An impasse in Malaysian politics?
Khoo Boo Teik
Is ‘impasse’ too strong a term to characterize the current political situation in Malaysia? After all, the Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition remains in power, conducting ‘business as usual’ without heeding the criticisms of the opposition. Still, the regime rules but with an unprecedented fear of losing power while the Pakatan Rakyat (PR, or People’s Alliance) opposition coalition has made great strides without being able to supplant the BN.
This situation arose after the 12th and 13th General Elections, respectively held in March 2008 and May 2013, cast the political system into what could be called a ‘tripartite division of power’. In Peninsular Malaysia, which has three-quarters of the parliamentary seats, BN and PR have about half the seats each, a deadlock likely to persist. That leaves a large number of small BN parties in Sabah and Sarawak holding the balance of power by controlling the majority of the remaining one quarter of the seats.
The regime’s parliamentary majority belies its deeper problems. First, BN lost the overall popular vote in May 2013: BN only obtained 47.4% to PR’s 50.8%. In fact, BN’s 46.2% of the popular vote was almost 8% less than PR’s 53.8% in Peninsular Malaysia which has the nation’s administrative, industrial, trading, and social centers (something resented, not unreasonably, by some people in Sabah and Sarawak).
Second, BN’s victory was substantially derived from its monopoly of state financial and administrative resources, and on constituency malapportionment and gerrymandering repeatedly crafted to favor BN and especially UMNO. These mattered in a ‘first-past-the-post system’: hence, the pronounced mismatch between (PR’s) winning the popular vote and (BN’s) winning the majority of seats.
Third, PR was not the sole mobilizer of opposition to the regime. Between the 12th and 13th General Elections, several dissenting social movements rose to demand different kinds of institutional and political reforms. They became PR’s natural allies when the regime chose to respond to rising dissent with repressive, high-handed rebuffs rather than reform.
Fourth, two kinds of social divides were discernible from the 13th General Election. One was a rural-urban divide: PR won most of the large urban constituencies while UMNO-BN took most of the small rural constituencies. Although the regime has long been embedded in the rural constituencies, 40 years of structural change and social development have shifted the loci of socio-economic activity to the towns and cities. Another divide appears to be ethnic: non-Malay (and particularly Chinese) voters staunchly supported PR but more Malays backed UMNO-BN. Since May 2013, the regime has desperately tried to preserve its Malay support even it meant alienating the non-Malays further. In that, the regime shows no understanding why the non-Malays, who saved the regime in the General Election of 1999 and strongly supported it in 2004, should have so massively turned against it from 2008 onwards.
Fifth, it is self-defeating for the regime to continue along that ethnic direction primarily because its biggest challenge comes from Malay dissent and opposition. The social engineering of the New Economic Policy (NEP) was meant to incubate an ‘indigenous commercial and industrial community’. Its unplanned product was an axis of Malay state (bureaucrats in charge of economic regulation, resource allocation and investment), Malay dominant party (UMNO’s high-ranking leaders), and Malay capitalist class. As different coalitions along this axis (in alliance with various non-Malay tycoons) competed for state projects, subsidies, assistance, etc., ‘New Malay’ elites captured the NEP and directed benefits upwards towards themselves. On the one hand, this trend intensified factionalism within UMNO. On the other hand, other middle-class, urban, professional, and younger ‘New Malays’ responded by forming a new social base of dissent that opposes rampant corruption and abuse of power. Their iconic figure is ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who has been jailed, harassed and threatened with imprisonment again since he was sacked by Mahathir Mohamad in September 1998.
In short, Malay society having been transformed, the parameters of political dissent have been changed, too. This was abundantly clear from the experience of Parti Islam (PAS, or the Islamic Party). Its rivalry with UMNO is no longer largely conceived in theological terms. Indeed, PAS has performed better in general elections when it was less Islamic and connected with other streams of dissent. With changing conditions for mobilization and contestation, PAS and the PR parties have striven to reinvent themselves.
It has not been so with UMNO and BN. The former’s mission has been changed from ‘Malay nationalism’ to ‘Malay capitalism’. Its leadership, enjoying a seemingly guaranteed tenure, has neither incentive nor inventiveness to respond creatively as its hegemony cracks. The latter is compelled by UMNO’s preoccupation with ‘Malay supremacy’ to persist with an old mold of ethnic politics that is threatened with obsolescence by a recalcitrant electorate.
This, then, is the impasse: the regime rules with diminishing legitimacy, but the opposition’s rising popularity has not brought it closer to power. Will this impasse in politics obstruct economic advance beyond what has been achieved? A short commentary can only reply by asking another question: Can a regime that alienates most of its middle classes supply the policies, measures and initiatives needed to avoid the so-called ‘middle income trap’?