People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 25

June 23, 2013



Malaysia Witnesses Political Polarisation


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE results of the closely contested general elections, held on May 5, have come as a stark revelation of the highly polarised nature of Malaysian politics. Though the united opposition won over 50 per cent of the votes, it could not even manage to secure a simple majority in the national legislature. Some 85 per cent of the country’s 13.3 million voters had turned out to cast their ballots in what was being described as a “watershed” election. The opposition coalition, the Peoples Alliance or Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the Malay language, was led by former deputy prime minister of the country, Anwar Ibrahim. It is a broadbased coalition, consisting of the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan) led by Ibrahim, the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the mildly Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).




Anwar Ibrahim wasted no time in alleging that the ruling coalition --- the Barisan National, which has been in power since the country gained independence in 1957 --- had indulged in massive fraud to stick on to power. In a speech delivered soon after the election results were announced, he said that the PR was denied a legitimate victory by “the mother of all frauds” and that now the battle was between “the people and an illegitimate, corrupt and arrogant government.” Despite getting a clear majority of the popular vote, the PR has not only lost the national elections but also the state elections which were concurrently held. The Barisan, led by Najib Razak, the prime minister, now controls 10 of the 13 Federal states in the country mainly due to gerrymandering of constituencies and money power. The PR leader has since toned down his rhetoric and is now mainly demanding that the Election Commission do an honest investigation into the complaints about serious electoral malpractices in key swing constituencies.


Anwar has been waging a political battle with the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the major partner in the ruling coalition, since his ouster from the party in 1999. Since the elections results were announced, the Keadilan leader has been organising large protest meetings. In the second week of May, opposition leaders announced the setting up of a “People’s Commission” to investigate the conduct of the elections. The opposition rallies all over Malaysia have attracted hundreds of thousands people, the majority of them being the youth, representing all Malaysian ethnic groupings. Anwar has also been appealing to the Obama administration for redress but Washington so far has refused to interfere in the “internal affairs” of Malaysia.


The Obama administration had no such compunctions while casting doubts on the transparent president elections that were conducted in Venezuela in March this year. The US is the only country that has not yet recognised the victory of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. Malaysia, on the other hand, is an ally of the US. Prime minister Najib has given his tacit backing to Obama’s “pivot to the East,” a barely disguised policy aimed at militarily encircling China. Najib’s tilt to the West, according to observers, was in a large part dictated by the need to neutralise the Obama administration’s growing sympathies with the opposition. Anwar Ibrahim is an unabashed free marketer and has gone out of his way to assure the West that there wouldn’t be any change in Malaysia’s foreign policy if the opposition was voted to power. 




The prime minister, while describing Anwar as a “poor loser,” has called for “national reconciliation.” But it may take some time for politics in the country to stabilise and the animosities that have been unleashed to abate. The Malaysian police have reported that there were more than 1400 violent incidents since the campaigning for the elections began. Most of the acts of violence were perpetrated by UMNO supporters.


As things stand, the political scenario does not look to rosy for the incumbent prime minister. He is the first prime minister in Malaysian politics to regain power with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Before the elections, he had promised UMNO that he would deliver a decisive mandate in favour of the ruling coalition and regain the two thirds majority it used to enjoy in parliament till five years ago. The Barisan eventually could get only 47 per cent of the votes. This was its worst performance since independence. It was only the gerrymandering of constituencies by the government which helped the ruling coalition to romp home with around 60 per cent of the 222 seats in parliament. There were several well publicised instances of vote buying and allowing migrant labour from neighbouring countries to vote in the closely contested seats. Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Singapore Management University, has, in an article “Buying Support: Najib’s Commercialisation of GE 13,” estimated that the prime minister had spent 19 billion dollars on election related incentives since taking office four years ago.   


The mainstream media gave only negative coverage to the opposition during the election campaign. The opposition had to resort to the social media to try and get its message through. Many people living in the rural areas still have very little access to the Internet. The print and electronic media, which are mainly under government control, published unsubstantiated stories, mainly of a homophobic nature, about the private lives of leading opposition figures. Engaging in homosexual acts is a criminal offence in Malaysia. Anwar had to spend five years in jail, being charged with the crime, during the tenure of the long serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed. Mahathir was well known for his authoritarian streak and brooked no dissent. Anwar had openly differed with the prime minister when the Asian economic crisis hit Malaysia by supporting the policies the IMF had prescribed. Anwar, who was being groomed to succeed Mahathir, has long professed that the sodomy and bribery charges against him were trumped up. He had recently said that he was “willing to forgive but not necessarily forget” his dismissal and imprisonment.




Since independence, Malaysia has had an authoritarian system of government albeit the parliamentary veneer. The Malaysian government has inherited the draconian laws left behind by the British colonialists. The British had handed over power to the Malay elite after brutally crushing the liberation struggle waged by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which is now banned. Trade union and left wing activism is actively discouraged by the UMNO led government. Some observers of the Malaysian political scene say it was the fear of retribution on the part of people like Mahathir that made UMNO go all out and ensure that Anwar was not allowed to become the prime minister. Mahathir, now in his late eighties, was very vocal during the campaign, urging his fellow Malays to ensure the dominance of UMNO in Malaysian politics. He campaigned against the opposition in the company of Malay chauvinistic organisations like the Perkasa, though UMNO has officially cut links with the group.


Mahathir was one of the key architects of the “Bumiputra” (sons of the soil) policy, which favours the Malay population in business, education and jobs to the detriment of the minority Chinese and Indian populations. The “New Economic Policy,” the code word for the discriminatory Bumiputra policies, had led to widespread corruption and cronyism among the Malay elite. Malaysia topped the list in the 2012 Annual Bribe Givers Survey. About 50 per cent of the companies surveyed said that they failed to get a contract as their rivals paid hefty bribes to politicians and government officials. Prime minister Najib had already dismantled the most glaring aspects of the policy but is wary of doing away with it completely for fear of hurting the entrenched Malay vested interests.


The opposition had promised to completely do away with the Bumiputra policy if elected to power, saying that not only was the policy discriminatory but also that it hurt Malaysia’s economy and competitiveness in the global market. As the election results showed, most of the minority votes went to the opposition coalition led by Anwar. The prime minister blamed the poor performance of his party because of what he termed as a “Chinese Tsunami” on election day. The Malay media has since unleashed a torrent of “Chinese bashing” stories, invariably describing the minority voters of being ungrateful towards the ruling coalition. It was for the first time that the Chinese votes had almost completely deserted the Barisan.


But as the leaders of the DAP note, it was not only the ethnic Chinese vote which deserted the ruling coalition. The majority of the urban voters, Malay, Indian and Chinese, also deserted the ruling coalition in droves this time. It was the rural Malay vote that helped the ruling coalition to narrowly retain its majority in parliament. The Chinese dominated DAP has more than doubled its seats in parliament this time, gaining seats from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a member of the ruling Barisan coalition. Malaysians of Chinese origin constitute more than 25 per cent of the population. Eight per cent of the population is of Indian origin.




The prime minister and UMNO are implicitly blaming the Malaysian Chinese for their electoral setback. This has dangerous portents. In the mid-sixties, the country witnessed serious ethnic strife as the Malays ran amok in May 1969 targeting the Chinese. The word “amok” has its roots in the Malay language. Hundreds of Chinese were killed in those riots and property worth millions destroyed. Mahathir then wrote his book, The Malay Dilemma (published in 1970), bemoaning Malay backwardness and the lack of opportunities for them in their own country. The next year government made its discriminatory policies official.


Not that has the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, emerged lily white from the elections. During the campaign, it tried through the social media to whip up anti-immigrant feelings, with its allegations that migrant workers from countries like Burma and Bangladesh were being recruited to vote in closely contested constituencies by the ruling party.


The dubious circumstances under which a narrow victory was achieved by the ruling coalition has not gone down well, not only with the Malaysian public but also with the power brokers in UMNO. Razak’s blaming the Chinese minority for the losses the Barisan has suffered in the elections has so far not succeeded in creating an anti-Chinese backlash or a Malay consolidation in favour of UMNO. The opposition has said that its protest rallies have shown that it was a truly Malaysian “tsunami” that shook the government in the recently conducted elections. Opposition leaders have been stressing that what the Malaysian public wants is an end to government sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race and the holding of genuinely fair and free elections.