Watershed elections for Malaysia


Malaysia’s Arab Spring happened in September 1998 when former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was arrested. By refusing to go quietly then, he precipitated a movement whose effects are still reverberating through the country.

The Reformasi was born, and the empowerment felt by those involved has not disappeared but has instead grown and spread. The significance of that movement was more than a simple show of support for Anwar. Instead of a dam bursting, the game change in Malaysia has been more like an avalanche down a gradual slope.

This was most significant for the Malay community. The 15 years since have seen the rise of PKR – a multiracial party that is Malay-based – and the revival and expansion of PAS as strong alternative channels for Malay political aspirations, and anger.

The diversification of Malay politics since 1998 has been necessary for a viable opposition coalition to arise and where the coming election is concerned, it is a question of how far this trend of political awakening among the different communities will go.

Are the major communities in the southern states of the peninsula inspired enough to follow their brethren in the north to shake up the system? Are the indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak aroused enough to increase their demands on the central government?

Whatever the election results may be, the winner will be saddled with the task of managing change, not maintaining the status quo.

The tide moves south and east

When an army becomes restless, the general must fly into decisive action to signal that the waiting is over, and that battle plans are in place.

Wearied by months, if not years, of waiting for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to dissolve Parliament and call for elections, impatience had been setting in on both sides of the political divide.

This was more obvious in opposition ranks, for they had to watch and wait while Najib announced and implemented a series of expensive populist instant measures designed to tempt fence-sitters.

Unavoidably, some bickering was bound to set in within the opposition coalition Pakatan, and serious cracks in the ranks began showing.

DAP Johor state head Boo Cheng Hau voiced his suspicion that party ally PKR’s state head Chua Jui Meng was behind anonymous attacks on the DAP. This soon took the form of jostling over which party and which candidate was to contest in Gelang Patah.

This was probably the trigger that decided DAP leader Lim Kit Siang’s mind to contest in his home state of Johor, the seat that Chua is known to have been seeking to run for.

The 72-year-old Lim had been unwilling for many months to agree to a move away from Ipoh Timor – his present seat in Perak – to his home state of Johor. This seemed partly due to family concerns about his health.

His move has certainly strengthened his party’s position in Johor. In the process, it ended the squabble over which member of the Pakatan coalition would contest Johor and has energised opposition supporters significantly. The move is consistent with Lim’s long political career as he had given up safe seats to contest in strategically more important but less predictable seats before.

A major tenet in the ancient Chinese war classic, Sunzi Bingfa (Sun Tzu’s Art of War), is that one should choose the battleground and let the enemy react. Gaining the initiative is the key to a successful campaign.

Johor DAP chairman Dr Boo Cheng Hau (left) with Lim Kit Siang at a ceramah in Skudai, Johor in April.

The ruling BN should hold the upper hand given its incumbent control of election timing which allows it to time its own vote-getting measures. But it has lost that initiative through Lim’s move.

The depth of BN’s anxiety can be seen in the actions of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Umno’s long-term and most effective strategist.

The 87-year-old former Prime Minister, who seems intent on leading the BN campaign whether the present Prime Minister likes it or not, has taken to attacking his long-term opponent fervently, calling on Johoreans to end Lim’s long political career; and threatening the country once more with the scenario that a victory for DAP’s Lim would “bring about conflict and antagonism between the races”.

Lim’s decision to raise the stakes by moving to Johor brings into focus some trends pushing Malaysia towards a new political order.

Johor has not only been a fixed deposit state for BN’s two major parties, Umno and MCA. It is also the state whose political structure influenced much of the country’s political structure. This is the state where Umno started and where its coalition partner MCA has had its strongest support; and where many in the country’s first Cabinet came from. The active and innovative political consciousness and acumen of its elite were responsible for the founding of Umno, which has contributed to today’s brand of Malay politics.

The coming elections will pose a fundamental challenge to the BN model of coalition politics with Malay-based Umno and Chinese-based MCA as key partners. For one thing, MCA’s position as the party representing the Chinese vote bank is under full frontal attack from DAP.

DAP has already won hugely in the northern urban areas in 2008, reaching as much support as the Chinese population there could realistically give it.

The Sarawak state elections of 2011 saw it gaining more ground in urban seats there as well. The decision to assail the Umno-MCA fortress is therefore a predictable and potent stratagem.

Though Johor is not likely to fall to Pakatan, MCA will most likely be taking quite a beating in its strongest state, and may nationally be reduced to irrelevance.

Already, MCA president Chua Soi Lek has demonstrated a remarkable lack of confidence by announcing that he will not be contesting at all. Some of the party’s traditional seats throughout the country are being “loaned” to its allies in BN.

Malaysia has to be ruled by a coalition representing all major ethnic groups, and the coalition that fails to project that image cannot be stable. For Umno and its allies, a new formula will have to be found even if they get the majority of seats.

If MCA loses most of its parliamentary seats in the coming elections – it has 13 in Johor and across the country – then BN will be without proper Chinese representation.

Much is at stake in Johor.

An earlier version was published by The Straits Times on April 13, 2013 as “Much at Stake in BN’s Johor Fortress”.

In GE13, politics goes local

“All politics is local” and in the 13th General Election, this maxim is all you need to understand the contest as it unfolds across Malaysia. While analysts talk about trends sweeping the country, there will in fact be a series of micro-trends at work in the different states that will define these polls.

The rise of social media has revolutionised the flow of information, as once all-powerful newspapers and television stations located in the capital lose their dominance. Instead, ever-smaller communities of shared interest – whether driven by geography, culture, leisure activities or religious faith – have become more persuasive.

At the same time, people’s expectations have changed. The notion of “gratefulness” has disappeared along with Sony Betamax video; voters are no longer willing to be mute recipients of government largesse. Instead, local communities want a greater say in how policies – housing, law enforcement and transport – are formulated and executed. Because of this, each of Malaysia’s 13 states will experience the polls separately, with localised issues impacting the way voters respond on May 5. Uniformity will be a thing of the past.

Here is how I see the contest unfolding in BN’s three fixed deposit states of Sabah, Sarawak and Johor, as well as in three Pakatan-held states: Selangor, Kedah and Kelantan.

Sabah and Sarawak

In Sabah, BN’s hold on power will be challenged by the intense dissatisfaction on the west coast; in particular, over the way the alleged Project IC has come to haunt the state, especially in the aftermath of the Lahad Datu incursion.

A measure of the unhappiness is the call (swiftly rejected by Nazri Aziz, the caretaker de facto Minister of Law) by BN’s senior Kadazan leaders for all Mykad identity cards to be recalled and reissued.

Ultimately, however, a divided opposition – Pakatan is up against Jeffrey Kitingan’s State Reform Party and Yong Teck Lee’s Sabah Progressive Party – may negate all the furore and Sabah will remain with BN.

Having been ruled by one man for over 30 years, Sarawak should be ripe for change. While the cities and towns are bubbling with opposition sentiment, the interior remains isolated and placid. Limited access to information (not to mention electricity and transportation links) means that the Global Witness video allegedly exposing high-level corruption will have minimal impact beyond the urban centres. Change will only come to Sarawak after Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud leaves the stage and not before.


Johor, and especially southern Johor, has become more similar to Singapore with its increasingly demanding citizenry. A stupendous rise in the number of registered voters in the south of the state would seem to indicate that the previously apathetic Singapore-bound workers now wish to exercise their democratic rights.

Moreover, in Johor, development is no longer the issue. Iskandar Malaysia has assured everyone that growth will be a constant. But, the public debate will shift to questions of equity: who is getting what, where and how much?

Finally, Pakatan’s bold push into Umno’s heartland will feature a major showdown in Gelang Patah, if outgoing Chief Minister Abdul Ghani Othman does stand against DAP’s Lim Kit Siang.

Indeed, Ghani has long been the personification of Johor’s distinctive Malay identity. Should he win in this majority ethnic Chinese constituency, it will be a clear sign that local issues and a specifically plural Johorean appeal will have prevailed over DAP’s nationally-crafted message.

Selangor and others

Selangor is the great prize, as the richest and most populous state. BN has chafed at its inability to seize back this jewel. A mark of the seriousness with which the Prime Minister views Selangor is his insistence on leading the state’s election charge personally. However, by assuming so much responsibility and refusing to anoint BN’s putative candidate for the Chief Minister’s post, he is also flying in the face of the localisation of issues.

Independent-minded, well-informed and distrusting, Selangor voters will be among the most difficult to satisfy. Once again, key micro issues – water, housing and transportation – will predominate. Pakatan should hold the advantage because of its grounded approach.

Still, the state’s more rural areas – those beyond a convenient commute into the Klang Valley – will remain with BN.

Kedah has been a signal failure for Pakatan. Much of the state’s business community is aghast at Chief Minister Azizan Abdul Razak’s lack of direction and poor leadership. Chinese support for PAS leadership has evaporated and BN stands a strong chance of winning back Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s home state, so long as the spectre of internal Umno bickering and sabotage can be overcome.

PAS will suffer losses in Kelantan as voters tire of the state’s mismanagement and the growing drift under an ageing and ailing spiritual leader, Tok Guru Nik Aziz. With many slim, razor-sharp majorities, a small swing to Umno could see a cascade of parliamentary seats in its favour under the aegis of the hard-working Minister of International Trade and Industry, Mustapa Mohamad.

So all in all, this all makes for a very exciting election. What we could well see is not a national swing either way but rather, separate, individual swings either to BN or Pakatan.

This in effect may suggest that neither side will win an overwhelming advantage. Some may groan at this – but that is the new political reality Malaysians will have to deal with. The era of super-majorities is over, and perhaps now the politicians will be forced to learn to work together.

2013 Choosing between Anwar & Muhyiddin @Mahathir 4.0

It would be naïve to think that the 2013 election is really Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s debut election. This is more likely his last show. His debut election was actually in 2008.

In hindsight, the opposition, civil society groups and the Mahathir camp converged on one point in the 2008 election: substantial electoral setback for Tun Abdullah Badawi. The opposition would have wanted the setback to be large enough to overthrow BN entirely. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, on the other hand, just wanted it to be bad enough to force Abdullah’s exit.

Once the dust settled, Abdullah’s abdication and Najib’s ascendance were just a question of when, not if.

Similarly, Najib’s exit after the 2013 polls is a question of when, not if. It looks all but impossible for Najib to do better than Abdullah. Najib is weaker than Abdullah – not only in 2004, but also in 2008.

A downward adjustment of seats under Najib is therefore likely in recognition of the new political reality after the 2008 polls and then the Bersih 2.0 rally in 2011.

Instead of giving room for Najib’s soft landing, Mahathir and the Umno machinery have been arguing that restoring a two-thirds majority is probable, which in effect is indirectly preparing Najib for the sacrificial altar.

The 2013 election can therefore be studied as Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s debut election should BN win. A vote for BN will eventually be the equivalent of a vote for Muhyiddin, once Najib is forced to retire.

Just as Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari was buried soon after the 2008 polls, the entire 1Malaysia factory and the related alphabet soup – ETP, GTP, NKRA – will be dumped even if BN wins, once Muhyiddin takes centre stage. To be sure, BR1M, KR1M and other –R1M series products may be kept to appease the voters.

It is important to look at current changes from a longer historical perspective. Abdullah, Najib, Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are actually Umno’s answer to its post- Mahathir transition at different points of time.

As a matter of fact, with the exception of Abdullah who is relatively old, the other three were the faces for the New Malays in the mid-1990s – Najib and Muhyiddin were two of the three Musketeers who formed Anwar’s Wawasan Team, the third member was the disgraced former Menteri Besar of Selangor, Mohamad Taib.

Counting from Anwar’s ascendency in 1993 to being the No. 2 man in the party and the government, this long transition process has taken exactly 20 years now.

It may not be sealed even with Muhyiddin’s succession because there is a deep structural contradiction that the post-1988 Umno cannot resolve.

The New Umno Mahathir built in that year was meant to secure his personal control after Tengku Razaleigh’s unsuccessful challenge in 1987. It is a personalised tool of control to sustain Mahathirism. It’s not meant to be modified or phased out.

But transitioning from the high-handed personal rule of Mahathir is what any next Umno president must do to appeal to an increasingly sophisticated population, which has lower tolerance for corruption and lower addiction to communalism.

But what Mahathir wants eventually is Mahathir 2.0, Mahathir 3.0… Mahathir x.0, much like China’s first Emperor Qin Shi Huang planned to have Qin II, Qin III, Qin IV… to succeed him.

Anwar’s purging and imprisonment in 1998 showed that his liberalisation lingo – civil society, Asian renaissance, civilisational dialogue and, finally, reform – was beyond what the old Emperor and his personal party machine could tolerate.

No one expected Abdullah to fit in Mahathir’s gigantic shoes when the latter left office. But his 91% parliamentary landslide in the 2004 elections – the only post-1969 election that did not evoke the spectre of May 13 – showed that Malaysia was not looking for a Mahathir 2.0.

What got Abdullah in trouble was when he tried to de-Mahathirise Malaysia, under the guidance of his Oxford-graduate son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin. That crossed the line most jarringly, as far as Mahathir was concerned. In projecting himself as a youthful alternative to Abdullah, it is noteworthy that Najib supersedes but does not abandon the former’s moderate and reformist positioning. He clearly does not want to be Mahathir 3.0.

Abdullah’s famous populist line, “work with me, not work for me”, became the smooth tagline of “people first, performance now”. Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari was replaced by the more inclusive 1Malaysia.

It is a no-brainer that after the disastrous desertion of the BN by the non-Malays, any Umno president who wants to stay on as Prime Minister must move to the middle. He must dismantle, in one way or another, the NEP and, by extension, the old patronage structure so entrenched in New Umno.

This means the post-Mahathir Prime Minister must alienate the nationalist wing in Umno, whose motivation is mainly economic but whose language can be cultural or even religious.

Under Abdullah, this Malay-first position was famously represented by the otherwise mild-mannered Hishamuddin Hussein who raised his keris for three consecutive years at the Umno assembly. Abdullah’s failure to use his 91% parliamentary majority to rein in the “ultras” cost him and the country the opportunity for deep reforms.

Khairy Jamaluddin.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Under Najib, the Malay-first position is taken up by Ibrahim Ali, a maverick outside the party proper who nevertheless enjoys the support of Muhyiddin and Mahathir. Perkasa hence plays a double function: an external tool for Umno to attack PAS and PKR from their flank, and an internal tool for the hawks in Umno to check on the doves.

It is important to remember that Mahathir was not always a hawk, though he was the top “ultra” to bitterly attack Tunku Abdul Rahman after the May 13 riot. He tried to remake himself as an inclusive leader when he first came to power in 1981 and he even talked about Bangsa Malaysia in the Vision 2020 project he dished out after losing non-Malay votes in the 1990 election.

Should Muhyiddin take over from Najib, it is unlikely that he will be able to move back to the middle ground quickly. It would not be in Muhyiddin’s interests to do so anyway since his core support would have come from the hawks rather than the doves.

To the delight of the grand old man, a Muhyiddin Administration would be Mahathir Administration 4.0.

Hence, in Muhyiddin, there will be succession without transformation. In contrast, an Anwar victory can only mean transformation via transition.

What will Malaysia choose come May 5? Anwar or Muhyiddin @ Mahathir 4.0?

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.

A political scientist by training, Wong Chin Huat is a fellow at the Penang Institute and a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. One of his recent hobbies is walking on the streets without notifying the police.

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