Conflict has raged within and among Malaysia’s political parties this year over controversial legislation regarding Islamic law, but Jayum Anak Jawan argues it is all part of the Prime Minister’s political strategy to win the next election.
What do “fixed deposit” and “insurance” have in common? A highly-skilled investor who maximises profit and minimises possible losses. This might appropriately describe Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s latest political move as the next general election draws nearer and which must be held by the middle of 2018.
Najib is the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) President and Chairman of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. His party is embroiled in a “possible” alliance with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to push through amendments to a piece of legislation called Act 355 that seek to review fines and punishment as well as the enforcement power of the Islamic courts. Originally, the bill was to be introduced to parliament as a private member’s bill by PAS President Hadi but was subsequently submitted by the government, which will reportedly take over tabling it at a future sitting.
Since the initial announcement of its introduction, the bill has sparked much debate, polarising Malaysians and political parties from all sides. What first appeared as a PAS initiative, has since been embraced by UMNO, putting many of the BN coalition parties that had previously made a strong stand against Act 355 in an awkward position.
There are stark divisions among the BN coalition’s 13 component parties with some staunchly opposed to the bill, such as Chief Minister Adenan who reportedly ordered all Sarawak BN party members of parliament to vote against it, while others are yet to reveal their positions. The opposition parties, meanwhile, are not wholly united one way or the other on Act 355.
While Malaysia’s political parties are caught up in the controversy over the bill, the clear advantage goes to the master political strategist, Najib. He is letting all the various parties fight it out, confident of drawing them over to his side at the end of the political brawl.
And why not watch and wait? Najib is championing Islam, which is more than what UMNO has done in its lifetime and more than what PAS could possibly do alone. As far as Najib is concerned, he is already a winner in the political chess game he devised. He has created a situation in which support for him is all but guaranteed. If you are not supporting him, then your Malay-ness or Muslim-ness are brought into question. You support him; you are a good Muslim. You don’t support him; you are a bad Muslim because he is doing a good thing for Islam. Such is the conundrum facing his Malay friends in BN and his Malay foes in the opposition.
Najib has also created a dilemma for his coalition partners. When he adopted the Act 355 amendments as a government bill, Najib redefined the rules of engagement altogether. By making it a government bill, and with UMNO being the backbone of the BN ruling coalition, all members of the ruling party are obliged to support it. If any party is opposed to the bill, then that party’s position in the BN coalition becomes untenable. So, the position becomes simple: support the bill or leave the coalition.
But, there is also this issue to ponder: Can the Prime Minister introduce important legislation without first consulting his coalition partners? The cornerstone of the BN coalition has been consultation. In addition, can a private member’s bill simply be adopted by the government without first having a discussion about it in cabinet? These are questions that are easy to answer but not as easy to explain. Clearly, there is evidence to conclude that the cabinet was not aware of the decision to support the legislation prior to it being made, nor had it been party to its formulation.
Lastly, some have argued about the constitutionality of this bill. Is Islamic law an item enumerated in the State List? If so, for the bill to be moved at the federal legislative level, it must have the support of a state government, not just an individual lawmaker. And for that to happen, it must first have been moved in a state assembly to indicate the state’s support for the bill.
The Prime Minister is no novice in politics. So, why is he doing this? The answer has to be simple and clear. He is crafting his “insurance policy” against increasing uncertainty on the returns of his “fixed deposit”, namely the states of Sarawak and Sabah, which have on many occasions saved BN and UMNO, especially after the 2008 and 2013 general elections. The number of parliamentary seats won in both states on these two occasions gave BN the majority required to form the federal government. But the sense of ethnic and state nationalism that have recently reignited vigorously in both states could have caused the Prime Minister real concern over whether BN and UMNO can continue to rely on the “fixed deposit” to return to power in the forthcoming general election. Hence, courting PAS, which won about 20 parliamentary seats in 2013, is a politically strategic move. Najib’s support for Act 355 will endear him and UMNO to PAS and at the same time boost the latter’s popularity among its supporters in the Islamic heartland states such as Kelantan and Terengganu.
Furthermore, this strategy could sway Malay-Muslim voters in many of the PKR opposition party strongholds as well. In all likelihood, and based on the fact that not much change will come from Malay and Chinese voters and their voting patterns in 2018, having PAS retain the same number of the seats it won in 2013 and perhaps draws a few more elsewhere, would be enough to give UMNO the insurance it needs against the possibly volatile non-Malay, non-Muslim votes and seats in Sabah and Sarawak.
BN and UMNO, if they win the next parliamentary general election, will not be expected to win handsomely as they have done previously. Neither should they be expected to make any major seat gains compared to what they won in 2013. But the PAS insurance policy, from supporting Act 355, should be enough to ensure that BN and UMNO can at least, in the event of the political atmosphere become more unfavourable and tense, scrape through with a razor-thin margin to form the next federal government.
Jayum Anak Jawan is the current Tun Abdul Razak Chair and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA. He is concurrently a senior professor of politics and government at Universiti Putra Malaysia. The opinion and analysis expressed do not represent the institutions he is affiliated with.