It’s “flagging-off” time! Malaysia will hold its highly anticipated 13th general election on 5 May 2013. According to various news agencies, every Barisan National (BN) component party has tried to include new and younger faces in their list of candidates contesting the ensuing general election to Prime Minister and BN chairman Najib Razak. BN will field new faces for 50 per cent of the 505 state seats being contested and up to one-third of the 222 parliamentary seats, perhaps the most radical change in their list of candidates since former Prime Mister Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad first fought for his mandate in 1982.
The brigade of first-timers endorsed by the Malaysian premier to join him in seeking a fresh mandate from the people is obvious in the states that BN lost in the previous general election. The largest shake-up appears to be in Selangor, where 80 per cent of the candidates unveiled by the Barisan National chairman are new, followed by Penang and Kedah, where two-thirds and one-half of the candidates are new, respectively, thus displaying a strong intent of wrestling back the economic powerhouses of Malaysia.
Top leaders from BN have claimed that their candidates–dubbed the “Barisan National Transformation Team”–constitute “the best lineup of winnable candidates” that BN has to offer. Considering voter sentiment and expectations for change, they hope that an influx of new faces will convince the majority of Malaysians that credible steps toward reforms are underway and that real political and economic change is on the horizon. While the BN government prides itself in its well-checked report card, many Malaysian voters are still skeptical that the current government can bring about long-term change. Proving cynics wrong will of course require more than a minor change in the cast of characters.
Nonetheless, the all-intriguing question is, “Can these new faces lead BN to victory and retake the states lost to Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the previous general election? How much input have these new faces contributed to the ruling coalition’s manifesto? Does the manifesto truly reflect the aspirations of these new candidates?” Answers to these questions remain vague and ambiguous, primarily because the voices of many of these fresh and “untested” candidates are yet to be heard in mainstream media.
BN’s fielding of a substantially large number of new candidates may result in two outcomes. On the positive side, the deliberate selection of new candidates means that the same number of old, familiar, and arguably undesirable leaders (i.e., due to negative public perception of corruption and/or false and un-kept promises) will depart, marking a massive withdrawal of candidates in whom the public has arguably lost confidence (voted out in the last general election). The Malaysian premier has also indicated that 91 per cent of the members of the new lineup have at least diploma qualifications, and at least one-third are lawyers, doctors, ulamas, university professors, and administrative and diplomatic officers. The replacement of outgoing candidates with qualified new candidates will therefore stand the BN army in good stead.
The introduction of young and new candidates appears to be a strategic decision to woo the votes of young voters. For example, 42 per cent of the 13.3 million eligible voters are below the age of 40, and almost 20 per cent are between the ages of 21 and 29. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the selection of these younger candidates will actually attract the attention of and secure votes from young voters. The youngest candidate in the BN lineup, Daniel Wa Wai How (aged 25), is slated to contest on the MCA ticket in the Keranji state seat in Perak, and Ting Tai Fook (aged 29 and also from MCA) will aim to wrest the Sitiawan state seat away from Perak DAP Chairman Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham (aged 52). Both candidates have pledged to continue to work hard to ensure better education and more job opportunities, particularly among the youths in their constituency. Gerakan’s Loo Jieh Sheng (aged 31) is another young Barisan National candidate (and the youngest in Penang) who is known to be popular among the young and is strategically placed to contest in the Air Itam state constituency (he is a former student of Chung Ling High School located in Air Itam).
On the negative side, these fresh faces are “untested,” and thus possible problems may arise from their “inexperience”. Many of the candidates are young and have only recently entered the political arena. Although several experienced figures remain in the lineup of candidates for the upcoming election, they might be too taken up with campaigning in their own constituencies to provide much assistance to their debuting teammates in their own local battles. Many of PR’s candidates have taken part in at least one campaign term in the general election, which gives them more experience in terms of election campaigning efforts to convince the hearts of voters. The credibility of many fresh BN candidates remains in doubt, as it is their outgoing colleagues who have been serving the people in their constituency for the past five years. If BN were to lose in the upcoming general election, its outgoing leaders and observers will no doubt point fingers at and blame the over-reliance on the new candidates.
The list of new candidates has also brought disappointment to many well-informed voters. Despite the promise by the BN’s leadership to include more women in the upcoming general election and the growing prominence of women in Malaysian society and in BN component parties, women are not significantly represented in the Barisan National’s list of candidates–less than 10 per cent (approximately 70) of BN’s 727 parliamentary and state nominees are women. Furthermore, many of the so-called new candidates are not actually “new”; for example, Mohd. Zubir Embong, the Kuala Trengganu parliamentary candidate, was a member of parliament on the same seat in 1986.
The presence of some recycled candidates brings uncertainty about on how winnable and transformational these candidates are. Nonetheless, the BN leadership has indicated that much thought was given during the lengthy process of candidate selection, bearing in mind that voters today are smarter and better informed as a result of increased access to technology (candidate actions and profiles can be found at the push of a button).
Will the fielding of new faces grant BN a new lease on political life? Or will it be regarded as an exit strategy? Only time will tell.
Weng Marc Lim is attached to the School of Business, Monash University, Malaysia campus. Lim is an advocator of the 1Malaysia concept. 1Malaysia stresses national unity and ethnic tolerance, which include values such as perseverance and a culture of excellence, acceptance, loyalty, education, humility, integrity, and meritocracy.