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Lost Malaysian hopes and the Pakatan Catch 22

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 26 April 2019


It took the Malaysian opposition more than a generation to topple the Barisan Nasional government, led by the now-discredited United Malays National Organization. Throughout mosques, coffee shops and markets in Malaysia, there has been an atmosphere of hope and anticipation by many for change that goes all the way back to when Mahathir Mohamed dismissed Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister back in 1998 and jailed him in a trial regarded universally as trumped up.

From that day on Anwar Ibrahim became synonymous for reform in Malaysia. The charismatic opposition leader, from jail and out, managed to unite a wide diversity of NGOs and most of the opposition parties against the Barisan. But it took 20 years and reports by the Sarawak Report, the Wall Street Journal, Asia Sentinel and others to expose what is now known as the 1Malaysia Development Bud scandal which tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak as a complete crook and his wife as a grasping harridan. Najib shut down critical parts of the local media and sacked the Attorney General before charges could be laid against him.

Mahathir, in quasi-private life through two administrations, once again mobilized forces to remove Najib, creating Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) with the help of defectors from UMNO and joining the Pakatan Harapan coalition led from prison by his nemesis Anwar.

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The 2018 election became a Mahathir-vs-Najib contest, where Najib was almost universally expected to hold onto power. There seemed to be an air of disillusionment with the electoral process and apathy during the campaign. However, voter turnout was more than 82 percent. The Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated Najib, who was prevented from fleeing the country in a private aircraft for Indonesia. The surprised public instantaneously became euphoric, celebrating in the streets. Many Malaysians believed they would now get the reform and change they had long hoped for.

The Pakatan Catch 22

However, the defeat of the Barisan exposed a very complex electorate. Different groups of voters made their decisions for different reasons. Non-Malays saw the removal of the Barisan as the end of a dark apartheid era in which every citizen would be regarded as equal, as was promised by sections of the Harapan manifesto. In contrast, many urban, professional and middle-class Malays hoped that Mahathir would clean up the mess the country was in. Voters in rural Malaysia, particularly in Kelantan and Terengganu, didn't switch at all. They went to the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. The small northern state of Perlis remained staunchly Barisan.

There is now a deep polarization in the Malaysian electorate between those who want a Malaysian Malaysia and those who want a Malay Malaysia. This is a massive dilemma for the reform government.

A major part of the electorate sees reform as a threat to special privileges that they have received since the advent of the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action policy for the Malay majority, in 1971. Three generations of education and political narrative have created this sense of privilege, which is deeply engrained in rural Malays. These sentiments are being played upon politically to the point where the government has had to stall decisions about child marriage and reverse its decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

In addition, the Pakatan government is being subjected to pressure from sections of the Malaysian royalty, which led to the reversal in ratifying the Rome Statute, a prelude to joining the International Criminal Court, and the resignation of Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian.

The government now faces a situation in which any future policy decisions and reforms must be framed from a Bumiputera perspective and agreed in royal circles. This is particularly the case as the government is extremely slow with any electoral reform, which would effectively weaken opposition to policy reform, through adopting the principle of "one vote, one value." Without electoral reform, any policy reversals will favor the newly formed UNMO-PAS alliance with its narrative pandering to the rural Malay electorate.

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The Pakatan government needs to very quickly undertake electoral reform to counter the strength of the conservative electorate. Currently a rural vote can be worth anything up to four times an urban one. It is this imbalance that is providing UMNO-PAS with a powerful base from which to prevent the government pushing through any reform agenda.

However the latest news on electoral reform is that the Election Commission and UNDP will only make a joint study about the electoral system in the coming months, far too long for something that is threatening the very long-term livelihood of the government.

More of the same

With this inaction on electoral reform, it could be argued that the May 9 general election was not about vital reform needed in the country, but rather replacing one leadership group with another. In many respects the Pakatan government is acting just like its predecessor. The reform report handed down by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) has been suppressed by the Official Secrets Act, indicating the new government doesn't place a high priority on transparency.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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