Malaysia’s Shambolic Opposition

With more than two years to go before the next election, Malaysia’s opposition has a golden opportunity to take over the government, not because of the continuing scandals brewing within the state-backed 1MDB investment fund or rising concern over the economy, but because of demographics.

The figures tell the story – or they don’t. For a variety of complex reasons, including but not exclusive to their own ineptitude, a turnaround is unlikely although it should be. With the Barisan and particularly the United Malays National Organization depending for support largely on the rural ethnic Malay population, that is a dwindling base.

Today 74.7 percent of the population is categorized as urban, according to the CIA World Factbook, and is urbanizing at a rate of 2.66 percent annually. The Barisan also depends on the aging or elderly for its support. Today 45.4 percent of the population are under the age of 24. Perhaps two-thirds are under 40, according to Ibrahim Suffian, the program director of the Merdeka Centre social research organization.

The urban young, in addition to thinking more freely and not being bound by the strictures of dress and behavior of their elders, have access to far wider sources of information. Virtually all of the young, Suffian said, now get their news from the Internet rather than the mainstream media, all of which are owned by pro-government political parties, and which monopolize the conventional political dialogue. That means Malaysiakini and others that are distinctly antigovernment or at least neutral are their primary source of news.

Less loyalty for the Barisan, but…

“More people are coming into the electoral process and they are less loyal to the Barisan,” Suffian said. “The older are more committed. Everything else being equal, it does represent a challenge for the Barisan because they have to deal with a much larger, younger electorate. Voter sentiment is less loyal. At this point, voters’ views are more varied, the government can’t control the sources of information.”

The opposition is made up of Anwar Ibrahim’s moderate, predominantly urban Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat, now run by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, while he resides in prison; the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party; Parti Amanah Negara, which emerged from the wreckage of the fundamentalist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and, depending on the mood, the fundamentalist remainder of PAS itself.

With all of these factors going for the opposition, why is it so badly crippled? Surprisingly, for one thing, the two massive scandals involving 1MDB and the sudden appearance and disappearance in 2013 of nearly US$700 million in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts haven’t really percolated down beyond the well-educated middle class, Suffian said in a telephone interview. But the coalition is so badly fractured by religious and ethnic differences and competing claims to power that unless a miracle happens, its chances of winning the election, even given the disarray in the ruling Barisan Nasional, are minuscule.

The Real Elephant in the Room

The intractable fact of race continues to hamper the country as it has for generations. In an analysis quoted by reporter Scott Ng in the local website Free Malaysia today, the Ilham Center recently published a survey of 720 Malay voters in the northern state of Penang, now ruled by the Democratic Action Party and arguably viewed as Malaysia’s most effective state government.

Nonetheless, the voters view the Penang government as a DAP government, not a coalition one, with predictable attitudes on the part of the individual races. Malay voters don’t understand the DAP, they don’t think it represents their interests. The DAP has been attempting to bring in more Malay members to the party nationally, but it remains largely a Chinese party to them and that generates fear that the Chinese, who control the economic sinews of the country, would control the political ones as well if they came to power.

“The problem of credibility among Malay voters is something the opposition, whatever form it may take, has to address before the next general election,” Ng wrote. “However, it is significant that only 43 percent of the survey respondents were identified as UMNO supporters. The rest were fence sitters. If we take this as a general model for the feelings of the Malays nationwide, then there’s a tremendous opportunity for the opposition to widen its support base.

That means that somehow, the opposition has to come up with concrete policies and credible leaders, Ng wrote. “Failure to do so will be tantamount to handing Najib the election on a silver platter. The question is, can the opposition parties get their heads together long enough to really address the opportunity at hand?”

In a survey by the Merdeka Center done a month and a half ago, Suffian said, the young are split between the opposition and the ruling party. "Tthe view is that many are still undecided, not happy with the opposition, because it is fragmented and spending time fighting each other. There is a certain pull against the Barisan, but it is discontent more over how the economy has performed than because of the scandals.”

Many people feel there is something wrong because of the scandals, he said, but they don’t understand what it is. “The main negative that affects their perception is the economy. People are worried about the currency, future job prospects. Sentiment is negative as far as government, but the problem is that people are stuck.”

That means if the opposition is going to present a viable face to the electorate in the next election, which must be held before April 2018, it must somehow reformulate itself as predominantly ethnic Malay-led, a difficult task because for better or worse, the Democratic Action Party is the strongest in the coalition. Parti Keadilan, led by the 63-year-old Wan Azizah, is riven by factionalism, with Mohamed Azmin Ali, the chief minister of Selangor State, which PKR controls, harboring ambitions to take over. Azmin is a polarizing figure who could drive people out of the party.

Amanah, the moderate remnant of PAS, has not put together enough rank and file voters to become a significant force. Its members bolted the fundamentalist party over the stated ambitions on the part of the leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, to implement harsh Islamic law in Kelantan, the only state PAS controls. PAS controlled an efficient vote-gathering machine prior to the breakup, but is being pulled in two directions, with some factions leaning toward throwing their support to UMNO and Najib.

There is a generation of younger leaders including Rafizi Ramli, the secretary general of PKR, Tony Pua, the de facto spokesman for the DAP, and Lim Chin Tong, also of the DAP. But they so far haven’t generated the gravitas to take over from the older generation.

With Anwar in prison, and with the Barisan reportedly determined to keep him there for the rest of his life, there is no major unifying force to pull the coalition back together and give it a Malay brand. Ethnic Malay candidates put up by the DAP all lost party elections as ethnic Chinese voters abandoned them. That means that despite the problems the Barisan faces, it may well survive.