— Bridget Welsh
The Malaysian Insider
Feb 10, 2012
FEB 10 — Malaysia recently hit the headlines after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges, although the prosecution has already filed an appeal.
The case is entirely political and reflects the government’s willingness to use the judiciary for political ends. Malaysia is set for the most competitive elections it has ever had, likely before June or else pushed off until 2013, and each side has a fighting chance to win.
Malaysian politics is dirty. Murder, sodomy, secret trysts, sex videos and conspiracy are all commonplace, and corruption scandals occur regularly. Both sides wallow in this political gutter, each trying to darken the reputation of the other and not fully appreciating how much the system as a whole has been damaged. Anwar’s acquittal gave the government an opportunity to take the high road and move away from this negative approach. Instead, it opted to appeal, despite the shabby evidence.
Concerns are now focused on the integrity of the electoral process. The government is mooting reforms but the problems are vast, from administrative neutrality to vote buying. As the system becomes more competitive, political institutions involved in anticorruption and law have been compromised, with the government pressuring institutions such as the civil service to toe the line.
The upcoming election will revolve around Anwar and Prime Minister Najib Razak tapping into their own popularity bases, as politics in Malaysia is highly personalised. Both men have been damaged by character assassinations and will need to work hard to win support. The test now is whether either candidate will move beyond a largely self-centred campaign and articulate the solutions that his leadership can offer.
The country’s problems are well known — including the need for economic reform and improved race relations, coupled with growing inequality — but sadly, the policy options each side promises to pursue are unclear.
Anwar’s strength has been his charisma, and he has succeeded in consolidating his support base through martyr politics. Nevertheless, his reputation suffered during the trial and he has a long road ahead to win new supporters, especially in rural areas, where the government media dominates.
On the other hand, Najib faces a trust deficit, which seems to be growing at the same rate as inconsistencies in his reform policies. It is still unclear what he stands for, and his reliance on handouts to woo voters reflects weakness, not strength.
Malaysian politics is also highly polarised. Both sides can expect support from about 35 per cent of the electorate, with the remaining third in the middle. But in satisfying their primary support bases, Malaysia’s leaders have alienated the centre. To win the upcoming election, both leaders will need to meet the expectations of their support bases while reaching out to those who are ambivalent, tired of over-politicking, and eager for more than negativity.
Najib in particular faces the challenge of preserving the loyalty of his base, many of whom have resisted change and adopted reactionary racial positions. They expect him to protect their interests and have shown that they will remove any leader who fails their expectations.
His attempts to reach the middle ground, both in areas of political reform and ethnic relations, compromise his base’s support. He now has limited political space, and the result has been inconsistency. In contrast, Anwar can more easily reach out to the middle because his support base wants change, although even he must manage the growing anger of his supporters.
In this complicated terrain, ethnic politics is alive and well. Malaysia has three linked interethnic dynamics. The first involves race relations between Malays and non-Malay minorities. Then there is the issue of religious relations, especially between Muslims and other religious groups. Finally, there is the issue of moderate views and more extreme views of race and religion in the Malay community.
These dynamics have become more difficult to manage since the 2008 elections when Najib’s National Front lost its two-thirds hold on seats; in some instances, they have even led to violence, such as the church bombings in 2010.
Navigating these divisions is not easy, and the contenders for power ultimately need to include all Malaysians. For Najib, the challenge is to reach out to non-Malays. For Anwar, the challenge is to show that his coalition can represent the positions of different ethnic groups, while also incorporating the country’s Islamists.
Especially challenging for both is how to accommodate more extreme perspectives in a moderate framework, in a bid to move Malaysian politics from negativity toward inclusion and hope. — Jakarta Globe
* Bridget Welsh is an associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University.