Malaysia's Fraught State Election
Masses of new voters, a vibrant new party, resurgent ‘Bossku’ on the stump
On March 13, Malaysia could head off an electoral cliff in state elections in Johor, Malaysia’s second-biggest state. The country’s parliament in 2019 cut the national voting age from 21 to 18, adding 5.4 million voters nationwide and increasing the voter rolls by 40 percent. If anything, it is a dress rehearsal for general elections that may be called later this summer, perhaps as early as July.
Theoretically, adding that many youthful voters would benefit reform groups and, in this case, the new Malaysians United for Democracy Alliance headed by Syed Saddiq Syed, who formed the organization out of widespread disgust with politics in general in a country that was paralyzed for four years by political squabbling and is beset by a response to the Covid-19 coronavirus that is seen by a large segment of the population to have been mishandled.
But that may not be true. The largest segment of the new Johor voters are ethnic Malays, whose allegiance, analysts believe, is to the traditional Malay-based ethnic parties led by the United Malays National Organization and who remain historically vulnerable to race-baiting and Muslim religious agitation against the economically powerful Chinese.
If the United Malays National Organization does well, it bodes well for the convicted felon and former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is free on appeal from a 12-year prison sentence for his complicity in the US$5.4 billion 1MDB scandal, and his henchman, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces dozens of corruption charges. Whether it bodes well for the country is an entirely different thing. There is a growing movement in Malaysia, headed by UMNO, to make sure the two and what is known as the “court cluster” of deeply corrupt, accused UMNO leaders never end up behind bars. UMNO’s leaders, with Najib – now known affectionately as “ Bossku”—campaigning enthusiastically, expect the party to win at least 35 of the 56 seats in the state assembly, after winning only 14 in the 2018 election. Pakatan Harapan and the Democratic Action Party, which won the majority in 2018, will take the losses.
“We’ve had four terrible years,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. The country had a political crisis that never stopped after the reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition fell at the end of February 2020 as opposing political parties simply ignored governance in the squabble for power and the economy nosedived. They have been squabbling since they came to power in 2018 and their government collapsed from disorganization and incompetence, exacerbated by sabotage from the opposition and bureaucrats aligned with the Barisan barely 20 months into their five-year term. The onset of Covid-19, which has sickened 379,000 of the country’s 32.7.4 million people and killed 32,000, aggravated the situation.
“People don’t care (about the corruption),” the analyst said. “It was an issue in 2018, the pandemic has come, income inequality has increased dramatically, everything is looking bad and they’re looking back at 2016 and saying ‘the Barisan Nasional wasn’t that bad.’ Najib is back and people are kissing his feet. Last time I voted for the opposition. If you ask me this time I’m not sure I’d vote for UMNO but I may not even go and vote. Things have changed dramatically.”
Johor, population 3.7 million, has long been riding on Singapore’s wealth, to some extent becoming a bedroom community to one of the richest cities in Asia. However, in many ways, although it is effectively Singapore’s hinterland, Johor holds up a mirror to the country. It is 48.35 percent ethnic Malay, 34.75 percent Chinese, and 13.7 percent Indian, the latter two over-represented in the population.
Johor Bahru, population 502,000, is the fastest-growing city in the country, beset with the country’s highest crime rate and many of the problems of urbanization. The birthplace of Umno and Malay nationalism, the state’s 20,000-odd square kilometers are also rural enough to provide a home for kampung-based life.
Still, “No one seems to know how this new group of voters will vote,” said Dennis Ignatius, a retired top diplomat and critic of the government. “From my conversations with the various political insiders, they are all worried. PAS is hoping they’ll be Islamic enough to support them. UMNO is hoping that the whole Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) narrative will appeal to them.” Members of Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – the rump party created by former PM Mahathir Mohamad to contest the 2018 election – are very worried about being almost completely wiped out.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the urban party that leads the opposition multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan, “is hoping that they’ll find the reformasi agenda attractive. The (Chinese-dominated) Democratic Action Party is hoping that they have not bought into the whole anti-Malay/anti-Islam propaganda of UMNO-PAS,” he said. “Syed Saddiq thinks he might have their support simply because they are young like him and more accessible via social media; we’ll have to see.”
The other question is whether these new voters will even turn up. Some 100,000 of them live and work in Singapore, just across the 1-kilometer causeway that separates the two countries. With Covid-19 having hampered the economy, they may well be more preoccupied with earning a living than going back across the causeway to vote. The most recent state election in Melaka was characterized by low turnout. With the Omicron variant ravaging the country, 397,000 cases have broken out in the past two weeks, more than 10 percent of the two-year total of 3.34 million cases. Significant numbers of people are working from home.
Syed Saddiq expects to be a major beneficiary of the election although the pundits aren’t so sure. Opposition leaders see MUDA, as the alliance is known, as positioned to move up over the next decades with its stance against ethnic politics and corruption. The KL-based political analyst expects MUDA to take four to seven seats in Johor and as many as 20 in the general election for the country’s 122 parliamentary seats, making him a kingmaker. Polls indicate he has a significant percentage of new voters.
Repeated requests for an interview with the young party leader have been delayed by his campaigning in Johor. However, Dennis Ignatius, on his blog, sees Syed Saddiq as a “trailblazer with an impressive resume for one so young.” He was elected to parliament at 25 and was immediately given a seat in the cabinet, making him the youngest cabinet minister in Malaysia’s history. He co-founded the Malay nationalist PPBM (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) with Mahathir and then broke away to establish the multiracial MUDA.
He was a prime mover behind the constitutional amendment that included lowering the voting age, no mean feat given that it required a two-thirds majority in a deeply fractured parliament.
“While more senior politicians hem and haw on hot button issues like the creeping Islamization of the nation, he is more forthright,” Ignatius said. “Avoiding the underlying religious underpinnings, he zeroes in on the hypocrisy of Islamic leaders and the illogical policies they pursue. He insists that the ban on 4D lotteries, for example, will lead to an increase in illicit gambling. He excoriates Islamic leaders for being more concerned about petty things while ignoring the rampant corruption that is crippling the nation. As well, he remains adamantly opposed to harsher Sharia laws because he argues that in a nation where the powerful often act with impunity, it would afflict the poor more than any other segment of society.”
All the other parties are clearly wary of him. For months, the government blocked MUDA’s registration until the courts ordered it. That is a reprise of Thailand, where youthful voters rebelled against corruption and inaction to have a significant impact on the most recent national election only to have the junta attempt to put it out of business. Other pundits say they may struggle in this election, leading to a lot of anticipation about the results, which will define the strata of the opposition in the coming GE15.
Some parties face disaster. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Malay supremacy Parti Pejuang (Homeland Fighters) is expected to be wiped out, along with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, formed by Mahathir for the 2018 election and now headed by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin. Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by opposition leader Anwar – who has reportedly promised at least two individuals, former education minister Mazlee Malik and Syed Saddiq Syed, that they will become chief minister if his coalition wins – is also believed to be headed for trouble. Other sources say an Anwar offer to either is highly unlikely.
So while Syed Saddiq’s multi-ethnic message may resonate among Malaysia’s 44 percent non-Malay voters, particularly those turned off by the incessant squabbling and maneuvering by the opposition, Malay voters may be another case. UMNO butters their bread and cossets them. Even as deeply corrupt as the party is, they see it as having delivered for them for seven decades while the opposition, given a chance to govern in 2018, blew their chances.