Malaysia’s Coming Election: Beyond Communalism?


International Crisis Group
Asia Report N°235
1 Oct 2012

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Malaysia’s thirteenth general election, which Prime Minister Najib Razak will have to call by April 2013, could be a watershed in communal relations. More than ever before, there is a chance, albeit a very small one, that opposition parties running on issues of transparency, economic equity and social justice could defeat the world’s longest continually-elected political coalition, the National Front (Barisan Nasional), that has based its support on a social compact among the country’s Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. That compact, granting Malays preferential status in exchange for security and economic growth, has grown increasingly stale as the growing middle class demands more of its leaders. Both ruling party and opposition are using images of the Arab Spring – the former to warn of chaos if it is not returned to power, the latter to warn of popular unrest unless political change comes faster.

Social and demographic change, coupled with effective opposition leadership and the rise of a broad-based movement for electoral reform, are likely to make this election at the very least a close contest. The ruling coalition, composed of the dominant United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO); the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA); and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), as well as several smaller parties, faces the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), composed of the People’s Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Rakyat, PKR), led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim; the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Partai Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS). More than ever before, the swing vote may be the Malay middle ground: urban professionals, students and “netizens” – internet users – who have benefited from constitutionally-protected preferential status for Malays but who are tired of cronyism and corruption and are chafing under the tight controls on civil liberties.

The deck is stacked against the opposition for many reasons, not least because of an electoral system based on questionable voting rolls and carefully gerrymandered, single-representative constituencies where victory requires only a plurality (first past the post). Demands for a more level playing field gave rise in 2007 to a broad-based civil society movement, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, known as Bersih (Clean), that has held four mass street rallies drawing tens of thousands of participants: in November 2007; July 2011; April 2012 and August 2012. The first three were broken up by police with hundreds of arrests. In the third, violence on the part of a few participants led to harsh police counter-actions and allegations of brutality. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now retired but leading UMNO’s ultra-conservatives from the sidelines, has been warning Malaysians to expect more violence in the streets if the opposition loses.

The big issues are the economy, corruption and political reform. Bread-and-butter topics matter most to the electorate, and Barisan’s vast resources enable it to dole out economic favours to strategic constituencies in the lead-up to the election. The opposition is getting plenty of mileage out of corruption scandals involving top UMNO officials, although UMNO is fighting back with legal challenges and defamation suits. Political reform is seen by both sides as a political winner. Prime Minister Najib has rolled back or reworked some of the draconian legislation – most notably the colonial-era Internal Security Act (ISA) – that Mahathir used to curb dissent during his 22 years in power, but the opposition denounces it as too little, too late.

Two huge issues are largely off the official agendas of both coalitions but dominate them in many ways. One is the preferred treatment for Malays in virtually all spheres of public life and whether opening political space and promoting social justice would diminish that status. The ultra-conservatives within UMNO are determined to protect Malay rights at all costs. The other is the question of Islamic law and religious tolerance. Under Mahathir, Malaysia embarked on a program of Islamisation of the government and bureaucracy, culminating in his declaration of an Islamic state in 2001. PAS, once known for a hardline Islamist agenda, is now led by pragmatists who are willing to put contentious issues like Islamic criminal justice on hold, at least temporarily, in the interests of trying to defeat Barisan. But neither side is above trying to scare non-Malay communities, particularly the Chinese, by predicting greater intolerance if the other wins. Within the opposition coalition, relations between PAS and the Chinese-dominated DAP remain fragile.

Both sides are furiously making calculations about tactics to win seats, tailoring their message to the communities concerned. The two eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak could be kingmakers, because they control 25 per cent of the available seats.

Ultimately the question Malaysians will have to answer on election day is which of the two choices will be better able to accommodate political change, while protecting minorities against the hardline forces that more openness can produce.

Jakarta/Brussels, 1 October 2012

Print Friendly

  1. #1 by monsterball on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 4:33 am

    13th GE…will be the most hypocritical…dirty one umno B has ever performed.
    Najib dare not be an elected PM for 4 years…because all his tricks and treats do not work.
    Malaysians must know the truths to Scorpene RMbillions ripped off…and Atlantuya murder case…and many more.
    Only way…is to vote BN out.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 4:58 am

    1M’sia, GE still 2 b won based on TRIBAL basic instinct, d greatest racist is MMK

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 7:28 am

    ///Ultimately the question Malaysians will have to answer on election day is which of the two choices will be better able to accommodate political change….///

    The answer is simple – just choose the lesser of two evils.

  4. #4 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 8:47 am

    If pakatan wins, that would be due to popular support.

    If umno wins, that would be plain corruption and illegal manipulation.

    Who doesnt know that?

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 9:12 am

    Historically, communalism is part of our society was actually not a problem for centuries. Even after independence, communalism was made a problem by certain political leaders on the basis that racial difference was a challenge that we all agreed should be fixed.

    In other words, its the fault of political leaders in this country for making communalism a problem from a task or job that needed to be done.

    Its a lesson we should learn that our political leaders take something that needed to be done into making it a problem for their own selfish reason or self-weakness. Its a lesson that political leaders often creates problem just in the course of doing their job because simply demanding perfection or even just excellence from political leaders is simply an ideal that is rarely achieved.

    Worst, now that it has become a problem we previously didn’t have, the problem now becomes highly difficult to solve because the problem now get wrapped up in myths and religion that are difficult to disprove in an age of modern media politics that demand sound bites and quick result?

    However, keep in mind, that our communal problem, even now, is relatively modest compared to problems of historic proportion like Israel-Palestin, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia etc – all communal problems past and present were created by politicians also in their role to do a job that needed to be done..

    So before anyone decide that we can put communalism behind us, keep in mind, we have a problem while modest, have a poor record of success historically anywhere..

  6. #6 by Winston on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 10:15 am

    There is only one and only aim in the coming GE13.
    And that is to throw off the yoke of UMNO/BN’s corrupted, scam and scandal ridden government.
    And give new hope to all Malaysians.

  7. #7 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 11:22 am

    Whilst there is strong optimism in the PR camp, it still has a massive job ahead of them.

    As it stand, UMNO / BN still has many strongholds which gives it, almost guaranteed, majority even in the worst of times. Unless PR can break into these strongholds, it will not have a chance for Putrajaya.

    Don’t forget many constituencies are skewed towards the BN so they already have many ‘buta’ constituencies in their pockets already.

    Don’t forget also the many ‘phantom’ and other ‘ghost’ voters that are already planted in the electoral rolls. When the time comes, they will all emerge from the thin air to vote BN. Have we forgotten them? Certainly not BN and some of their leaders are already confident of success because they ‘know’ something.

    Don’t forget the advantage of incumbency where many things are available to them to use. Unseating the incumbent is always difficult although not impossible. Barely an hour after Najib’s budget speech, the radio stations and the media were already highlighting and praising the many ‘positive’ points about the budget over and over again. In the days leading to the general elections expect more such onslaughts using all the apparatus of government.

    In short, Pakatan should not be so ‘cocky and arrogant’ or overconfident but be mindful of the monumental task that lies ahead.

  8. #8 by sheriff singh on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 11:26 am

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Whilst there is strong optimism in the PR camp, it still has a ma.sive job ahead of them.

    As it stands, UMNO / BN still has many strongholds which gives it, almost guaranteed, majority even in the worst of times. Unless PR can break into these strongholds decisively, it will not have a chance for Putrajaya.

    Don’t forget many constituencies are skewed towards the BN so they already have many ‘buta’ constituencies in their pockets already.

    Don’t forget also the many ‘phantom’ and other ‘ghost’ voters that are already planted in the electoral rolls. When the time comes, they will all emerge from the thin air to vote BN. Have we forgotten them? Certainly not BN and some of their leaders are already confident of success because they ‘know’ something.

    Don’t forget the advantage of incumbency where many things are available to them to use. Unseating the incumbent is always difficult although not impossible. Barely an hour after Najib’s budget speech, the radio stations and the media were already highlighting and praising the many ‘positive’ points about the budget over and over again. In the days leading to the general elections, expect more such onslaughts using all the apparatus of government.

    In short, Pakatan should not be so ‘co.cky and arrogant’ or overconfident, but be mindful of the monumental task that lies ahead.

  9. #9 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 - 4:14 pm

    /// Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now retired but leading UMNO’s ultra-conservatives from the sidelines, has been warning Malaysians to expect more violence in the streets if the opposition loses. ///

    Should it be “if UMNO loses”. Or is Mahathir now saying that Malaysians should vote for the opposition in order not to have violence in the streets.

    As long as there are UMNO agent provocateurs, there will be violence.

You must be logged in to post a comment.