Malaysia’s UMNO Hatches a Controversial Alliance

On September 21, the once-dominant United Malays National Organization formalized what had been an unofficial marriage of convenience since before the disastrous – for UMNO – 2018 national election, a political cooperation pact with the fundamentalist rural Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.

In doing so, it weds the two irrevocably to Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay nationalism and the religious primacy of Islam. It, in turn, weds PAS – which has spent years seeking to amend the constitution to turn the country into a theocratic Islamic state – to the most indelibly corrupt political body in Malaysia. Najib Razak, the disgraced former prime minister, continues to head the party while he stands trial for his culpability in the biggest corruption scandal the country has ever seen – the US$4.8 billion collapse of the state-backed investment firm 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

The now-formalized coalition started off with a bang at UMNO’s grandiose headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, calling for a more inclusive society, then accusing the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party in the Pakatan Harapan coalition of seeking to give control of the state to the Chinese and seeking to ensure that ”the wealth is for Chinese only, not for all people, and that others are left behind. They accused the coalition of pursuing a “Christianization agenda” and of seeking to diminish the rights of ethnic Malays, repeating memes that UMNO used for six decades to attempt to preserve itself in power.

That is a mantra that plays against the country’s complicated ethnic mix, with ethnic Malays and Bumiputeras, or other indigenous peoples, comprising 68 percent of the population, the Chinese 23.2 percent, and Indians 7.0 percent. Chinese dominance of the economic high ground has been a scab that never heals, with destructive race riots in 1969 that remain fresh in memory today.

By eliminating competition between the two, the UMNO-PAS coalition has the potential to win 97 seats in Peninsular Malaysia based on voting patterns in the 14th general election, giving it a victory in the next general election, according to Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at Sunway University, quoted in local media.

However, the Pakatan Harapan coalition has done enough to endanger its own governability that the political pact represents a formidable challenge for the coalition, headed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which has stumbled badly since taking power.

“With increasing frustration among voters, especially the young and the Malays over Pakatan’s litany of broken promises, this alliance, unholy as it may be, stands a chance of wresting power,” a longtime political analyst told Asia Sentinel.

After forming a government with 121 of the 222 seats in parliament, it has blown three by-elections with Najib free from trial to shepherd them, which he has done enthusiastically and effectively despite being under indictment in the 1MDB scandal. Its leadership is locked in a messy scandal, with Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the moderate Malay Parti Keadilan Malaysia, widely thought to have discredited himself by allegedly engineering a scandalous video of his rival, Mohamed Azmin Ali, seemingly locked in a homosexual embrace.

Beyond that, the coalition has demonstrated an unsettling inability to govern. Promises made prior to the election have been put aside by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which includes the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the moderate Islamist party Amanah Negara as well as Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Malaysia plus splinter parties. Parti Pribumi, which held only 13 of the 222 seats the coalition won in the May 2018 election, has become the party wagging the coalition.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition has some running room in the fact that the next election – barring some disaster – isn’t due until 2013. But, said one observer, "GE15 will be supercompetitive. Najib is still powerful, using the UMNO-PAS pact for a logical solution. He is wishing for Mahathir to stick to his promise to retire after two years as premier and cede power to Anwar, believing PAS and UMNO can run rings around Anwar. That is enough to convince Mahathir to hold on. Catch-22 Pakatan.”

Certainly, at the age of 94, Mahathir has displayed a canny ability to amass power. Azmin Ali has become his ally, largely leaving Anwar in the cold. His party has doubled in size, to 26 seats in parliament. He has displayed many of the characteristics that brought criticism when he ruled the country in the 22 years from 1981 to 2003.

A promise to repeal the onerous sedition law that Najib used against his political enemies has never been carried out and in fact, has been used against critics. The law remains on the books and has been used against critics of the royalty. The Prevention of Crime Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial and the National Security Council Act, which grants wide emergency-like powers to the National Security Council, also has not been repealed as promised. The lack of reforms has led organizations such as Suaram and Human Rights Watch to issue statements of alarm.

Educational reform remains far behind schedule, as illustrated by a September 8 investigation by Asia Sentinel, with the government hewing to an Islamic agenda that cripples independent thought.

The cleanup of corruption, on which the coalition based much of its appeal, is running far behind schedule. In fact, critics say that the rent-seeking and favoritism that characterized the Barisan Nasional years has continued, with political figures close to the leadership weighing in to get government contracts, and with support consolidating instead of waning for the state-backed companies that previously hamstrung infrastructure development.

“Essentially, ask anyone in government, and they will be hard placed to tell you exactly what kind of sweeping reforms they have implemented or are implementing,” a Malay businessman told Asia Sentinel earlier. “And Mahathir is back to what he was in the days when he was previously prime minister. He makes appointments without consulting his cabinet or referring them to the Parliamentary Select Committee, which was specifically set up to vet senior appointments and end a serious Barisan misuse of power.”

A move to rein in the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, or Jakim, the country's most powerful Islamic agency, has stalled in the face of suspicion by the country's Muslim majority. Responsible nominally for halal certification, Muslims see it as a key agency that looks after their interests. Non-Malays regard the agency as ominous.

Created by Mahathir and Anwar in their previous stint in power, Jakim’s aim was to maintain the purity of Islam and Islamic teachings, coordinate law enforcement, and oversee Halal regulation. The organization has strong connections with the police and in 2014 conducted raids on the Malaysian Bible Society that were embarrassing for the then-opposition Pakatan state government in Selangor. With Mahathir and Anwar back in power, it appears Jakim is here to stay.

As Asia Sentinel has reported, the prime minister appears also to be seeking to recreate the industrial policy that prevailed during his previous 22 years in power and that led to massive spending on white elephant projects including a failed steel mill that cost the government US$800 million, a national car that cost untold billions both in losses and lost consumer opportunity, and a long list of other disasters. The late Asian Wall Street Journal editor, in his book ‘Malaysian Maverick,” estimated the government had wasted RM100 billion (US$24.16 billion) on failed projects.

If the status quo of current political scenario continues, it is not unthinkable that Pakatan Harapan might just lose the grip on power come next general election,” according to Kim Quek, a longtime opposition stalwart. “This is a reflection on the failure of the Mahathir-led Harapan leadership to capitalize on its newly acquired governing power to bring forth the New Malaysia, causing disillusionment all round.”

Pakatan Harapan, he said, “has failed in both fronts – its ideological war to de-brainwash the deeply ingrained racist ideology of the Malay masses, and the failure to kickstart the economy through bold reforms.”