Malaysia’s Dimensions of Conflict


Loyalties will be tested in the 14th general election.

A discussion on the deeper dimensions of conflict and other aspects of the upcoming 14th Malaysian general election couldn’t be timelier, with the elections having to be called by the middle of the year. What do the persistent trends tell us? What are the implications of the new political realignments? How will East Malaysia fare? All these questions were deliberated during Penang Institute’s forum, “Malaysian Elections 2018: Dimensions of Conflict”, held in January this year.

Unlikely Friends

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of Penang Institute, propounded the need to trace the present state of political conflict back to the early 1990s. To handle the ending of the New Economic Policy in 1990, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad proposed the notions of Bangsa Malaysia and Vision 2020. These concepts came to denote the following period of exemplary growth in Malaysia when the country was counted as one of Asia’s impressive “flying geese”.

The stress of the Asian Financial Crisis precipitated the total split between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1997-98, and gave birth to the Reformasi movement protesting against Anwar’s sacking as deputy prime minister, among other things.

So loud was the call for reform that when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi became prime minister in 2003, he was wise enough to steal Anwar’s thunder and styled his administration as one dedicated to reforms. In 2004, Abdullah’s strategy, together with a lop-sided redelineation exercise, won him the largest majority in parliament in the history of Malaysia. But be that as it may, come 2008, the Abdullah administration was punished for not delivering on his promises and the BN under his command suffered a very bad election.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak then took the stage as prime minister, when Abdullah was pushed aside in 2009.

Najib couldn’t simply repeat Abdullah’s “reform”, so he settled for “transformasi”, and he decided also to use 1Malaysia in place of Mahathir’s Bangsa Malaysia, which was popularised in the early 1990s.

The 13th general election held in 2013 saw BN losing the popular vote and the 1Malaysia courtship, generally seen as insincere, of non-Malays was quickly abandoned. Disappointed with the outcome, Najib took a big decision based on his disappointment: “He decided not to regain the middle ground and moved to court the right-wing for support instead,” says Ooi.

The battle for Malaysia since Mahathir’s retirement as prime minister in 2003 has been defined by competition between Anwar’s coalitional allies, Abdullah’s failed “reform agenda”, Najib’s “1Malaysia” programme, and his decision to move BN to the right to court PAS and other rightwing elements in the Malay community.

“What Malaysia is facing is an unexpected and yet rational union of the Reformasi movement with Mahathir’s Vision 2020/ Bangsa Malaysia agenda, done perhaps as a last-ditch effort two years before 2020 to topple what has become a doubly rightwinged federal government,” says Ooi.

For more than 30 years now, the relationship between Mahathir and Anwar has been “a continuing saga that now, more than ever, needs to be given central importance,” said Ooi. He cautioned that a strong victory for BN in the coming elections will toughen its de facto ally PAS in its Islamist agenda, while a euphoric BN will move to crush the Opposition as much as it can. In any case, the federal government’s relations with Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led state governments will worsen dramatically.

Which Right?

There is another aspect to watch out for in the coming election: the potential consequences of the realignment of political coalitions. According to Dr Wong Chin Huat, head of the Political Studies Programme at Penang Institute, the real decision facing voters is: Mahathir or PAS.

“The difference between PH and the three previous opposition coalitions (Gagasan Rakyat, Barisan Alternatif and Pakatan Rakyat) is that they all had PAS and no Mahathir, whereas PH has Mahathir and no PAS. Do not think that (PAS president) Abdul Hadi Awang was joking when he said PAS can be the kingmaker,” says Wong.

“If the Opposition approximately retains or improves on their current number of seats, less people would believe that PAS is a kingmaker. However, if the Opposition performs worse than before and allows BN to regain the two-thirds majority, then people would conclude that PAS is the pivotal bloc.”

The question dogging voters is, “Which Malay right can we accept?” Umno is the Malay right in BN, while PAS was the Malay right in Pakatan Rakyat. A replacement for PAS by a different Malay right in the form of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) has emerged within PH.

Wong predicts that toppling the federal government in the coming elections will require a voter turnout of 85% or more. “There’s even a possibility for BN to regain the two-thirds majority if the turnout is anything lower than 70%. Additionally, high voter turnout is crucial to minimise the detrimental effects of the Election Commission’s redelineation exercise.”

Sabahan Concerns

The state of Sabah wrestles with issues that are different from those faced in West Malaysia; in this easternmost state, people appear more concerned with social cleavages and conflicts, and with political actors and alignment. Datuk Dr Johan Ariffin Samad, member of the elite groups G25 and Borneo G20 which comprise mostly former senior and high-ranking government officials, spoke on the need for Malaysians to revisit, understand and respect Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).

While Mahathir is now regarded as the bearer of reform on the peninsula, sentiments are different in East Malaysia. Sabah, in particular, has a complicated history with the former premier: “It was during his time that the whole Islamisation process started. Then there was ‘Project IC’, which was basically social engineering to dilute the political powers of the Kadazan- Dusun people, not to mention the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) on Sabah’s political leaders.”

Those who were arrested under the ISA include current Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR) President Jeffrey Kitingan and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS)’s Deputy President Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili. The former was quoted in The Borneo Post as saying he supported Mahathir’s fight for justice, but not as prime minister,1 while the latter, who is the incumbent Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water, told the press that Sabahan leaders advocating for state rights risked arrest during Mahathir’s rule.2 The Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants in Sabah also concluded that based on witness testimonies, Project IC probably existed.3

To rub salt into the wound, Johan said that at one time, his fellow Sabahans had to “suffer the indignity of rotational chief ministers”. Under the rotation system introduced by BN in 1994, the chief minister position rotated between the Muslim, non-Muslim Bumiputera and Chinese communities every two years. “We are the only state in Malaysia to have this restriction imposed on us,” says Johan. The rotational system was ended in 2004 by the Abdullah administration, allowing Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman from Umno to hold on to his post. He is currently in his 15th year in power.4

Based on his observations, Johan says the newly formed Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) can be a game changer in Sabah politics. “Warisan is a unique Bajau- Kadazan combination,” he says, referring to Warisan President Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, a Semporna-native Bajau, and Deputy President Darell Leiking, who is of Kadazan descent. Sabah has different social cleavages, and a successful coalition between the Bajau and Kadazan people is a force to be reckoned with. “It seems that Warisan is growing stronger every day and they are at the forefront of the battle for GE14. The understanding is that Warisan will be the frontrunner in Sabah, while PH concentrates its forces in the peninsula. If both are successful, they can discuss forming the federal government.”

Notwithstanding the ongoing seat negotiation between Warisan and PH parties in Sabah, the Sabahans are adamant to reassert their state rights as stipulated in MA63. “We want to have a bigger say in our taxes, our education, and not leave it at the federal level with its constantly changing policies,” says Johan.

1 m-but-not-as-pm-jeffrey.

2 nation/2017/10/02/pbs-anyone-touching-onsabah- rights-faced-isa-during-dr-ms-era.

3 sabah-rci-says-there-is-probability-that-projekic- existed#kygOxez7hIDW5k5M.97.

4 nation/2004/03/28/cm-rotation-systemscrapped- in-sabah.

Ooi Kok Hin is an analyst with Penang Institute's Political Studies Programme. Some movie lines have left an imprint on his memory, such as this one: "Everything that has a beginning has an end, Neo."

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