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

Moving away from the consociational model in Malaysia?

Malaysians should realise that the consociational model has broken down and all future challenges and solutions should come from Malaysians directly working with one another.

It was reported that,

Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam had sought the intervention of a Barisan Nasional member of parliament (emphasis mine) in Sabah while questioning an order from the Home Ministry to stop the distribution of the latest Herald publication in Sabah.

The same news report went on to note that,

Tuaran MP Datuk Wilfred Madius Tangau said in a Facebook posting today, that he had interceded (emphasis mine) with the Home Ministry on behalf of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine) to obtain approval for 2,000 copies of Herald to be released in Sabah. (28 October 2013, The Malaysian Insider).

It is interesting that Murphy Pakiam sought relief through a member of parliament (MP) from the ruling coalition that had caused this predicament.

Perhaps, the Archbishop was acting strategically by appealing to an MP from the indigenous Christian community in East Malaysia that is a powerful voting bloc in Malaysia’s electoral system. It may also be a manoeuvre to enable all or most East Malaysian MPs and MPs from the minority political parties on the peninsula within the ruling coalition to voice their disapproval with the Court of Appeals, government or the United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno) views on the ban.

However, I argue that Murphy Pakiam was merely acting within a repertoire of behaviour that he and possibly most of Malaysia’s political, cultural, religious and business elites have become accustomed to: to appeal to the ‘powers that be’ by seeking out ‘members of the ruling elite’ who would then – when congruent with their own interests – act as ‘intermediaries’ and ‘intercede’ on behalf of the aggrieved parties to the ‘powers-that-be’ – more often than not – the Umno president.

This behaviour has become the norm in Malaysia. [A survey of news would indicate that the Prime Minister of Malaysia/President of Umno is expected to resolve all issues in Malaysia.] This behaviour is one of the main reason why minority political parties remain within the ruling coalition despite seeing their position as useful intermediaries wither away. This behaviour has become their habit.

But why do Malaysian elites constantly appeal to members of the ruling elite to resolve their problems or challenges?

Consociational politics

One way to explain this is to explore the concept of consociational politics. Consociational politics is based on the idea that conflict resolution in divided societies is best achieved through the accommodation of the political elites representing the salient segments of society and institutionally anchored by inclusive coalitions. As noted by its formulator (the Dutch political scientist Arendt Lijphart), consociational democracy is a,

…government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with fragmented political culture into a stable democracy.

In other words, the consociational model assumes:

  • that there are deep differences among the salient segments in society (often coalescing around ethnicity, religion or regional groupings in Malaysia);
  • these differences are insurmountable;
  • that these salient segments are incapable of mediating these differences by themselves; and
  • that these segments are incapable of regulating their behaviour in the face of these intractable differences. This ultimately leads to violent or deadly outcomes. Hence, only the leaders of these salient segments – the elite cartel – can overcome these challenges. This is what leaders of the BN would have Malaysians believe.

The elite cartel are supposed to overcome these challenges – which ordinary citizens are unable to address – through four principles that are foundational to the consociational model.

The first principle, the grand coalition, is an executive that not only has the votes necessary in an election to secure a majority but includes all important salient segments (or as many as possible). It also entails distribution of leadership position to different groups in other types of institutions and involves informal elite cooperation.

The second principle is cultural or segmental autonomy which provides a degree of self-regulation for each salient segment (usually coalesced around ethnicity, religion or regional identities such as constitutional guarantees of the rights of minorities).

The third principle is proportionality where proportional representation in legislature/s but also other aspects of public life (such as appointments to positions in the bureaucracy and state-owned corporations).

And the fourth and final principle is the minority or mutual veto, which enables representatives of each segmental group – even the weakest – to reject proposed policies of the grand coalition that affects the group.

This consociational model as practised by the BN (described as the social contract/power sharing/kongsi-kongsi) has all but broken down. [Pakatan Rakyat and its state governments offer variants of this consociational model. It has also been argued that since the consociation model no longer works, that its institutions no longer function. The point of this article is precisely the opposite; that since Malaysian elites have set behavioural patterns conditioned by the consociational model, this then (i) sets the parameters for thinking and actions for actors in the model; and (ii) it advantages the dominant group since it can veto the interests of the other minority groups without suffering the consequences (losing the main prize – the general elections).]

Although the institutions – primarily reflecting principles one to three – remain, the most important principle, the ability of the weakest social group in the grand coalition to veto policies or legislations that affects the group has all but dissipated. [Institutions here are the rules of the game in a society or more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction.

Hence the predicament of the minority groups in Malaysia, that although the majority of Malaysians (and the overwhelming majority of the Malaysian minorities i.e. the Chinese and Indians) rejected the ruling coalition at the 13th general election, the minority parties within the coalition but also elites from the business, cultural and religious organisations are still tied to these practices of elite politics that benefits primarily Umno, the dominant partner.

These practices have progressively failed to protect their legitimate and constitutionally guaranteed interests.

[It is important to note that these institutions not only suppress minority groups, but also differing views within the majority group. Hence Malays and Bumiputeras who are not part of the grand coalition are also marginalised. The dominant group in the ruling coalition, however, uses various mechanisms such as ideology and state bureaucracy, but most importantly the habits of Malaysians to continue to be the legitimate power.]

That the Catholic Archbishop had to meet the MP from Tuaran – and not seek other solutions – to seek relief only serves to reiterates this point.

How did it break down?

Many reasons have been put forward to explain the breakdown of consociational politics within the BN, but four are put into focus here. The first is Malaysia’s electoral process, secondly, the concentration of power in the Executive and in Umno specifically, thirdly – ‘creeping Islamisation’, and finally, the habits of (most) Malaysian political, social, cultural, religious and business elites.

The first three are well rehearsed.

First, there is no longer a grand coalition but a dominant party with minions in the ruling coalition. Consociationalism works when there are incentives for powerful and weak social groups to cooperate. The most important incentive is to pool votes at elections to form government.

However, systematic gerrymandering and malapportionment has steadily amplified an already biased electoral system that favours rural areas against urban areas and the states of Sabah and Sarawak over Peninsular Malaysia.

In the past, Umno, the dominant party in the coalition needed the support of the minority groups to form government which is an important feature of the consociational model. However, at the thirteenth general elections, Umno decided (and was later surprisingly vindicated) that it did not need to pool its votes with other important minority groups within its coalition on the peninsula to form the government. It relied primarily on the Malay votes, and votes from East Malaysia.

Umno now knows that it does not need the support of the minority communities (Chinese and Indian Malaysians) as they are predominantly situated in urban areas, and in Peninsular Malaysia. Hence the accepted logic in the consociational model, that the electoral process will moderate the behaviour of a political party (especially that of the dominant party), no longer holds.

The second reason for the breakdown of the consociational model is the concentration of power in the Executive arm of government and in MPs from Umno. Although Malaysia follows the Westminster system, strengthened with a written constitution that embeds the separation of powers, and an independent judiciary to ensure the rule of law, it very quickly unravelled for a variety of reasons.

Although a consociational democracy accepts a diminished form of parliamentary democracy for political and social stability, the extent to which Malaysia has deviated even from its initial state has resulted in Malaysia being defined as a semi-authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the concentration of power in government within a particular racial group compounded by the fact that the dominant party which purports to represent this racial group no longer requires the support of other minorities at elections voids the second and third principles of cultural or segmental autonomy and proportionality in the consociational model.

Gradual breakdown over time

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the breakdown of consociationalism is a recent development. While Umno paid lip service to the idea of consociationalism, it was steadily eroding the second, third and fourth principles of the model especially since May 13, 1969. This was the outcome of its own growing strength both in the executive (which Umno MPs dominate) and in the economic sphere which made Umno the most formidable political party in Malaysia.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) sealed Malay dominance in the economic sphere while accelerating the dominance of Malays in all aspects of administration.

Simultaneously, in its attempt to undercut support for other groups vying for the majority vote bank, Umno co-opted Islam, and made it the most significant marker of Malaysian Muslims.

‘Creeping Islamisation’ defined as the strengthened influence and the consolidation of Islam’s political power in state and society is one of the outcomes of this strategy. This provided and continues to provide perverse incentives that undermine the consociational model.

These factors are at play in the Court of Appeals decision in the ‘Allah’ case. With memories of several high profile court cases in recent times going against the supremacy of the constitution and the secular nature of the state in favour of the primacy of Islam, was it then surprising that three Muslim judges would rule in the way they did in the Court of Appeals on the ‘Allah’ issue.

[These cases (Lina Joy, Tongiah Jumali, Subashini, Shamala, ‘Everest’ Moorthy, Rayappan Anthony, Revathi/Siti Fatimah, Banggarma, etc.) arbitrated by Muslim judges have given rise to concerns that the judiciary may not be independent attitudinally when it comes to matters pertaining to Islam. These concerns are reflected in comments from prominent members of the legal fraternity such asParam Cumara-swamy, a former UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, as well as former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram that the Malaysian judiciary is not protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.]

The actions of Umno, conservative Muslims in administrative positions and conservative Muslim groups should not be surprising, for they have developed a repertoire of behaviour that responds to incentives provided by the institutions in Malaysia.

Minority elites stuck in old practices

But what is surprising is that minorities – especially its elites – continue to resort to these institutions to resolve problems despite increasingly regressive outcomes. It must be noted that the primacy of Malay interests – as defined by their elites – over the interests of other ethnic groups was not done at gunpoint, but rather through the consent of the majority that included minority groups.

The case of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) provides a useful illustration. The problems of ‘creeping Islamisation’ is not new but began in earnest in the late 1970s.

The MCCBCHST have met ‘members of the ruling elite’, especially non-Muslim MPs and more specifically Christians MPs from the ruling coalition since the late 1980s in the hope that they would ‘intercede’ for them. The MCCBCHST has also met and continued to meet successive Prime Ministers in the hope of resolving issues, policies and administrative acts by the government, its agencies and its core supporters that undermined the fundamental constitutional guarantees for minority groups within this consociational model. Despite promises made by successive prime ministers, minority rights continue to be trampled on.

But at no time did this behaviour and practice stop. This is because the religious elites are tied to these practises of consociational politics too. The practices remain stable because it has ordered the thought, expectations, and actions of the elite actors within this system.

Moving away from elite politics post-GE13

The outcome of Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13) and developments since are both a cause for concern and hope. A cause for hope because for the first time in Malaysian history, the majority want change. A cause for concern because the will of the people are not reflected in the ruling coalition that became the elected government. This indicates in the most emphatic manner that the system is broken.

The ruling coalition has chosen to continue to emphasise the underlying assumptions of the consociational model by making the differences among Malaysians insurmountable, and that they alone can resolve these issues within their terms.

Malaysians can change this if they stop relying on the political, business, cultural and religious elites to resolve issues. This rejection of elite politics will in turn change current institutions.

Developments since Reformasi in 1998/99 suggests that the behaviour of Malaysians are slowly beginning to change away from elite politics. There are now many social movements (Bersih, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia, Solidariti Anak Muda Malaysia and Black505) that are led by ordinary Malaysians which are not focused on ethnicity or religion.

But most importantly, despite the BN’s provocations, Malaysians have demonstrated time and again, their ability to practise restraint; undermining the key assumption that justifies the consociational model – that the intractable nature of these differences will lead to bloody outcomes. Moreover, ordinary Malaysians, in leading these social movements, are beginning to demonstrate that they are capable of managing their own destiny.

The key to developing a new repertoire of behaviour and new practices is essentially to overturn the assumptions of the consociational model: that the differences among the salient groups in Malaysia are not insurmountable; that members of the salient groups are capable of managing these differences themselves without assistance from the elites; and that members of the salient groups are capable of regulating their behaviour should some of these differences become intractable.

One avenue to immediately implement this idea is on the ‘Allah’ issue. Malaysians should reject any further engagement with the dominant group represented by the BN government, Umno or their proxies on the ‘Allah’ issue as it is now clearly pointless.

Engaging one another directly

Instead Malaysians should take two inter-related actions: continue through the constitutionally provided process of the court systems and engage one-another directly.

Malaysian from the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak should engage directly with one another to discuss these issues, and to find ways to resolve them. Malaysian Christians from Sabah and Sarawak can share their history of using the word ‘Allah’ with Malaysians on the peninsula. Muslims from Sabah and Sarawak can share their experience of how Malaysian Christians have used the term ‘Allah’ without causing any social unrest. Muslims opposed to the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims can share their concerns to non-Muslims on the reasons that they oppose them.

This is not inter-faith dialogue but Malaysians finding democratic solutions through constitutionally provided avenues to resolve their differences, to get on with their lives, and build new repertoires of behaviour and practices to resolve more fundamental and pressing issues.

Malaysians should realise that the consociational model has broken down. It clearly no longer serve the interests of minority groups and is used to inhibit Malaysians from addressing more pressing and fundamental challenges that the country faces. All future challenges and its solutions should come from Malaysians directly working with each other, together.

This article first appeared in Aliran 

KL112 and a new Malaysian identity?

The coming together of different Malaysians and Malaysian social movements are forging a new identity.

The symbolism of the Malaysian peoples uprising on January 12 2013, or KL112cannot be underestimated for its importance in myth-making. In facilitating this ‘peoples uprising’, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has not only created new myths that would solidify its presence in the memories or ‘imagery‘ of Malaysians in a positive manner, but more importantly, PR has also moved decisively in dismissing myths created by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its subordinates in the Barisan Nasional (BN) that have been the grand narrative/s in Malaysia for the past 55 years.

Myths – stories, memories and symbols – provide the basis for the narratives that create, forge or reaffirm identities. These are especially crucial in periods of critical transformation and/or when societies are undergoing a crisis of identity. Jose Luis Borges noted that the past and the future inhibit the present. In the context of the KL112, PR is representing the present by connecting to a more glorious Malaysian past and the promise of a more glorious future.

But why is PR now the purveyor of hope, a realm that was firmly in the hands of UMNO with visions of grandeur and Malaysians, Malays and Muslims being world beaters? The reasons are multifaceted and can be explained by incompetence, mismanagement and corruption by the ruling regime being often touted as the main reasons. It could also be that Malaysia and Malaysians are undergoing an identity crisis.

This crisis of identity came to the surface with the twin economic and political crisis: the East Asian Financial Crisis (EAFC) of 1997/98 and the political and social fall-out as a consequence of the sacking and the subsequent brutal and humiliating treatment of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. While the May 13 1969, pogrom scarred Malaysians in the way the different races – especially between the [older] Malays and Chinese – related to each other, many Malaysians especially Malay-Muslims, saw UMNO and the government in a different light after these twin crises. The popular Deputy Prime Minister who was to many Malay-Muslims, an icon of how Islam (and Muslims) can co-exist, even thrive in and with modernity felt terribly bitter in the manner he was treated. To the Malays, it was argued that a sacred feudalistic social contract had been breached. More importantly and tangibly, the EAFC brought down to earth UMNO and Malay-Muslim pride that were then running on a can-do attitude captured through slogans such as ‘Malaysia Boleh‘, ‘Melayu Baru’,’Melayu Korporat’ and rising bank balances (let alone the sole right to lead Malaysia). A cataclysmic crisis to an artificially created race that was always insecureand unsure of themselves.

Difference between opposition public demonstrations and BN’s and the creation of identities

Several simple but important observations can be made of the public demonstrations by PR in contrast to the ruling regime.

A united message – While the BN is in disarray with its 1Malaysia slogan that has lead to a series of debacles, ridicules and outright rejection at the highest levels of administration, PR through a series of broad based public demonstrations either in supportive or leading roles, have been instrumental in forging a new identity focusing on what is wrong in Malaysia. What this identity is precisely remains unclear and subject to different interpretations, but nevertheless it is bringing Malaysians genuinely together, united in opposing the regime.

People centred and issue focused – Another important difference is that the mass gatherings manufactured by the BN are always about support of or for its leader/s and its leadership. The public demonstrations organised by PR and civil society are about issues that matter to Malaysians. Personalities do matter, but primary importance is given to the issues. Malaysians are not spending their money, braving retribution from the government, risk limb and livelihood just to hear leaders of PR and/or civil society talk – they are there to make a point about issues that matter to them. And these issues are serious enough for Malaysians often characterised as docile and lackadaisical to come out of their comfort zones.

A sense of purpose – this is possibly the most important point in the creation of identities. While BN organises events which do not have any sense of purpose for its participants, the public demonstrations are driven by a sense of purpose. This is critical in validating the myth. Broad sections of Malaysians – whole families, young and the old, workers and students, blue and white collar, Peninsular and East Malaysians, conservatives and progressives, leaders and followers – all have a sense of purpose. And when they’re sprayed with chemically-treated water, tear-gassed or baton-charged, there is now a badge of courage, a shared myth, ridiculed by the mainstream media and elected leaders, a story is to be told. The story becomes a myth and a shared identity. It does not matter if they are a Keadilan, a PAS, a DAP, a PSM supporter or the various civil society and grass-roots movements, or the different races, or Malaysians making a stand on a myriad of issues. There is a story – a same story to be told.

No BN member has anything that comes close. The last time was in 1946, when UMNO marched against the Malayan Union.

A nation of equals – And remarkably, there is an air of egalitarianism. Among the speakers at the KL112 other than the political party leaders, were two women from minority races, representative from East Malaysia and grassroots leaders. The time given for each speaker were almost equally distributed. PR leadership did not have exclusive rights to the speeches but was shared with civil society and grassroots leaders. There was no emphasis on any particular party – PAS, DAP, PKR or PSM had almost equal time, with Anwar Ibrahim of PKR, designate Prime Minister, having the last word. BN’s events in turn are always focused on the leaders and on one particular individual (and often on his wife). Whether it’s a walk-about, or a teh-tarik session, or a mass rally – it is and always is – about the leader.

Myths created, questioned and shattered

Operasi Lalang catalysed civil societies in Malaysia but it was Reformasi that provided Malaysians opposed to the ruling regime with a shared myth that was different from the existing grand narrative. While many Malaysians lost their innocence (or belief) in UMNO, BN and their government, many Malaysians were also given the opportunity to work together to form a new ‘identity’ against the existing narrative.

This grand narrative is two-fold: that Malaysians due to their racial and religious differences are incapable of managing themselves; and that only UMNO through BN can manage these differences.

Since the time of Alliance, even the much loved Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Father of Independence, had used this narrative. Many Malaysians believe in this myth, and to a large extent, the BN had delivered on this myth – not only managing competing racial and religious demands, but delivering growth, peace and stability.

Edward Said remarked in Culture and Imperialism that, ‘neither past nor present…has a complete meaning alone’ but that they ‘inform each other, each implies the other.’  By choosing the Merdeka Stadium, the site where Independence was declared, and by chanting the words of Malaysia’s ‘Father of Independence’, PR and especially Anwar Ibrahim has linked the present to a romanticised past that lingers happily in the memories of Malaysians. Anwar Ibrahim can now take on the mantle of Malaysian leadership from BN in delivering this myth (of growth, peace and stability).

In hailing Merdeka seven times, replicating the call made by Malaysia’s much loved ‘Father of Independence’, Tunku Abdul Rahman on Independence Day in the very same location, could not have been more symbolic. The grand narrative – that it was UMNO and Tunku Abdul Rahman (among the Malaysian Independence leaders) -who secured the independence of then Malaya from the British – the brutal colonisers – and delivered prosperity to Malaysians have now been appropriated by PR. KL112 went further and rewrote the narrative with PR and Anwar Ibrahim promising to free Malaysians from their new brutal colonisers, UMNO, after 55 years of misrule and delivering prosperity – once again.

Another component of the grand narrative, that only BN knows how to ‘share power‘ to the satisfaction of all communities was also questioned. In successfully organising this public demonstration including forcing the government to accept most of its terms and conditions, sharing stage with civil society and grassroots leaders, and more importantly, providing clear evidence that the opposition coalition were prepared to take over Putrajaya in a responsible manner to the satisfaction of all communities, PR has set the stage for the final push towards elections.

The final potent myth that has ensured the continued dominance of UMNO was that only UMNO can provide stability to Malaysians and to the international community. To many non-Muslims and Muslims – particularly from the older generation, and especially those who lived through the May 13, 1969 pogroms – UMNO was the best hope of protecting the interests of the minorities (non-Muslims and progressive Muslims) from the intolerant and excessive demands of the conservative elements of the Malay-Muslim majority. In recent years – especially since the 2004 general elections but in the most pronounced manner since the 2008 general elections – it has been UMNO that has become the vehicle for intolerant and excessive demands.

The KL112 sealed in the conscience (or imagery) of Malaysians, that Malay-Muslims in general, but especially through the Malay-Muslim dominated [Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)] or Malay-Muslim exclusive parties [Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS)] and civil society organisations [Solidariti Anak Muda (SMM) or Persatuan Anak Peneroka FELDA (ANAK)] are capable of being moderate and articulating the interests of all Malaysians – a departure from the behaviour of present day UMNO and its sponsored right wing groups (such as PERKASA). More importantly, it demonstrated that when Malaysians focused on issues (and not race and religion), they were more than capable of managing themselves.

The international community is also possibly sleeping better knowing that their long held view that in Malaysia, only UMNO with its secular and capitalistic (although ethno-nationalistic) values would provide a bulwark against anti-capitalists and anti-Western forces such as communism and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism can now be rethought. The demands raised at the KL112 were focused on the democratic rights of citizens, workers, minorities, indigenous communities, the environment and good governance are values that in its essence supports capitalism and Western ideals such as the rule of law and democracy.

However, the question still remains on what this new identity is?

While the myths that these public demonstrations have created signify a break from the past, only time will tell whether the series of events beginning since Operasi Lalang, heightened by the Reformasi movement, and the events since the Badawi administration have fundamentally changed the characteristics of Malaysians in a meaningful way.

This article was first published in New Mandala

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

Review of Palace, Political Party and Power

The Malay monarchs greatest challenge will not be in besting UMNO but in remaining relevant to their Malay subjects.

Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, Palace, Political Party and Power: A Story of the Socio-Political Development of Malay Kingship.  

Singapore: NUS Press, 2011.  Pp. xxiv, 472; map, tables, figures, photographs, list of abbreviations and acronyms, glossary, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Greg Lopez.

On 6 February 2009, approximately 3,000 Malays protested in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, demanding that the Perak ruler, Sultan Azlan Shah, dismiss the state’s legislative assembly to pave the way for new state elections. Earlier, Malaysia’s then Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak had extra-constitutionally toppled the popularly elected Pakatan Rakyat state government with the complicity of Perak’s royals. Never in Malaysian history had there been such a popular uprising against Malay royals as the ensuing protests. This video provides a hint of the likelihood that in a new Malaysia the most significant threat to the Malay rulers’ fetish for power will come not from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) but from ordinary Malays.

Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian serves as professor of history and senior fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris.  She ranks among the most renowned and respected historians of modern Thailand.  The latest of her many books, Palace, Political Party and Power: A story of the Socio-Political Development of Malay Kingship, sees her turn her attention to the history of modern Malaysia to provide a cogent analysis of the relationship between UMNO and the Malay rulers in their common quest for power. The book’s timing is opportune, as it comes at a moment at which each of these institutions, UMNO and Malay kingship, confronts a decline in its legitimacy within a seriously divided Malay community. Palace, Political Party and Power represents a valuable addition to the literature not only on the relationship between the Malay rulers and UMNO, but also on that between the Malay rulers and UMNO on the one hand and their “subjects” – the Malays of Peninsular Malaysia – on the other. Even more significantly, it treats an important and neglected dimension of Malaysian politics – the impact of the Malay rulers on the country’s affairs.

Palace, Political Party and Power traces the socio-political development of the institution of Malay rulership, from the beginning of colonial times, when the Malay rulers lost power but not prestige; through the Japanese Occupation, when they lost both; to the restoration of the rulers’ prestige – thanks to the new Malay elites – at independence; and in the ebbs and flows since. In narrating this story, the book achieves three principal ends. First, it reaffirms conventional analysis holding that the British residential system in colonial Malaya had great significance in modernising the institution of Malay rulership towards the constitutional monarchy of today’s Malaysia. Second, it argues persuasively that it was the Japanese Occupation of Malaya that provided the platform for new Malay elites – whose members would become the leading lights of UMNO – to take the leadership of the Malay masses away from the Malay rulers but in the process also to restore the prestige of those rulers. Third, and most important, almost seventy  percent of  Palace, Political Party and Power focuses on the complex relationship – one of competition for and cooperation in power – between the country’s two leading Malay institutions, UMNO and the rulers.

Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian’s central argument is that the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Japanese policies towards the Malay rulers, the new Malay elites, and the Malay community had, more than any other factor, the effect of stripping the Malay royal institution of its “aura”, “mystique”, “grandeur” and “authority.” In consequence, Malay rulership no longer commanded the fear or undisputed reverence of members of the post-1945 Malay elite. Malaya’s Japanese occupiers, through their treatment of the Malay rulers, revealed those rulers’ impotence, their inability to defend themselves, and also their lack of the capacity to defend the interests of their subjects – the rakyat. This reality made clear to the burgeoning new Malay elite, which the Japanese also developed, that the existence of Malay royal institutions depended very much on the good will of those in power. It provided that new elite with a valuable lesson for dealing with difficult members of the royalty during the post-1945 period.

Furthermore, Palace, Political Party and Power argues, Japan’s policy of inculcating Malay society with a certain variant of Japanese values through education had the unintended effect of strengthening the Malays as one community, sharing one language and one religion. Many Malay youths were sent to schools – ordinary schools, teacher training schools, and leadership schools (kurenjo). In the leadership schools, Malay students were taught by means of an exhausting daily routine to appreciate and to live by Nippon seishin, or the Japanese spirit. This exposure to Japanese values had the profound effect of changing some Malays’ outlook on life, and above all of exorcising the narrow socio-political parochialism that had previously divided the Malays into subjects of different rulers owing allegiance to different sultanates. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya also toughened members of the new Malay elite, as both the British and the Malay rulers would learn so dramatically after Imperial Japan’s defeat.

Palace, Political Party and Power develops its arguments over nine chapters, in essence covering two periods: that before the establishment of UMNO in 1946 and that after the party’s establishment. The first chapter provides a brief introduction to the concept of monarchy and locates the Malay rulers within the history and among the fortunes of monarchs in post-colonial developing nations. While many monarchs lost their titles, the monarchs of the newly minted Federated States of Malaya gained a new title  in 1957.  With the addition of the elected Supreme Head of State or Yang DiPertuan Agung to the nine existing rulers of Malay states, Malaya became the country with the greatest number of constitutional rulers in the world, ten in all. The second and the third chapters of Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian’s book discuss the abject state of the Malay rulers as of the middle of the last century.  They narrate the story of the social-political decline that the rulers suffered first under British colonial rule and then under the Japanese Occupation. Chapters Four through Eight discuss the tug of war between the Malay rulers and UMNO to define the de facto and de jure roles of constitutional monarchs in independent Malaya/Malaysia, and Chapter Nine concludes the book.

In its research, Palace, Political Party and Power is all that one would expect from Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian.  She has scoured archives and other holdings at the Public Record Office and the library of School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the Rhodes House library at Oxford, and the National Library of Singapore and the library of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), as well as archival holdings in Malaysia itself.  She demonstrates real courage in writing about Malay monarchy and UMNO in a true academic fashion; she proves herself objective in the context of a public university in Malaysia. Unlike the general brood of academicians that fill Malaysia’s public university system, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian is no UMNO or royalist sycophant.

Palace, Political Party and Power suggests that, if the contest between UMNO and the Malay rulers were a boxing match, then UMNO would be leading after four rounds but facing uncertainty in the remaining rounds and the serious possibility of losing the bout. For UMNO’s legitimacy as the protector of the Malays is declining faster than that of the Malay rulers. We may divide the contest between UMNO and the Malay rulers up to now into four clear chronological rounds. Round One, circa 1946, centred on the issue of Malayan Union.  It was a draw, as the Malay rulers, UMNO and Malay subjects rallied together in the common cause of protecting the rights of the rulers.  Round Two, roughly 1948 – 1951, was focused on the powers of the new Malay elite, represented by UMNO. Throttling the ascendancy of UMNO, the monarchs clearly won that round. Round Three was the 1951 – 1955 Merdeka negotiations, and it went to UMNO.  And Round Four brought UMNO victory in 1983/84 and 1993/94.  It left UMNO the supreme power in the land.  This bout’s fifth round is currently being fought.  There is no clear winner yet, but the Malay rulers have come back very strong.

In discussing the factors that explain the success of the constitutional relationship between the Malay rulers and the executive leadership of the country, Palace, Political Party and Power suggests three: the strong political power of the chief executive, the personal prestige of the chief executive vis-à-vis the rulers, and personal attributes of the men who have occupied these positions. Adding to these three factors was of course the legitimacy of the Malay rulers and UMNO’s leaders, respectively, in the eyes of the rakyat.

At a theoretical level, this book frames the analyses of the relationship between the Malay rulers and UMNO as a contest between two ideas of constitutional monarchy. These two ideas are best captured in quotations from Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sultan Azlan Shah that appear in Palace, Political Party and Power:

The Constitution implies without room for contradiction that though the Sultans are sovereign heads of states, they have no power to rule. The power lies in the hands of the people who through their representatives run the government of the nation and the states…

Tunku Abdul Rahman, page 408

What the Agung can do and what he cannot do is clearly defined by the Constitution. One fact is certain, the royal prerogative is exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as representing the electorate, hence the people have a lot to say…It can be assumed that while the Rulers enjoy their rights and privileges, they must live within these rights…The Menteri Besar and the State Executive Councillors are supposed to be the ‘watchdogs’…Their duties are to see the Rulers do not commit excess…

Tunku Abdul Rahman, page 330

A King is a King, whether he is an absolute or constitutional monarch. The only difference between the two is that whereas one has unlimited powers, the other’s powers are defined by the Constitution. But it is a mistake to think that the role of the King, like that of a President, is confined to what is laid down by the Constitution. His role far exceeds those constitutional provisions.

Sultan Azlan Shah, page 330

Another example of the way in which Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian frames her analysis is the comparison of Westminster-style constitutional monarchy, which emphasis the non-political nature of the monarchy, with the “Southeast Asian” model of constitutional monarchy, best represented by the current Thai king. The Southeast Asian model follows in form the Westminster-type model, whereby the monarch delegates all powers to the people’s representatives. However, in practise, the modern Southeast Asian monarch reserves the ultimate extra-constitutional power to interpret, intervene, reject or direct a course of action in affairs of state.

This line of analysis is, however, very narrow in its usefulness.  It misses the central feature of Malaysia’s system of government. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy only in name. The wording of the country’s constitution has been amended more than 650 times; 42 amendment bills have been passed. In fact, Malaysia is a dysfunctional democracy, in which the ruling UMNO enjoys disproportionate power relative to all other institutions. In the political science literature, Malaysia is conceptualised not as a democracy but as a semi-democracy, neither democratic nor authoritarian, a syncretistic, repressive-responsive and electoral one-party state. In this context, the relationship between UMNO and the Malay rulers takes on a different meaning.  It is not a contest over interpretation of the constitution so much as one over UMNO’s ability to hold hegemonic power. Furthermore, a Westminster model works best in a non-feudal society, whereas Malaysian society remains feudal. These realities notwithstanding, it would nevertheless be interesting to know if Malay rulers like Sultan Azlan Shah indeed see themselves operating according to Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian’s Southeast Asian model of kingship.

To frame the relationship between UMNO and the rulers in terms of a quest for power turns the focus to legitimacy: first, the legitimacy of the actions of UMNO and the Malay rulers in the eyes of the rakyat and, second, UMNO’s legitimation of its actions through the use and abuse of the Malay rulers as the party made itself Malaysia’s most powerful institution. In this context, Palace, Political Party and Power overlooks an important event in Malaysian history, one that solidified UMNO’s position as the pinnacle organisation in Malaysian society.  This event was the 1988 sacking of Malaysia’s Lord President, Tun Salleh Abbas; the subsequent emasculation of the country’s judiciary; and the complicity in these events of the then Agung, Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Shah of Johor. A more recent example of the power of UMNO, one not treated in detail in the book but described in the opening paragraph of this review, was its toppling of a popularly elected state government with the support of the Malay ruler.  The book also neglects numerous cases of UMNO’s use of the Malay rulers to curtail the civil liberties of Malaysians.

An analytical framework centered on UMNO’s quest for ultimate power makes possible also a coherent explanation for the increasingly common appeal of various political organisations and civil society movements to the Malay rulers – namely theYang DiPertuan Agung – in such causes as free and fair elections, protection of the rights of Malaysian Indians or of Malay language rights, and others.  These appeals have come despite the Malaysian monarchy’s limited de jure and de facto powers and its blemished track record. The reason for them is that, when virtually all other institutions in Malaysia are either weak or UMNO proxies or both, only the Malay rulers, with their interest in protecting and furthering their own interests, offer a glimmer of hope against the excess of Malaysia’s true monarchs – the UMNOputras.

Palace, Political Party and Power notes that, by the end of 2008, the Malay rulers’ stature was definitely on the rise.  That would seem to remain the case as long as UMNO’s political leadership continued to be ineffective. The events of 6 February 2009 showed, however, just how vulnerable the Malay rulers are. Sultan Azlan Shah and the Perak regent Raja Nazrin, heralded in this book as examples of a new breed of monarchs who are competent and have the interest of the rakyat at heart, are now treated as outcasts by a significant number of people in their own state of Perak and by Malaysians in general. The Malay rulers’ long-term challenge is not besting UMNO but rather winning the hearts of Malays, Malays who are increasingly shedding their feudalistic mindset.

This article first appeared in New Mandala


Martin Jalleh, 2011. “Of Raja Nazrin, Real Stories & Regal Rhetoric,” Malaysia Today, 27 July (http://malaysia-today.net/mtcolumns/guest-columnists/42378-of-raja-nazrin-real-stories-a-regal-rhetoric , accessed 27 July 2011).

Zainon Ahmand and Liew-Ann Phang, “The all powerful executive”, The Sun, 8 April (http://www.perdana.org.my/emagazine/2011/04/the-sun-the-all-powerful-executive/, accessed 1 August 2011).