On Wednesday, Malaysians vote in their most intriguing general election ever. The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, led by the notoriously corrupt prime minister, Najib Razak, is facing an opposition emboldened by the recruitment of Malaysia’s longest-serving premier.
While dwelling on Malaysian politics, it is hard not to conclude that Umno (United Malays National Organisation) has blundered heavily by failing to force Najib to resign over the ongoing US$4.5-billion 1MDB scandal. The party is being led into its first competitive election since independence from Britain in 1957 by a profoundly flawed leader, suggesting Umno’s internal workings have ceased to function.
By failing to force him out over the appearance of US$681 million in his bank account from the state-run fund, Umno left a festering wound at the heart of the party.
Najib still denies any wrongdoing.
At stake next week is the long-running policy of positive discrimination in favour of ethnic Malays, which has prevented them being pushed to the economic fringes by the country’s industrious ethnic-Chinese community.
Since its introduction in 1971 as part of the government’s efforts to improve the socio-economic status of the ethnically Malay bumiputeras (sons of the soil), the New Economic Policy has considerably increased numbers of middle-class Malays, who owe their allegiance to Najib’s Umno.
The indigenous Malay share of Malaysian corporate wealth increased from 2.4 per cent in 1970 to 23.5 per cent in 2013. Umno cabinet member Shahrir Abdul Samad said the policy should stay in place until the bumiputeras were confident enough to compete economically with the other ethnic groups.
Umno’s bleak predictions for ethnic disharmony should not be brushed aside. For all its faults, Malaysia’s policy of positive discrimination has helped create an almost unique level of post-colonial economic growth in an ethnically divided state.
One need not delve deep into the history books to find examples like Lebanon, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Yugoslavia where populations with similar ethnic divides descended into prolonged civil wars. Even divided Belgium and Northern Ireland remain sobering reminders of the dangers of drawing artificial borders around two evenly sized but distinct groups.
By contrast, Malaysia stands out like a tropical, developing-world Switzerland, where three distinct ethnic groups have largely managed to work well together.
Former cabinet member Syed Hamid Albar is quoted saying about positive discrimination: “It has made Malaysia politically stable. I think people accept that growth for the sake of growth, without equity and distribution, without social policies, can create instability.
“That’s why … the Millennium Development Goals [had] a lot of emphasis on equity and distribution.”
And Najib regularly plays the ethnicity card by boosting bumiputera economic empowerment programmes, warning that Malays would be beggars in their country if Umno lost power.
In the 2013 election, Umno increased its parliamentary presence by nine seats although the BN coalition lost the overall popular vote. Najib secured 60 per cent of parliamentary seats with just 47 per cent of the vote.
The redrawing of electoral boundaries has created ethnic supermajorities in some seats.
Through a system of malapportionment, many districts have deeply uneven populations. Although Malaysia’s constitution states that electoral districts must be “approximately equal” in population, constituencies proposed by the government-appointed election commission range in size from 18,000 to 146,000 voters. Najib’s coalition controls all of the 15 smallest constituencies, while 14 of the 15 biggest ones are held by opposition members.
The average ruling coalition seat has 30,000 fewer voters than the average opposition one.
The Economist opined that Najib had already stolen the election: “The media are supine. The police and the courts seem more interested in allegations of minor offences by opposition figures than they are in the blatant bilking of the taxpayer over 1MDB and the open violation of the constitution at the election commission.
“The latest budget seems intended to buy the loyalty of civil servants, by promising a special bonus to be disbursed just after the likely date of the election,” it writes.
Asia Strategy and Leadership Institute analyst Oh Ei Sun said: “If you look at the urban areas as well as the suburbs, most voters and most constituencies nowadays would go towards Pakatan Harapan [the opposition alliance].
“So if Umno and, by extension, BN were to retain their rule over the country, they’d have to indeed win the Malay heartlands.”
The Merdeka Centre, an independent pollster, says its research shows ethnic Malays trust the BN more, while the non-ethnic Malays would rather see the opposition in government.
It says half of Malay voters back pro-bumiputera policies, compared with a quarter of Chinese and Indians.
Last year, its study found that Malay rights still topped the list of concerns among indigenous voters, with 37.4 per cent saying the issue was important to them.
Opposition leaders argue that aid should be distributed to those in need, regardless of ethnicity, arguing that the system of positive discrimination needs to be reformed.
The Democratic Action Party’s Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng argues: “Why racialise the issue? You’re just trying to … divide and rule.
“We don’t deny that the majority of the poor and those who need help are Malays. So why don’t you have a racially neutral but economically affirmative action policy?”
But the opposition must counter Najib’s scaremongering about the fate of ethnic Malays in a post-Umno dystopia if it wants to secure a parliamentary majority. And here the ultimate Malay establishment voice could be key.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, known as a defender of Malay rights, brings “his idea of what Malaysia ought to be”, according to Merdeka Centre boss Ibrahim Suffian.
“He also brings along a proportion of dissatisfied BN voters, particularly the Malay voters, who have fallen out with the BN and Umno leadership at present.”
The 92-year-old has presented his former protégé Najib with a major headache since he ditched Umno to lead Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, part of the Pakatan Harapan bloc.
The 2013 general election saw a “Chinese tsunami” of anti-government voting, while next week’s vote might see Pakatan Harapan eat away at Umno’s support in the Malay heartlands.
Target states include Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and parts of Johor and Perak. The appeal of Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) could also split the ethnic Malay vote, as demand grows for stricter, hudud laws.
Najib may well manage to retain power next week courtesy of a gerrymandered electoral system that gives far too much weight to rural, Malay voters. But he will remain damaged goods. His resignation is long overdue.
Prime Minister Najib Razak (right) is an electoral liability. Picture credit: YouTube