By Simon Roughneen
21st December 2012
Ahead of what reform campaigners believe will be Malaysia’s “dirtiest ever elections”, the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has engineered something of a clean-up. In recent months, it has reformed some old and oft-derided laws, such as allowing indefinite detention without trial and forcing local newspapers to apply each year for a publication permit, a stipulation that encouraged self-censorship.
UMNO and its allies have governed Malaysia consecutively since achieving independence from colonial rule, a longevity not usually associated with electoral democracies. UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition survived the last election in 2008, though it ceded its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time and lost five out of 13 federal states to the opposition, a coalition of three parties led by controversial former UMNO firebrand Anwar Ibrahim that includes the Islamic party PAS and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP).
While some in the Malaysian opposition and rights groups have criticized the recent reforms as piecemeal electioneering for next year’s vote, there are indications that the government has made some real positive changes, particularly regarding the overhaul of certain emergency laws and repealing the old Internal Security Act, a law which has in the past been used against the government’s political opponents.
Noting some improvements, Amanda Whiting, a law academic at University of Melbourne who carries out research on the Malaysian legal system, told Asia Times Online that “there now cannot be lengthy detention without trial, there must be a criminal court process, not extrajudicial detention.”
It remains to be seen whether the “two steps forward, one step back” reforms will be enough to help UMNO and its fellow members in the BN (or National Front) coalition to retain power over the Pakatan Rakyat (or People’s Justice) opposition coalition, said James Chin, a political scientist at Monash University’s Malaysia campus. He views the reforms as an appeal by Prime Minister Najib Razak to voters to stick with the devil they know.
“Najib is trying to say, ‘you can have an UMNO that is trying to reform, or you can opt for uncertainty with Anwar and PAS’,” Chin told Asia Times Online.
Many of Malaysia’s main political parties held internal conferences in late November and early December, with the election foremost on members’ minds. UMNO delegates rehashed old themes about continuity while accusing the Anwar-led coalition of being foreign-funded stooges with an anti-Malay, anti-Islam agenda.
These were viewed in some quarters as diversionary tactics. Najib and UMNO have come under fire of late with renewed allegations centering around a possible cover-up of the murder of a Mongolian model living in Malaysia in 2006 who associated with government officials, which in turn has been linked to a kickback scandal involving the government’s purchase of French submarines.
At times, the fear-mongering took unwittingly comic turns. Ibrahim Ali, president of Perkasa, a Malay supremacist organization with links to UMNO, suggested that Malays are economically disadvantaged against non-Malays due to Islamic law and therefore the government’s long-standing effective subsidization of the Malay population at the expense of other ethnic groups should continue.
“Gambling, liquor, entertainment outlets… how could Malays afford, be able to compete?” Ibrahim asked, citing businesses prohibited by sharia law.
But it is not just pro-government parties that talk up the need for sharia-based laws. Religion and “race” (the term used in Malaysia when discussing the country’s three main ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese and Indian) are potentially divisive electoral issues. PAS, for instance, has openly discussed the implementation of hudud, or Islamic criminal justice, should the opposition coalition of which it is part win the election.
Such plans are said to alarm the allied DAP and more broadly Chinese-Malay voters. The Malaysian Chinese Association, BN’s in-house Chinese party, has told voters that a vote for the DAP is effectively a vote for more Islamic law in Malaysia. Ethnic Chinese represent around 25% of Malaysia’s population.
Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysian academic based at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, says that “bread and butter issues”, not race and religion, are likely to be foremost in voters’ minds on election day.
Here the BN incumbents might fare well, with domestic spending on infrastructure projects, such as a new metro/rail system in Kuala Lumpur, helping to buoy economic growth to around 5%. Populist measures, most recently included in the September budget, have played well in rural areas, where two-thirds of the parliamentary seats will be decided.
Malaysia’s low-inflation, trade-oriented economy has also fared comparatively well amid the slowdown in major export markets such as Japan, the United States and Europe, and a more recent fall-off in exports to China. The country remains an attractive place to do business, according to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report, which recently placed Malaysia 12th in its global rankings, ahead of economies like Sweden (13th), Taiwan (16th), Germany (20th) and Japan (24th).
While the UMNO-led government has some prestigious backing for its economic policies, a more sobering analysis was delivered this month, with global graft watchdog Transparency International rating Malaysia as the world’s most corrupt place to do business, based on a survey of 3,000 executives worldwide. Half of those questioned in Malaysia reckoned they lost a contract over the past year due to someone else paying a bribe.
Some reform campaigners believe that such under-the-table activities could undermine the upcoming election. Ambiga Sreenavasan’s Bersih group has twice led tens of thousands of Malaysians to rally for electoral reforms, protests that culminated in mass arrests and the use of teargas against demonstrators across the usually placid center of Kuala Lumpur.
Sreenavasan said on December 17 that shortcomings such as errors on electoral rolls had been ignored by the government ahead of the upcoming elections – a potential point of contention should UMNO and BN sweep to victory. “The 13th general elections will be one of the dirtiest elections ever seen and we should not anticipate any change in the near future,” she said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
The elections now look set for April 2013 after speculation throughout late 2011 and 2012 that Najib would call a snap vote to capitalize on any feel-good factor after the series of political reforms and populist handouts failed.
“Ultimately UMNO is a giant patronage machine,” said academic Chin. “The budget and the previous handouts [such as one-time wage supplements for civil servants and those defined as 'poor'] is just UMNO using government largesse to win voters.”
Nonetheless, the rise of a viable and effective opposition has spurred the UMNO-led government into reform, even if it does not yet mean a historic change of government is likely at the upcoming polls. “Whatever happens in the election, Malaysia has gained greatly from the rise of [Pakatan Rakyat],” said Ooi Kee Beng.