Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13) will be a battle of the coalitions, pitting the world’s most successful ruling coalition – the 13 party Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front) against the 4 year old, three party Pakatan Rakyat (PR/People’s Pact/People’s Alliance).
It is not easy to categorise the two opposing coalitions and its members as they are disparate, complex, and, with multiple agendas, often fractured. This is primarily the outcome of Malaysia’s recent history. The disparate regions and people that make up Malaysia today are, after all, an artificial construct whose only common denominator was that they were all subject to British Imperial power. A peninsular with 9 Malay kingdoms at the end of Asia’s land mass whose citizens were populated in majority by a polyglot of people from the Malay Archipelago, the Chinese and South Asian subcontinents, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Turks, remnants of past colonialists, various unique groups that were created through inter-marriages, and not to mention the many indigenous peoples aggregated together with two geographical entities on the island of Borneo, that is separated by 800 kilometres of the South China Sea, and whose people have greater cultural affinities with the peoples of the Philippines and Indonesia, and who themselves are disparate in culture, ethnicity and language.
However, all these societies did have one feature in common – feudalism. This was buttressed by British efforts to violently suppress progressive elements in the Malayan polity, preferring instead to hand over power after independence to conservative elements, primarily as a means to protect British interests. The feudalistic nature of these societies gave rise to what has become a very successful model of politics practised by the ruling coalition since the first elections before independence in 1955: Consociational politics, where the elites bargained and struck a deal where each group – first three, then rising to 14, now 13 political parties – had some share of political and economic power under the hegemonic power of the Malay and increasingly Islamised United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This system has served BN well, chalking up electoral victory after victory at the past 12 general elections.
More importantly, the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, were able to monopolise power because they were able to forge a ‘syncretism’ in their style of government i.e. governing via a variety of ideological orientations and political practises. The BN was successful not only because of its competent stewardship of the Malaysian economy but mainly because they were able to straddle competing (social, economic and political) interests within their coalition as well as address competing interests outside it by either co-opting them into BN, stifling them through draconian measures or skilfully manipulating these competing interests. The opposition parties and coalitions of the past were not able to successfully mount a challenge to the Alliance and BN partly because the electoral process and system was stacked against them, but also because the opposition parties could never successfully find a way to manage the competing interests that they each represented.
In the past decade or so, especially since the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98, the BN appears to have lost this unique ability to straddle the competing interests of its members and the communities they represent, while the opposition, led by, ironically, the sacked former Deputy Prime Minister, appears to be increasingly adroit at managing these tensions.
Therefore, one big question at GE13 is how the two coalitions are projecting themselves as true representatives of the people’s wishes, and how they go about addressing the key challenges that Malaysia as a country and Malaysians as a people face, in a way that satisfies the myriad competing interests.
The key reasons for widespread dissatisfaction with the present situation are manifold, but the key issues that both coalitions have to address are the rising living costs, demographic change, rapid urbanisation and increasingly uneasy race-relations.
The BN, in the past, has been very successful with their politics of development and key among these has been the reduction of absolute poverty to below three per cent and shaping Malaysia into a middle income economy by 1994 on the back of a low-cost, export-oriented economic model whilst at the same time creating a Malay middle class, primarily through the expansion of the public sector and government linked corporations (GLCs) jobs that is financed primarily through Malaysia’s revenue from non-renewable resources.
However, this particular model has two unintended effects: widespread relative poverty and high income inequality. The low-cost model has seen wages for 80 per cent of Malaysian households stagnate over the past three decades. These households earn less than RM3,000 (around AUS$ 1,000) a month in a country where the average monthly income is RM4,025 (around AUS$ 1,250). More critically, the bottom 40 per cent of households earn on average RM1,440 a month (around AUS$ 450). Most shockingly, the vast majority (71 per cent) of people in the bottom 40 per cent are bumiputeras – literally sons of the soil, a designation that includes Malays and a range of indigenous groups – despite 40 odd years of affirmative action for this group. Indeed, their well-being is and has been the raison de ├кtre of UMNO, the backbone of the ruling coalition.
People have been able to get by in spite of rising living costs, because they have been kept at bay by infusing government funds into basic social services, food staples and a fuel subsidy. The last especially has proven effective, but any attempts to rein in costs have been met by popular resistance as a motorised populace has become addicted to cheap petrol.
There is also a significant demographic change in Malaysia. 71 per cent of Malaysians are under the age of 40 with 34 per cent aged between 20 and 40. They face a major challenge. Malaysia is in a middle income trap and must either develop or procure high quality human capital as a pre-requisite to transition into a high income economy. However, Malaysia’s poor quality education has not prepared them for the necessary challenges of a knowledge intensive economy. International benchmarks and surveys shows that the quality of education in Malaysia, at all levels, is no match to the successful East Asian economies that Malaysia has chosen to emulate. 80 per cent of Malaysia’s labour force has no more than the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – equivalent to year 10 or O’levels qualifications), and the 57 universities and the more than 500 colleges are producing large numbers of graduates that the Malaysian labour market deems unsuitable or poorly skilled. This in an economy experiencing full employment since the late 1980s, and severe skills shortage since the early 1990s. Ironically, unemployment among graduates was highest. In 2007, graduates accounted for more than one-quarter of those unemployed, while unemployment among new graduates was 24. 1 per cent in 2008. With limited employability, mediocre wages and loans to be repaid, young Malaysian graduates end up saddled with enormous debt. The bloated civil service and GLCs, which are also perceived to be inefficient and a fiscal drag on the economy, are unable to provide the expected middle class jobs for bumiputeras long accustomed to getting them as part of a perceived social contract with UMNO.
However, perhaps ironically, it has been rapid urbanisation, that has brought these once disparate communities closer together. While many urban areas are still stratified by race and class, the sheer density has increased the interaction. 71 per cent of Malaysia is now urban. Only Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak have rates or urbanisation below 55 per cent.
Better infrastructure, especially information communication and telecommunications, in urban areas have also provided a platform for dissatisfied Malaysians to hear alternative views and to connect with each other. 65 per cent of Malaysians were using the internet in 2010. As the internet largely remains uncensored, the opposition coalition and civil society movements have used it effectively to mobilise support for their causes. These groups have used social media, technology and the internet to also penetrate into rural areas through free radio, websites, but also the audio-visual recording of government scandals in DVDs, and other forms. While the ruling party has also joined the information technology revolution, the opposition has been quicker and more able to marshal support online despite being out-resourced by the ruling coalition.
These developments, whose impacts were first experienced at the 2008 general election, have impacted the coalitions in different ways, and have prompted different reactions. It appears that the BN continues to rely on its tried and tested race-based, trickle-down economic growth, and welfarist approach to policies while PR sensing that the ground has shifted, appears to focus on class-based and rights-based policies.
The BN possibly believes that it is best to straddle the competing interests among ethnic, religious, cultural and regional groups by addressing their needs individually, while PR appears, in general to address issues more holistically.
In the BN, the president of UMNO and Prime Minister of Malaysia now takes precedence over the other political leaders in the coalition. Different interest groups today, do not go through their “representative” political leaders or parties to seek government support, but approach the Prime Minister directly, who then, channels the support to these communities through the “representative” political parties. This, however, applies only to Peninsular Malaysia, and not in Sabah and Sarawak which have different dynamics.
PR’s approach is markedly different. Although Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of the opposition coalition and is most likely to be the Prime Minister should PR win, several factions in PAS have indicated some misgivings, preferring their own candidate. This suggests a more equal distribution of power in the opposition coalition members. But most significantly, Anwar Ibrahim is the first mainstream Malay politician to persuasively argue for the dismantling of the race-based affirmative action and has committed to it in the PR manifesto. This alone stands in contrast to BN’s continued reliance on continuing and expanding affirmative action for bumiputeras (although the Prime Minister has made contradictory statements on this).
PR also appears to be moving towards depoliticising contentious issue such as education and language issues. While BN has made side payments to vernacular schools on a piece-meal basis, PR have promised to embed these into government budgets should they come into power. While BN has demonstrated inconsistency in its language policy in primary and secondary schools, PR has been consistent in promoting the right of communities to use their preferred language in education in vernacular schools. This was in the context of using English in the teaching of Science and Maths, that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed introduced, and which has since been reversed succumbing to strong popular protest.
Both coalitions however have resorted to populists strategies. PR’s strategies such as free education, removal of excise duties on cars, etc. all show that they are targeting the young and lower and middle income earners, much like the BN is doing now by handing out cash bonuses to Petronas (the national oil company) workers and through its many 1Malaysia initiatives, one of which provided a cash payment to low income earners to purchase a smartphone.
Handouts and their associated media attention are economic and visual reminders of a party in trouble and a party seemingly still able to resource its mass redistribution of wealth according to the principle of affirmative action and poverty reduction rhetoric. The former has been shown to have benefitted those in power (the now infamous 1 per cent) much more than the majority it is meant to aid. The latter, too, has been critiqued, especially in Sabah and Sarawak where poverty rates remain high.
And yet, BN has maintained a strong showing in polls and a support base that does not wish to change the way Malaysian society, economy or politics is structured. The status quo is highly reassuring for many who have yet much to gain from it as well as those who deeply believe in it. And belief is crucial in a country where mosque sermons are written by politics, ‘race’ is used as an everyday descriptor of ethnic background and ‘class’ is not uttered since the crackdown on the communists in the 1950s and 1960s. Who will Malaysians believe come the next elections? Personal attacks against political leaders has been a mainstay in Malaysian politics and lurid stories abound, backed up by court cases, exposes as well as much rumour, gossip and coffee shop talk.
Malaysia today is not the feudalistic society it once was, but the political is still dominated by communal topics such as race and religion and the need to ‘secure’ both against some unknown and often unnamed threat. Many people are willing to move beyond the politics of fear into a brave new world, but will there be a job, a car, cheap petrol and cheap food for them?
Only after the election will we see.
Greg Lopez is a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University and the New Mandala’s Malaysia section editor, an academic blog hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific, also at the Australian National University.