Malaysia's Multi-Ethnic Coalition Near Collapse

Regardless of who wins Malaysia's 13th* general election, expected to be held on April 27, the historic multi-ethnic coalition that has ruled the country since independence will have likely collapsed.

"Whatever the results, the Barisan coalition will cease to exist as we know it because the Malaysian Chinese Association, Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress will be wiped out," a Kuala Lumpur-based businessman told Asia Sentinel. "Assuming UMNO forms the government with Sabah and Sarawak parties, there will be no Chinese and Indian representatives in the government. And that is not a good scenario to have."

The Barisan and the opposition, made up of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat headed by Anwar Ibrahim, the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia are embroiled in what is being called the closest election in the country's history, with both sides predicting victory. One opposition strategist said the race would probably come down to a margin of 10 seats either way in the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat, or parliament.

For most of the time from its 1957 inception as an independent nation, the country has been governed by a carefully engineered amalgam of ethnic parties led by the United Malays National Organization, the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and, to a lesser extent, Gerakan, which has faded in recent years.

However, in the debacle of the 2008 election, the MCA was left with just 15 seats in parliament. Gerakan, the second mostly Chinese ethnic party, ended up with just two seats. The MIC was left with three. UMNO won 78.

In the upcoming polls, political analysts say the MCA could see its total seats fall to just one or two, roiled as the party is by years of major scandals and political infighting that once impelled one of the contending factions to secretly film party leader Chua Soi Lek having a sex romp in a hotel room in a vain effort to drive him from politics. The resurgent opposition Democratic Action Party expects to claim the vast majority of Chinese voters. Gerakan, whose base is in Penang, which is controlled by the DAP, could be wiped out completely, the analysts say. The MIC is equally riven by scandal and infighting, with its members and leadership gravitating away towards the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf.

This is not a scenario conjured up by the opposition. It has been discussed within UMNO councils for months as the party has watched the other components of the Barisan drift into disaster. It is at least partly responsible for the rise in race-baiting in recent months as UMNO and its attack-dog ancillaries such as the Malay supremacy NGO Perkasa raise the spectre that ethnic Chinese, and particularly Chinese Christians in a Muslim country, will take over the reins of power.

Ethnic Malays make up 50.4 percent of the population, Chinese 24 percent and Indians 7.1 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. UMNO sees its chance to keep its leadership of the country intact by winning every available ethnic Malay vote and hopefully luring ethnic Indians back into the fold.

Thus indigenous tribes, most of them in East Malaysia, with 11 percent of the population, probably hold the key to the 2013 election, most political analysts feel. The states of Sabah and Sarawak and the federal territory of Labuan control 57 of the 222 seats. The 165 peninsular seats are almost equally divided between the Barisan and Pakatan Rakyat.

As the MCA in particular descended into chaos, an UMNO operative told Asia Sentinel months ago that UMNO basically decided it would have to go it alone in the 13th general election. While the other ethnic parties will field candidates in the election, UMNO will try to take as many constituencies dominated by ethnic Malays as possible and hope the component parties can have some impact.

If not, the 57 East Malaysia seats -- depending on how the parties controlled by the current chief ministers fare in the election -- will control peninsular Malaysia's destiny. In both Sarawak and Sabah, the bonds of loyalty that keep elected lawmakers tied to particular parties are slippery indeed. In one case in the 1980s, when the opposition unexpectedly took control of the statehouse in Kota Kinabalu, the victorious coalition locked their winning members behind a chain link fence to keep them from being bribed away by the losers.

Should the collapse scenario actually take place, it will produce a "mono-ethnic and unelectable opposition that will be constrained to the Malay belt" in the Peninsula, where 20 million of the 28 million Malaysians make their home -- without the help of the East Malaysian states. Both chief ministers have been implicated, although not indicted, in scandals involving untold amounts of money in bribery for timber sales. They would be pleased to talk to the opposition in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

If UMNO is to rebuild the coalition, win or lose it means its gamble to conduct the election by appealing to the fears or prejudices of its Malay constituency has failed the country at large, and that it must regain the trust of the complex ethnic mosaic that makes up the rest of the country.

"What's left is UMNO seats, high Malay-majority seats," said an opposition political operative. "They might be propped up with some Malay seats in Sarawak, and some Sabah UMNO seats. If they lose, they would have to reconstitute. They have to start moderating their line and to try to get back the support of the minorities. Assuming they hold power, I would assume over the next five years they would have to reconstitute."

It is unsure what the implications are for Malaysian society as a whole. Tension has simmered for decades, since 1969 riots took the lives of hundreds on both sides of the ethnic divide, exacerbated by the New Economic Policy created in 1971 to give economically disadvantaged rural Malays a leg up. Malays get the majority of government jobs and places in universities. The country has been on a 30-year campaign to ensure rising ethnic Malay ownership of the commanding heights of the business community.

So-called Ali Baba companies dot the landscape, with the "Ali" being an ethnic Malay usually sitting behind a polished and empty desk, while "Babas," a nickname for Straits-born Chinese, run the business from the backroom. Billions have been wasted on government-linked companies given to UMNO cronies to run into the ground. An explosive report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released today said as much as RM200 billion* was funneled out of Malaysia last year to Singapore, an astonishing burst of capital flight.

"Malaysia's system of holding back the dynamic Indian and Chinese minorities has turned it into a bastion of mediocrity in a fast-growing region," Wall Street Journal columnist Hugo Restall wrote in an editorial today. "The country's best and brightest leave because the cronyism and racial quotas in education and employment hold them back."

*Corrections. Typo. Originally read 12th general election. Originally read US$200 billion. We apologize for the errors.