, to determining outcomes of court cases, to how contracts are given out to cronies became open to public scrutiny. What had previously had been rumoured was now documented in black and white, in some cases even with audio-visual support. BN’s hegemony on information was broken through the internet.

Malaysia’s political leadership was under assault. Prime Minister, Ahmad Badawi, was urged by his party to step down in March 2009. The Prime Minister-in-waiting, Najib Tun Razak, is facing serious allegations of being complicit in the murder of a Mongolian national involved in defence deals while he was the Minister of Defence. He has ‘sworn’ his innocence in a mosque although there are two sworn statements (affidavits) claiming his involvement. The courts are yet to call on him or the individuals who made the affidavits in the ongoing murder trial. Mr. Najib also faces many allegations of cronyism and corruption. But overall, he remains the best UMNO has to offer.

In response to its dismal electoral failure, to its credit BN has introduced measures to win back the confidence of the citizens. High on its agenda is addressing the problem of corruption in Malaysia. In the year 2008, several bills were passed to address this problem. The landmark bills were the Judicial Appointment Commission and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. The government also made ex gratia payments to the five judges who had been dismissed in the Malaysian Judicial Crisis of 1988 – a face-saving measure to acknowledge the Malaysian government’s wrong-doing.

Malaysia’s economic performance has continued to be respectable, although nowhere in the league of China, India, Vietnam and Singapore, and is now on a steep downwards path. The Asian Development Bank forecasts that Malaysia would record a growth of 5.3 per cent in 2009. At the same time a prolonged global recession is likely impact more severely on Malaysia’s open economy than on most others. The current political fracas in Malaysia will not be helpful for policymaking or economic confidence. The oil price hike, the global financial crisis and the failure of the Doha Round are all negatives. Lack of a political coherence and therefore an effective policy response makes these matters worse.

The tide is running out on the old politics in Malaysia and revealing the outlines of a new political maturity. Najib will take over from Badawi in March 2009. Will he choose to move the country forward in a non-partisan way or will he return to the traditional and authoritarian way that has characterised governance in Malaysia in the past?

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Should Pakatan Rakyat bide its time in Malaysia?

Anwar Ibrahim’s fear of the coercive powers of the Barisan Nasional is the primary driving force for this maneuver.

The main factor driving Anwar Ibrahim to topple Barisan Nasional (BN/United Front) is his belief that the window of opportunity will cease to exist in the very near future. Malaysia’s short history has demonstrated that BN is very resilient and adept at breaking down any form of opposition – both with carrots and through the use of big sticks.

Other than the social democrats – the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which was formed when Singapore and the Peoples Action Party (PAP) was expelled from Malaysia and the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS/Pan Malaysian Islamic Party) – no other party has had the staying power required in the unrewarding and ridiculed role of Opposition. All forms of coalition arrangement have been successfully demolished by the ruling party leaving it as the only legitimate and credible representative of the people.

Anwar has decided that it is easier to manage and develop Pakatan Rakyat (PR/Peoples Coalition) as the ruling coalition in which he will be in a position of strength to hold the coalition together through incentives and punishments – very much like the BN has in the past. He would have a more difficult time managing PR in Opposition with limited leverage on the two more senior partners – DAP and PAS. Add to these problems, the resourceful and experienced BN punishing opposition controlled states as well as providing incentives to defect, and the future does not look too bright.

Forming a government through dubious means, will limit Anwar’s moral authority and would open the way for the more resourceful BN to take the same measures to destabilise a PR led government in the future. The final outcome of this instability would see Malaysia following the path of its neighbours – Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand – where political transition has come at a considerable price to society.

It may be both in Anwar’s and Malaysia’s long term interest if Anwar and PR focus on forming a government through the ballot box. If Anwar and PR can successfully demonstrate to the citizens of Malaysia that PR is the better alternative, then they will have a legitimacy and tenure on power that will be difficult to grasp otherwise.

Anwar and PR can do this firstly by institutionalising the current relationship among the coalition partners in PR. It is not at all clear where policy authority lies in PR, both at the parliamentary level or the state level. For example, the Chief Minister of the Kedah state government, led by PAS, suggested logging a protected forest to raise revenues for the state in the event of funding cuts from the Federal government. This is in stark contrast to PKR’s stand on environmental issues.

The contentious issue of religion has also yet to be tested. DAP has liberal views; middle of the ground PKR and conservative PAS clearly do not see eye-to-eye. A case in point is the role Anwar’s party PKR in delaying judgement on one of its Muslim Members of Parliament who actively took part with other radical Muslim groups by forcing the cancellation of a legitimately organised discussion by the Malaysian Bar Council on the issues of conversion and the rights of non-Muslims. Punishing the MP can be used by BN against Anwar, casting him as anti-Muslim and anti-Malay while not punishing the MP would send a signal to liberal minded Malaysians that Anwar is indeed a chameleon.

The crunch will come in the four PR led states. Except for Kelantan, where PAS is fully in command, the four states on Malaysia’s west coast are governed collectively with different parties taking the lead role – PAS in Kedah, DAP in Penang,DAP/PAS in Perak and PKR in Selangor. In Kedah and Perak, PR holds razor thin margins.

Managing these states is a test of PR’s capacity to govern Malaysia. The key lies in how PR manages its divergent ideologies and BN’s attempt to destabilise PR. PR unified behind Anwar and PR exclusively to deny BN a two-third majority. Beyond the noble goals of a more transparent, honest and accountable and goodwill among the PR leaders, there is not much in terms of policy that unifies PR.

As example, PAS members wants to increase the role of Islam in government while DAP members wants to reverse decades of Islamisation.

Another key challenge will be to find alternatives to the expected cutbacks in Federal government allocations. The BN government has always penalised states or constituencies that did not support its candidates. The BN government has already cut the allocation for the Penang state government by 2/3 and shelved several critical infrastructure projects such as the Monorail and the second Penang Bridge indefinitely. However, the PR led states can easily overcome this problem as they all lie in the economically dynamic West Coast of Malaysia which as already achieved high levels of infrastructure and economic growth.

At the Parliamentary level, PR has yet to demonstrate its effectiveness. Its focus has been solely on forming government and it has failed to voice the concerns of citizens or provide alternatives to BN policies. PR has yet to form a shadow cabinet. While PR has criticised the government’s budget, for example, it has not yet provided one of its own. In the current global crises, while criticising the government for inaction, PR has not put forward any solution on how it would protect Malaysia in the face of this global crisis. A critical test will be the US – Malaysia Free Trade Agreement. PAS adamantly opposes it on ideological grounds while DAP and PKR accepts it with caveats. To date PR has not made its position clear although the negotiations are progressing to their final stages.

Anwar’s emphasis on accountability, transparency, political and economic reforms are laudable but still vague. PR has not specified an agenda, or argued and campaigned on what the government should do to achieve it.

Anwar has formidable challenges in managing PR and PR in managing itself. They need to succeed in establishing PR as a legitimate and coherent political force and creating a genuine two party system in Malaysia. There is a case for ironing out PR’s internal differences and doing this through the ballot box in the next general election.

Anwar would go down in Malaysian history as the man who truly democratised the country.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.