Malaysia’s Coming 14th General Election: Issue in Doubt

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This is adapted from a speech by a veteran journalist-turned businessman to a regional forum put on by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore on Jan. 9.

Malaysia’s next general election must be called by June by a government that over the past five years has been wracked with financial scandals, an inability to curb rising living costs and income inequality and has seemingly lost a clear vision for the future.

After more than a decade of steadily losing its rural lifeline, common sense would dictate that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government faces an uphill task in retaining a comfortable majority. In fact, as an observer of Malaysian politics and having seen the last eight general elections either as a journalist or an insider, this is one election I will not be comfortable in predicting. There are too many new parts to the equation and any prediction would be, at best, an educated guess.

Long, futile wait for political change

However, although Malaysia’s urban and civil society have long rooted for political change, their views have not prevailed over a vast rural electorate – mostly ethnic Malay and Muslim -- that traditionally has supported the ruling Barisan Nasional and its leading political party, the United Malays National Organization.

Still, since the dramatic 2008 general election when the BN lost its two-thirds majority, and 2013 when it actually lost the popular vote but still maintained its grip on power viua gerrymandering and the first-past-the-post system, its share of rural votes has been declining.

The Barisan’s popularity peaked in 1995 with 65 percent of the popular votes, although in 2004 it won 90 percent of the parliamentary seats on 63.9 percent of the popular vote. Since that time, its sway via both the popular vote and parliamentary majorities have been declining. Its worst result was in 2013 when it won 59 percent of the parliamentary seats with only 46 per cent of the popular votes.

Since 1955 and the first general elections in what was then the Federation of Malaya, and since 1963, after the formation of Malaysia, save for a blip in 1969, the rural areas have traditionally been the vote bank for the Barisan Nasional and its predecessor, the Alliance.

Fixed Deposit in the east

And since 1963, the relatively under-developed states of Sabah and Sarawak, which today account for 57 parliamentary seats or about 26 percent of the seats in Parliament – have almost overwhelmingly voted for the BN; so much so that they are referred to as the BN’s fixed deposit.

Similarly, the rural heartland in the peninsula – where Felda rural land development schemes account for almost another quarter of the parliamentary seats – have also traditionally supported the BN. But today, save for Sarawak, it appears that it will be down to the wire in the Felda-seats and in Sabah.

There is no question that the traditional BN vote bank is hurting. Job opportunities are scarcer, the cost of living has risen, subsidies on many essential items such as petrol have been removed, college education no longer guarantees a good job, the ringgit has weakened against other currencies so much so that even once cheap havens like Thailand and India are now expensive.

Does that mean that the traditional vote bank is going to go against a government beset with corruption scandals and a bungling political leadership? That’s what many of the intellectuals and political pundits want to believe.

Could Go Either Way

But after seeing the Brexit vote and the election of US President Donald Trump, and in the absence of reliable polling, I am not so sure. My gut feel tells me that it could go either way. The trends over the last decade tell me that it could go either way. Anecdotal evidence in my travels through the country tell me it could go either way.

Yet, as all of us know, when you are about to mark the ballot, many other considerations come into play, considerations that do defy logic.

I take myself as an example. I am a businessman, well-travelled and I think, though some of my friends may dispute that, well-read. In 2013, I resolved that I could not, in all conscience, vote for the Barisan Nasional and I went to vote to fulfil that resolve. Yet, as I looked at the ballot paper, I realized that all my life, I had voted for the Barisan and I was not sure whether if the opposition alliance then won, they could rule any better.

I have been proven right to a certain extent because while the ruling party has continued to disappoint, the opposition alliance – a hodgepodge of differing dreams and ideologies, which a journalist friend of mine once described as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, has broken up with its strongest ally, the theocratic Parti Islam, which is now seemingly supportive of the Barisan Nasional.

But I was already in the booth and I had to vote: I split my vote – for Parliament, I voted the BN candidate whom I believed was sure to lose and for state, I voted the opposition candidate, who I was convinced would definitely win. I appeased my conscience and as so happened, the BN candidate did lose by a huge margin and the opposition candidate did win by a huge margin.[/nextpage]

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Barisan’s Toughest Fight

I am not sure that how I voted would be how a smart man votes. Therefore, as I have said earlier, I will not predict as I could be wrong but one thing I am sure – this is probably the ruling coalition’s toughest fight in my country’s six-decade polling history.

Most of us have this psychological block. Given that Malaysia has never been ruled by any party other than the Barisan, there is a mind-set that no matter what, the ruling coalition will not lose. As human beings, we are afraid of uncertainty. But since 2008, Malaysians have also come to accept that it is now a two-party state and that the current opposition can and might one day sit on the government benches.

Certainly, although the opposition parties seem to have had greater traction in working together in the last two general elections, still, they shoot themselves in the foot all the time.

Enter a Nonagenarian

Nevertheless, their decision to anoint the 92-year-old ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as their prime minister-designate and their agreement in early January on seat allocations is certainly a major achievement. In reality, with their leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison, the opposition parties do not have any other person as yet who can hold them together other than Mahathir, for all his faults.

Some may view the opposition’s choice of Mahathir and Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Aziz as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister designate as a band-aid solution. Indeed it is. But given that besides Anwar, there is no one else who can command enough respect to hold this loose coalition together, Mahathir is the best solution for them. In the past, he has shown that he is a formidable adversary.

I believe the opposition has made inroads but they are still not a cohesive force. They are not as united as they were in the 2008 general elections or even the 2013 polls. Parti Islam seMalaysia, the rural-based Islamist party, is almost totally estranged from them and they have two new partners – Amanah and Bersatu, headed by a new ally – Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir has opened many doors for the opposition – like in Malay-majority Kedah where he comes from and in Malay-dominated Felda schemes which were out of bounds to the opposition previously. But even Mahathir has failed to make inroads into the fixed-deposit states of Sabah and Sarawak, whose populace have a deep mistrust for those from the peninsula, in particular Mahathir himself who is associated – rightly or wrongly - with many of the ills facing the country such as granting citizenship to Filipinos in Sabah to enlarge the BN’s vote bank in the 1990s.

Barisan’s Deep Purse

Further, the propensity and ability of the ruling party, despite its mounting weaknesses and scandals, to dish out money and goods during the pre-election and election campaign will have some effect in many of the rural areas. How does the unhappiness with a scandal-riven government offset the benefits of handouts? Does it square itself off and the vote bank remains with the ruling party? Or will people take the handouts and vote for change because they are just so fed up?

If we go by voting trends in the 60 years since Malaysia has gained independence, it would seem that dishing out goodies has worked. So has the gerrymandering which political parties in the developed countries as well use effectively, as Republicans in many US states can attest. Similarly, while the Barisan Nasional is again very likely to lose the popular vote in the next general election, it is uncertain that it will lose its parliamentary majority.

My view is that the last two general elections have shown that people have moved to accepting a two-party system. Despite being the gang-that-cannot-shoot-straight, the opposition has positioned itself as a viable alternative, winning in key states like Penang and Selangor and dramatically reducing the majorities in previous Umno strongholds such as Johore, Kedah and Perak. These states are still under threat. And the opposition has made inroads into other staunch Barisan strongholds. Hence, it is unlikely for the Barisan to win back the two-thirds majority it lost in 2008 or to improve on the 2013 lost popular vote.

If I am proven wrong, then I daresay that a two-thirds majority for the BN would surprise even the vast majority of BN leaders themselves. Publicly they may say they can and will win back the two-thirds majority; but privately, they are fearful that they will only scrape through with a simple majority. The possibility of losing has not escaped them either.

Surprise for the Barisan?

My view, like many of these leaders in the BN, is that the ruling coalition will find it hard to replicate even the results of the 2013 elections where they won 134 of 222 parliamentary seats although their strategists predict that “big data” shows they can win anywhere between 140 to 170 of the seats.

The opposition leaders I have spoken to are confident of winning 115 seats. You need 112 to form a simple majority. Having said that, I must also add both the Barisan and opposition were equally confident in 2013.

The more likely scenario is that the BN might win again, with support from Sarawak and Sabah, but rule with a smaller majority than even 2013. Still, with a perfect storm, all bets are off. For example, because PAS has split with their former opposition allies, the DAP and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), there will be many three-cornered fights. In a scenario such as this, Barisan Nasional can again lose the popular votes, like David Cameron did in UK in the last elections, and still win comfortably.

But the more likely scenario is that the Islamist party will either be decimated or reduced to an inconsequential number of seats because the real fight is between the Barisan and the Pakatan Harapan. PAS has its pockets of support in the green belt of Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah but that’s it.[/nextpage]

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The Path to the Future

Whatever the result in the Malaysian polls this year, the more interesting, and probably defining thing for the country will be the post-election scenario. What happens then will determine Malaysia’s path.

We are, as a nation, sliding fast down the slippery slope; and what we do post the 2018 General Elections after almost 10 years of being in a stupor because of the incessant politicking will decide whether we continue to slide or whether we make a serious attempt at re-taking our place as one of the leading economies in this part of the world.

A sad fact is that over the years, race, religion and politics have consumed Malaysians. As a fledgling nation, our founding fathers used to say that our diversity was our strength. In fact, one of the strongest taglines that made Malaysia well known throughout the world was its tourism promo “Malaysia Truly Asia.”

Racial, Religious Polarization

In the past decade, we have seen divisions over race, religion and politics worsen and we are a very polarised country today.

The education system we inherited from the colonialists has slowly but surely declined and those who can afford it prefer private education, which has seen private schools and colleges mushroom. This further adds to the inequality in income and the socio-economic divide.

The civil service and system of government, probably the one other thing we can thank the British colonialists for, has also declined considerably. Corruption has flourished and people don’t bat an eyelid when they hear of millions being misappropriated. Businessmen privately moan and groan about the corruption and leakages; but the truth is that it is many of these same businessmen who have corrupted the country by greasing palms and then raking in money by overcharging and overbilling in contracts or providing public services.

Civil servants and politicians have been found to live far beyond their means with in some cases more than a hundred million ringgit in cash and valuables, stashed in their bank accounts or hidden in their homes. Integrity is no longer that prized a virtue.

Independent Media Doesn’t Exist

Independent media virtually doesn’t exist in Malaysia; and the practitioners of social media, the so-called influencers, are generally as bad as the corrupt politicians they criticize selectively. Law enforcement agencies have lost so much credibility that even when they act against those breaking the law, the perception is that the perpetrator probably ran afoul of politics rather than running afoul of the law.

The custodians and the institutions which in the early years contributed to a strong Malaysia because of their integrity, their patriotism and their desire to see enhancement in the fortunes of their fellow countrymen – people such as senior public servants, politicians, heads of government agencies - are getting rarer today.

I am not saying that the majority of these custodians have gone to the dark side. There are still good people with good values. What I am saying is that the majority of these good people, these custodians and institutions, have been cowed into silence and look the other way more often than stand firm on principles of integrity. The more custodians that seal their lips and look the other way, the more Malaysia will slide down the abyss to the point of no return.

The famous Renaissance poet Dante is attributed with having said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.

It’s a nice quote; but when faced with a choice of being censured, losing their jobs and their perceived respectability, do people in that position worry about a hell they have not seen, a hell that only faith will make us believe in, or do they try to escape the living hell of a vindictive and oppressive regime? For many, it’s easier to look the other way because state and non-state actors can shell out retribution with impunity, stifling the dissenting voice into silence.

But if Dante is right, then I can safely say that there are many in Malaysia who occupy important posts in government and in commerce today, who will be seated next to each other in the hottest seats in hell.

Malaysia is not the only country to face such problems; but Malaysia did not have these problems on this scale in its early days. That’s why it was successful.

Eating the Seed Corn

If we look at the world’s most successful nations, we find that they succeeded because they invested in education, in building values, in strengthening the rule of law, in ensuring the sanctity of institutions, in fighting corruption and abuse of power, in allowing freedom of expression, freedom of practising religion while curbing extremism, a healthy environment for civil society to flourish, conditions for job creation and economic growth and improving the quality of life of their people.

In a post 2018 general election scenario, no matter which party comes to power, Malaysia’s future will depend on whether they abandon the practices which have become the norm and work on building up the values which made it successful in the past. The system is not totally broken; it can still be fixed. Malaysia is not a failed state yet and can still be rescued.

It is a daunting task but if we look at Singapore, which was almost a backwater just 50-odd years ago, or Hong Kong, which was riddled with corruption, and look at how they came out of it, then surely, I believe, Malaysia can also do it. But if it is business as usual post general election 2018, then I fear for the future of my country; for the future of my children; and the future of their children.

If nothing changes, then the cross we bear because of race, religion and politics in Malaysia will also be the cross that our future generations have to bear. And the scary part is that we may not come out of it for a long, long time; perhaps generations.[/nextpage]