Malaysia Readies for a Depressing Election

The indelible ink has been ordered, the schools put on alert, Malaysia is readying for a general election in the last week of April or first week of May. Unfortunately for the majority of voters who will not be backing the ruling, UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional, the polls are unlikely to result in any significant change in the way the country is run by a party in power for more than five decades.

Democracy is all but certain to again succumb to gerrymandering on an epic scale, while the opposition is united only by contempt for an UMNO leadership which is not only sensationally corrupt but has been undermining the state institutions which once acted as a brake on executive power and legislative might.

In the 2013 election, the opposition, then united under the banner of Pakatan Rakyat won 52.6 percent of the vote but gained only 89 of the 222 seats in parliament. Will it be significantly different this time? A number of factors make forecasting very difficult, though there seems to be a consensus that the Barisan will lose a few more seats but not enough to deny it a majority. Meanwhile even if his coalition performs poorly, Prime Minister Najib Razak looks safe enough given the current lack of obvious UMNO contenders for the leadership.

The factors affecting this year’s result are as follows (not in order of significance):

The economy has perked up, registering a surprising 5.6 percent growth in 2017 driven by consumption and exports. Household incomes have risen but there is a widespread view that inflation is understated and a Value-Added Tax introduced in 2015 remains unpopular.

The US$3.5 billion dollar 1MDB scandal has faded as an immediate issue as the US Justice Department takes its time investigating what has been called the biggest kleptocracy case the department has ever brought. Despite its size and proximity to the prime minister – who has seen millions of dollars of property sequestered in thre US – many see it as simply the latest of a long line of such episodes. However, it is part of widespread cynicism towards the government and the UMNO leadership. Government control of mainstream media and attempts to silence independent on-line coverage do little to change counter this.

Compared with 2013, the opposition, now under the banner of Pakatan Harapan, lacks the relative cohesion previously supplied by leadership of now jailed Anwar Ibrahim, and the membership of the rural-based fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS). Much will depend on how many seats PAS, now outside the opposition coalition, contests and splits the non-Barisan vote in urban areas.

In turn that will depend on how many of former PAS voters now opt for Harapan. This alliance now includes Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), formed by a progressive group of PAS members unhappy with the narrow Islamist views of the party leadership, and the pan-Malay party, officially known as Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) recently created by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed.

At 92, Mahathir remains a divisive figure but one with whom many Malays identify. Particularly at risk for UMNO could be once-solid seats with high proportions of Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) settlers. Felda’s corporate arm, Felda Global Ventures Holdings, has been the center of large scale corruption allegations that Najib engineered the buyout of an Indonesian crony’s flailing plantation arm, and that it has lost a fortune.

Mahathir’s involvement may attract disgruntled Malays unwilling to vote for the Malay-led but multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat still nominally headed by Anwar. There remains a question of too of whether enough Malays will vote for the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) in constituencies where Harapan is fielding a DAP candidate.

Yet another factor this time will be the degree of participation by new voters. In 2013 they went heavily for the opposition, particularly in the suburban seats around Kuala Lumpur. But there are opposition fears that this time many will not bother to vote in protest against the system. The government may well be trying to encourage such an attitude, knowing that not voting helps it cause.

For the opposition, Sabah and Sarawak are altogether different challenges. Both have many constituencies with small electorates and have long been in the pocket of the Barisan aligned local parties. Sarawak’s chief minister has been using Najib’s reliance on the Sarawak vote to secure important concessions for the state at the expense of the federal government. This has been popular. But in Sabah, demands for more local autonomy have been the rallying cry of new opposition party Warisan and its leader Shafie Apdal, an UMNO renegade.

So worried has Kuala Lumpur become that it has used the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, a body notorious for being driven by politics not propriety, to bring charges against Shafie Apdal and his deputy. One way or another the opposition is looking to pick up a few more of Sabah’s 31 seats. In 2013 the DAP won five and PKR just one seat as Barisan patronage kept most of the local parties in the government camp.

In short the election result does not seem likely to do more than deliver a mild rebuke to Najib, meanwhile, the deterioration in Malaysia’s institutions seems likely to continue. November saw the departure of Bank Negara deputy governor Dr Sukhdave Singh saying his “life in the bank was based on certain professional expectations…[which] can no long be met”. The message was ominous if imprecise. Then in early February came news that the Bank was paying RM2 billion to the federal government for a piece of land, supposedly for a financial education hub!

Racial harmony seems farther away than ever as the Barisan relies on using racial animosities to deflect from the class antagonisms that would otherwise come to the surface, particularly among Malays for whom the benefits of pro-Bumiputra policies have been so ill-distributed. Official promotion of an intolerant version and puritanical version of Islam is further widening racial divides while demonstrating the hypocrisy of an UMNO elite with extravagant lifestyles often paid for out of the proceeds of sleazy deals with their friends in government.

Local Chinese capital continues to exit while the government falls over backwards to attract official Chinese money into economically dubious projects and 1MDB bailouts, and in the face of Chinese claims to a large slice of Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The lack of nationalism on the part of the self-styled defenders of the Malay people is stunning.

For now the show can go on. Malaysia is naturally very rich given the relatively small size of its population. But gradually debt is creeping up – household debt to pay for cars and houses, government debt, once minimal, is now about 55 percent of GDP and rising. Education levels are insufficient to raise longer term prospects, and to reduce reliance on commodity exports at a time when there is scant sign of new investment to upgrade existing industries or establish new ones. The brain drain of non-Malays – and some educated Malays as well – continues.

All these problems are just branches growing from one single root – the Barisan’s reliance on a crude exploitation of racial and religious sentiments to sustain itself in power and profit.