By: John Berthelsen

Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional, which managed to cling to power after the 2013 national election only because of redistricting that crowded tens of thousands of opposition voters into densely packed districts while their own remained relatively sparse, is taking no chances for the 2018 election which is due to be called soon, perhaps this week.

The gerrymandering this time is even more intense, more intimidation has been aimed at the opposition in the form of sedition and other laws and the press has been muzzled, and for good reason. This is the most corrupt administration the country has ever seen.

The Barisan, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak and the United Malays National Organization, received only 47.38 percent of the vote against 50.87 percent for the opposition in 2013 – 5.23 million votes to 5.623 million for the opposition. Yet, when the dust settled, the Barisan retained 133 parliamentary seats to only 88 for the opposition, then known as Pakatan Rakyat.

In the intervening five years, Najib and the Barisan have fared badly, enduring the biggest scandal in Malaysian history, with US$4.5 billion vanishing from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund. Much of the money disappeared into United States real estate, jet airplanes, gambling in Las Vegas, a US$250 million yacht and other trinkets such as Picasso paintings and vast amounts of jewels for Najib’s portly wife Rosmah Mansor, to the point where US Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the scandal the biggest kleptocracy case ever brought by the US Justice Department.  US$681 million appears to have gone into the prime minister’s own pockets.

In addition, a plethora of other scandals has dogged the government. Najib himself has been named the recipient of even more bribes in France, where two executives of the munitions giant DCNS have been indicted for giving him money. His onetime best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, is also under indictment in the same case, involving the corrupt purchase of submarines by Malaysia that the country didn’t need. Its coastal waters are too shallow for them to operate effectively.

Najib and his confederates, imprisoned in a coalition so politically corrupt that virtually every public contract awarded goes to political cronies, ought to be fair game for a massive opposition landslide even more pronounced than the one that should have forced them out of office in 2013.  They face a newly empowered opposition headed by the furious and energetic 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a political martyr who has spent the past three years in prison on charges that global human rights groups have denounced as trumped-up. Anwar has been named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International.

But, according to the specifics of the “re-delineation” exercise about to be pushed through Parliament, more opposition voters are going to be packed into already-packed districts, leaving the Barisan Nasional districts even more sparsely populated.  Although the redistricting maps have remained secret, they have been supplied to the Sarawak Report by a whistle-blower. The smallest 15 districts, ranging in size down to 3,973 voters against an average of about 60,000 are all in the hands of the Barisan. Some opposition districts run as high as 150,000. Of the 15th biggest districts, the opposition has been saddled with 14 of them.  The average Barisan seat has 30,000 fewer voters than the average opposition one.  But public discussion of the redistricting document has been “embargoed” by Pandikar Amin Mulia, the speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament. 

Any hope that the redistricting can be declared illegal is unrealistic.  Malaysia’s courts, from the lowest to the Federal Court, the country’s supreme court, are securely in the hands of the Barisan. No decision on anything is likely to go against the government, let alone a subject as crucial to remaining in power.

According to Sarawak Report’s analysis, for instance the opposition-held district P105 PJ Selatan is to be renamed P105 Petaling Jaya. Voters in the district will be increased from 78,404 to 129,363 – a 64.98 percent increase. P106 PJ Utara, now to be renamed P106 Damansara. Voters increased from 84,456 to 150,439 – an even bigger 78.13 percent. T Districts expected to favor UMNO include p101 Hulu Langat, whose voters were cut by 46.02 percent to 82,951 and moved into other districts favorable to the Barisan. Another is Sunghai Buloh, which is 56,496 percent smaller.

The details can be found at this link. Below is a chart of the average constituency sizes in the 2013 election, as prepared by Sarawak Report.  The opposition districts will now be increased even more, according to the numbers supplied, putting another major roadblock in the way of the opposition.

Source: Sarawak Report

Gerrymandering, which takes its name from an 1812 redrawing of a Massachusetts state senate district to look like the profile of a kind of lizard called a salamander by the Gov. Elbridge Gerry, is hardly the only deeply restrictive action – and violation of the democratic process – that Najib and the Barisan have implemented to keep the opposition in line.

The mainstream press – newspapers, television, radio – is all owned by the major political parties. They are all blatantly in the pocket of the government. Criticism does not escape this journalistic black hole. In the eyes of the Malaysian press, Najib and UMNO have been fully exonerated from any culpability in the disappearance of US$4.5 billion dollars despite investigations and seizures of assets in six countries. The parliament’s public accounts committee and his attorney general have “exonerated” him. Opposition publications have been harassed and kept under wraps. The Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and others are blocked in Malaysia, the latest this week, when Cambodia-based Malaysian academic Din Merican’s popular blog was blocked by the ministry of communications.

Intimidation is rampant. Rafizi Ramli, the 41-year-old vice president of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was sentenced in February last week to 30 months in prison for violating the Banking and Financial Institutions Act for exposing details relating to what became known as Cowgate.  Rafizi was also convicted last November of violating the Official Secrets Act for disclosing details pertaining to the 1MDB scandal. In April 2017, activist Haris Ibrahim went to prison for eight months on a sedition charge for challenging the results of the 2013 general election. 

Graphic artist Fahmi Reza faces a sedition charge for posting an online image of Najib in clown make-up. The irrepressible cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, faces up to 43 years in prison for criticizing the government. They are among a long list of others facing court action.   

The common wisdom is thus that UMNO goes into the national election comfortably ahead, with the opposition in disarray over the split, with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural-based fundamentalist Malay party, possibly lining up with the government, which would likely doom the opposition. 

Against such steep odds, the opposition coalition is pretty much locked out by the oddsmakers. It just depends in the long run how furious the whole country is against a leader that even The Economist has called a thief more than once.  It remains to be seen if the gerrymandered districts have been gerrymandered enough.