The Malay Supremacy Gambit — How Far Will It Go Under Najib Razak?

How far will current Prime Minister Najib Razak allow for the strategy of Malay Supremacy to prevail in Malaysia?

Advertisements

In Malaysia, the 3Rs – race (the Malay race), religion (Islam) and royalty (the Malay Sultans) – ideology (code word for Malay supremacy) and strategy has underpinned the ruling party’s grip on the Malaysian community. Since the twelfth general election in 2008, however, the efficacy of this ideology and strategy appear to be on a downward slide, especially among urban Malaysians. The critical question now is: What extent will the prime minister and the leaders of UMNO use the politics of Malay supremacy to remain in power?

One of the most outspoken is the Sungai Besar United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) division chief, Datuk Jamal Md Yunos, who is organizing a “red shirt” rally for Sept. 16 (which coincidentally is Malaysia Day) to teach the Democratic Action Party (DAP) Chinese not to be rude to Malays. He has also warned non-Muslims to avoid Kuala Lumpur. Already rumors are spreading and the recent Low Yat riot comes to mind.

But the story is rapidly evolving. After fierce criticism from a wide spectrum of society, including from former UMNO stalwarts and public disavowal from prominent Malay associations,  the ‘theme’ has now changed. It appears that it is no longer Himpunan Maruah Melayu (Rally for Malay Dignity), but rather a Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu (Rally for Citizens Unity). Questioned for its legality earlier, the rally is now legal according to Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police. It is now being organised by the Malay martial arts sports association, Pesaka (the National Silat Federation), whose chair is the former Malacca Chief Minister, and current UMNO senator, Tan Sri Mohd Ali Rustam.

Despite the cosmetics, the motive remains.

It’s a common practice for leaders in the Malay community, especially from UMNO, to rally their supporters by appealing to race, religion and royalty; the symbols of Malay supremacy in Malaysia. Legitimate challenges within Malaysia’s narrowly defined democratic space are interpreted as “humiliating Malays” by those at risk of losing power. This is entirely predictable and was seen most clearly at Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections. It is important to note that its antecedents are likely in the creation of the Malayan state.

The force of this ideology was seen most vividly at Malaysia’s third general election in 1969, when UMNO performed poorly and ethnic riots between Malays and Chinese took place on May 13. Accounts vary as to what actually happened, but the underlying message was that while Malaysia is a “democracy,” power must always remain with the Malays, and preferably under UMNO. Otherwise, the loss of Malay supremacy would see them become marginalized within their own nation (as argued by their proponents).

Since then, the specter of May 13 is often raised for a host of different reasons, from justifyingaffirmative action for the Malays to banishing ideas for further democratization. Ironically, it is theDAP – the most successful opposition party and predominantly Chinese – that is always the reason given as to why another May 13 could happen.

The specter of May 13 is also commonly used by beleaguered UMNO leaders to rally their supporter. When UMNO was split in 1987, a certain UMNO Youth leader was alleged to have unsheathed a keris(Malay dagger) and reportedly vowed that the keris would be bathed in Chinese blood. UMNO general assemblies (including its Youth and Women’s assemblies) are routinely filled with symbolismsuch as this, accompanied with cries of protecting and “ennobling” (memartabatkan) the Malay race, the Malay language, the Malay culture, the Islamic religion and the Malay Sultans.

The current Deputy Home Minister, Nur Jazlan, wrote the following in 2011:

The party has failed to offer new ideas to attract the young Malays to support its ideology, which in recent years has drifted more to the right. The prime minister, Dato Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak, through the concept of One Malaysia has tried to bring UMNO back to the center space of national politics, where race and religious tolerance is at equilibrium.

But his message doesn’t seem to resonate with the majority of the delegates and even among his bench of Supreme Council members, who may have come to a conclusion that another event of racial and religious strife in the country is the best way to retain Malay power.

The Deputy Home Minister concedes that the thinking at the highest levels in UMNO is that racial and religious strife can bring benefits to the party.

In cables leaked exclusively to The Sunday Age by WikiLeaks, several of Singapore’s highest ranked foreign affairs officials – Peter Ho, Bilahari Kausikan and Tommy Koh  – raised serious concerns over key politicians in Malaysia, including the then-Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the following:

According to one cable detailing a meeting in Sept. 2008, Kausikan told U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Sedney that ”the situation in neighboring Malaysia is confused and dangerous,” fueled by a ”distinct possibility of racial conflict” that could see ethnic Chinese ”flee” Malaysia and ”overwhelm” Singapore.

”A lack of competent leadership is a real problem for Malaysia,” Kausikan said, citing the need for Najib Razak – now Malaysia’s prime minister – to ”prevail politically in order to avoid prosecution” in connection with a 2006 murder investigation linked to one of Razak’s aides.

”Najib Razak has his neck on the line in connection with a high-profile murder case,” Kausikan said.

Ho’s March 2008 assessment of Malaysia, given to another U.S. official, is also unflattering, and includes claims that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been ”throwing stones” at his replacement, Abdullah Badawi.

”The political knives will be out for Abdullah’s son-in-law, United Malays National Organization politician Khairy Jamaluddin, whom nobody likes because he got where he is through family ties,” the cable records Ho saying. ”As for … Najib Razak, he is an opportunist. Although he has not been critical of Singapore, he will not hesitate to go in that direction if it is expedient for him to do so. Najib’s political fortunes continue to be haunted by the … murder scandal.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak is under intense pressure to resign. To compound his already numerous problems, a recent documentary by Al Jazeera once again raises serious questions of his alleged involvement in the murder of a foreign national.

If Najib’s supporters are of the opinion that sparking social unrest would be to his advantage, they may want to look back in history on how his father came to power.

If supporters of UMNO begin to think that such disturbances are likely to help it retain power in Malaysia, it would indeed be a frightening prospect, especially as divisions within the party have become all too apparent. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad appeared at a recent anti-government rally, urging UMNO’s members of parliament to replace Najib and has condemned the ‘red shirt‘ rally.

Those assessments made by Singapore’s foreign affairs chiefs on Malaysia are increasingly looking spot on.

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.

Low Yat Riot in Malaysia – Racial or something else?

Was the riot in Malaysia’s entertainment and commercial district racial?

Was the riot in Malaysia’s entertainment and commercial district racial?

According to reports, an estimated 200 Malaysians, mainly youths from Malaysia’s ethnic majority Muslims, demonstrated violently by destroying property and beating up members from a minority ethnic group, the Malaysian Chinese.

The riot reportedly started after a 22-year-old jobless man named Shahrul Anuar Abdul Aziz was accused of stealing a mobile phone worth MYR 800 (about $210) and handed over to the police. Afterward, rumors circulated on social media that that an ethnic Chinese trader had conned a Malay man by selling him a counterfeit phone.

While several forms of discrimination (particularly racism) is institutionalized (and accepted) by Malaysia’s minority groups, this is the first time that such a large scale riot has happened against them in an unlikely setting. Racial clashes in the past have occurred primarily in urban poor housing areas, the two most significant being the Kampung Rawa and Kampung Medan riots, but Bukit Bintang is an upmarket area, predominantly Chinese, and internationally known as the entertainment and commercial capital of Malaysia. A most unlikely place for a race riot to occur.

The incident and subsequent reactions raises several interesting questions.

The woeful inadequacy of the police in preventing the incident from escalating, raises questions. It raises questions because Malaysia’s police have sweeping powers to address threats to state and society. The irony is that the Malaysian police are notorious for their abuse of these powers, ranging from deaths in custody, extra judicial executions to violently disrupting legitimate and peaceful assemblies. In this case, they appear to have lost that “notoriety.”

The brazenness of the demonstrators does raise questions. Malaysians by and large are not known for mob violence. This behavior is associated more closely to supporters of the ruling party as they are known to be immune to prosecution. Investigations are on-going and it is worth watching what would happen to these demonstrators.

The authorities are also investigating several individuals for sedition. Most prominent is Mohd Ali Bahrom, the president of the Armed Forces Veterans Association, a known associate of key leaders from the ruling party.

The authorities have already denied that this was a racial riot. Segments of Malaysia’s political class and society, from both sides of the divide, have also supported this idea.

Sophie Lemiere, writing in New Mandala, suggests that this is not a racial riot but an unintended outcome of how the ruling party has been running the country. She terms this Politok — a combination of ruling party politics and amok. Individuals and groups that the ruling party procures for violence and used to the immunity are taking the law into their own hands to resolve disputes.

Race riots or not, Malaysia is certainly treading dangerous grounds.

This article first appeared in Forbes

In Malaysia, there is only UMNO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in Forbes

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