By: Kalimullah Hassan

This is adapted from a speech by a veteran journalist-turned businessman to a regional forum put on by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore on Jan. 9. 

Malaysia’s next general election must be called by June by a government that over the past five years has been wracked with financial scandals, an inability to curb rising living costs and income inequality and has seemingly lost a clear vision for the future.

After more than a decade of steadily losing its rural lifeline, common sense would dictate that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government faces an uphill task in retaining a comfortable majority. In fact, as an observer of Malaysian politics and having seen the last eight general elections either as a journalist or an insider, this is one election I will not be comfortable in predicting. There are too many new parts to the equation and any prediction would be, at best, an educated guess.

Long, futile wait for political change

However, although Malaysia’s urban and civil society have long rooted for political change, their views have not prevailed over a vast rural electorate – mostly ethnic Malay and Muslim — that traditionally has supported the ruling Barisan Nasional and its leading political party, the United Malays National Organization.

Still, since the dramatic 2008 general election when the BN lost its two-thirds majority, and 2013 when it actually lost the popular vote but still maintained its grip on power viua gerrymandering and the first-past-the-post system, its share of rural votes has been declining.

The Barisan’s popularity peaked in 1995 with 65 percent of the popular votes, although in 2004 it won 90 percent of the parliamentary seats on 63.9 percent of the popular vote. Since that time, its sway via both the popular vote and parliamentary majorities have been declining. Its worst result was in 2013 when it won 59 percent of the parliamentary seats with only 46 per cent of the popular votes.

Since 1955 and the first general elections in what was then the Federation of Malaya, and since 1963, after the formation of Malaysia, save for a blip in 1969, the rural areas have traditionally been the vote bank for the Barisan Nasional and its predecessor, the Alliance.

Fixed Deposit in the east

And since 1963, the relatively under-developed states of Sabah and Sarawak, which today account for 57 parliamentary seats or about 26 percent of the seats in Parliament – have almost overwhelmingly voted for the BN; so much so that they are referred to as the BN’s fixed deposit.

Similarly, the rural heartland in the peninsula – where Felda rural land development schemes account for almost another quarter of the parliamentary seats – have also traditionally supported the BN. But today, save for Sarawak, it appears that it will be down to the wire in the Felda-seats and in Sabah.

There is no question that the traditional BN vote bank is hurting. Job opportunities are scarcer, the cost of living has risen, subsidies on many essential items such as petrol have been removed, college education no longer guarantees a good job, the ringgit has weakened against other currencies so much so that even once cheap havens like Thailand and India are now expensive.

Does that mean that the traditional vote bank is going to go against a government beset with corruption scandals and a bungling political leadership? That’s what many of the intellectuals and political pundits want to believe.

Could Go Either Way

But after seeing the Brexit vote and the election of US President Donald Trump, and in the absence of reliable polling, I am not so sure. My gut feel tells me that it could go either way. The trends over the last decade tell me that it could go either way. Anecdotal evidence in my travels through the country tell me it could go either way.

Yet, as all of us know, when you are about to mark the ballot, many other considerations come into play, considerations that do defy logic.

I take myself as an example. I am a businessman, well-travelled and I think, though some of my friends may dispute that, well-read. In 2013, I resolved that I could not, in all conscience, vote for the Barisan Nasional and I went to vote to fulfil that resolve. Yet, as I looked at the ballot paper, I realized that all my life, I had voted for the Barisan and I was not sure whether if the opposition alliance then won, they could rule any better.

I have been proven right to a certain extent because while the ruling party has continued to disappoint, the opposition alliance – a hodgepodge of differing dreams and ideologies, which a journalist friend of mine once described as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, has broken up with its strongest ally, the theocratic Parti Islam, which is now seemingly supportive of the Barisan Nasional.

But I was already in the booth and I had to vote: I split my vote – for Parliament, I voted the BN candidate whom I believed was sure to lose and for state, I voted the opposition candidate, who I was convinced would definitely win. I appeased my conscience and as so happened, the BN candidate did lose by a huge margin and the opposition candidate did win by a huge margin.