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.