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?


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in Forbes.

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

Malaysia’s democratic deficit

Malaysia’s dysfunctional democracy is primarily caused by the ruling party as a means to remain in power.

The reforms in the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) may be a step in the right direction. Already, there are detractors suggesting that the reforms are meaningless as corruption is entrenched in Malaysia. What is more serious is Malaysia’s democratic deficit which undermines the citizens’ basic democratic right to choose their representatives without fear.

Malaysia is a dysfunctional democracy. The opposition coalition — Pakatan Rakyat (PR Peoples/Citizens Coalition) is under siege from the ruling party — of Barisan Nasional (BN National Front) — that is recognised as corrupt. All the component parties are scandal-plagued and documented evidence or corruption is common. Yet, nothing can be done by its citizens democratically as its institutions are compromised. The flip side is that the ruling party has an excellent track record ofdestroyingany form of opposition through measures that lack scruple. BN is able to do this with impunity as it controls all arms of what is a dysfunctional democracy and Malaysians know that.

Malaysia was modelled on a Westminster style Parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. It has the semblance of a democracy. But over the past 52 years, Malaysia’s system of government has become dysfunctional — concentrating power in the hands of a select few from the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). The ‘Doctrine of Separation of Powers’ — the hallmark of a mature democracy began to be eroded almost immediately after independence.

The basic principle of one person one vote was compromised almost immediately after independence. The first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, found the Election Commissioner too independent for his liking and through the two thirds majority that BN’s predecessors — the Alliance — held, amended the Constitution that gave powers to the Election Commission to delimit constituencies and put it under Parliament in 1962 where the ruling party had a majority. UMNO and its cohorts have since used the Election Commission to stage manage elections giving UMNO supporters such as rural Malays disproportionate weight in the electorate compared to urban voters where the opposition tends to be focused.

A byproduct of controlling the Election Commission is the ability to maintain two thirds majority in Parliament which by Constitution is required to amend it. Having gained a two thirds majority, BN amended the Federal Constitution in its favour at will so that it ceases to represent the letter and the spirit of Malaysia’s founding fathers. The constitution has become far more repressive by concentrating power in the Executive.

The Judicial Crisis of 1988 destroyed any semblance of democracy in Malaysia when UMNO under Mahathir sacked the Lord President as a way of controlling the Judiciary — the body that is meant to interpret legislation and defends the rights of citizens – whom he thought had become ‘too independent‘. The Constitutional amendments made theJudiciary subordinate to the Executive.

Civil liberties in Malaysia have been severely curtailed to protect UMNO’s dominant position. The Internal Security Act (ISA) allows the government to hold anyone suspected of threatening ‘national security‘ without charge or trial. Together with other repressive legislation such as the Emergency Ordinance — the Official Secrets Act — which bans public discussion of most government and parliamentary affairs as it allows the government to classify documents as secret (including government tenders for public works). The Sedition Act includes vague provisions that criminalises any discussion by citizens that question the primacy afforded to Malays (Malay special rights, the Monarchy Malay language). The Societies Act limits citizens constitutional right to freely associate as it gives the government the right to refuse to register a new society (including legitimate political parties). The Police Act requires citizens to apply for a permit 14 days before a public gathering (thereby making any peaceful public demonstration illegal). The Universities and University Colleges Act disallows tertiary students from participating in political activities (unless of course you’re an UMNO supporter) and allows UMNO almost complete hegemony in Malaysia by controlling the discourse and punishing contrary views.

The media is fully controlled by the government. All the major newspapers, television and radio stations are controlled by UMNO and its cohorts. The printing Presses and Publication Act requires any publication to obtain a license from the government which needs to be renewed on an annual basis (and puts pressure on publishers to toe the government line), enabling the government to control public opinion as news is essentially government propaganda.

UMNO also controls all use of legitimate force as it controls the Police, and the armed forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) and other paramilitary units and uses it arbitrarilyagainst citizens. Torture in detention is common and opposition politicians and civil society members are routinely rounded up and beaten. A new strategy employed by BN is to use the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission to undermine opposition legislators with trumped up charges. This has also led to the death of an opposition aide from torture allegedly perpetrated by MACC officers.

UMNO’s most powerful tool is the ability to cut federal funding to regions or states or channel development projects away from opposition held areas. Conversely, it provides development projects as bribes to constituents to vote for BN. Opposition legislators and states have found themselves choked of constitutionally guaranteed federal funding.

The year since the heady days of March 8, 2008 — when Malaysians hoped that change would come — seems to be receding. UMNO’s tactics as well as its blatant abuse of democratic institutions points Malaysia to a bleak future.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Malaysia: the political tide runs out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.