General elections were held in Malaysia on May 5, 2013. All 222 seats of the lower house of the Malaysian Parliament, the Dewan Rekyat (House of Representatives) were up for reelection. The lower house’s 222 members are elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy which operates, in theory, on the basis of the Westminster System. The monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (often referred to as ‘King’), is elected to a five-year term by the Conference of Rulers, a council made up of the traditional Malay rulers of the nine (out of 13) Malaysian states with a monarch. This makes Malaysia one of the few elective monarchies in the world. In practice, the King’s powers are largely ceremonial: he appoints the Prime Minister, dissolves the lower house, grants royal assent to bills and nominates most members of the upper house (Dewan Negara) on the advice of the Prime Minister. As in other Westminster countries, true executive power is vested in the Prime Minister and his government.
The upper house of the Parliament, the Dewan Negara (Senate) is composed of 26 members elected by the state legislatures and 44 members appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister (including four representatives which represent the three federal territories, including Kuala Lumpur). The Dewan Negara has very limited powers. Although both houses of Parliament must pass a bill before it is presented to the monarch for royal assent, the Dewan Negara cannot veto a bill and may only delay passage of the bill (by up to a year). Similarly, the The monarch cannot veto legislation, he may only ask the Parliament to reconsider bills before granting royal assent.
Malaysia is a federation, albeit a very centralized one. It is divided into thirteen states, nine of which have a traditional Malay monarch. The eleven ‘mainland’ states only have exclusive powers over land tenure, the Islamic religion and local government. The states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo have additional powers, including special powers over immigration – Malaysian citizens from the mainland require a passport to enter these two states for a protracted period of time. Each state has a state legislative assembly, whose members are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies, and a Chief Minister who serves as the head of the state executive. Twelve of the thirteen states (all except Sarawak, which voted in 2011) also held state elections on May 5.
Malaysia is, theoretically, a parliamentary democracy. In practice, Malaysian politics since independence (in 1957) have been dominated by a single alliance (itself heavily dominated by a single party); in turn, this ruling alliance has used the levers of power to control politics and set the rules of the game. The Electoral Commission is widely seen as being subservient to the governing alliance, which has used gerrymandering, vote fraud, phantom voters and intimidation to maintain its power over the years. The Prime Minister and his government are all-powerful, reducing the Parliament to an echo chamber which rubber stamps the government’s bills without asking too many questions.
Race, Identity and Ethnicity: The Core of Malaysian Politics and Society
The keys to understanding Malaysian politics and society are race, ethnicity and identity.
67% of the Malaysian population are officially referred to as Bumiputra, most of them ethnic Malays. According to Article 160 of the Malaysian constitution, Malays are Muslim, speak the Malay language and “conform to Malay culture”. The native indigenous population (‘tribes’) of Sabah and Sarawak on North Borneo are also treated as bumiputra for official purposes; however, the small Orang Asli indigenous population in Malaya are not treated as bumiputra and suffer from discrimination.
The bumiputra receive preferential treatment and have benefited from racially-based affirmative action programs. Article 153 of the constitution safeguards the “special position” of the bumiputras and establishes quotas for them in the federal public service, federal education scholarships, tertiary education enrollment and federal trade and business licenses.
About 25% of the population are Chinese, who came to Malaysia in three waves. The earliest Chinese immigrants settled in the Straits (Malacca) region in the 15th and 16th centuries, but most immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries as coolies. The second wave of immigration was encouraged by Malaya’s British colonial rulers, who used the Chinese to work in tin mines and rubber plantations. While most arrived poor, the Chinese population rapidly gained prominence in trade and business (banking, insurance) to the point that the Chinese formed Malaysia’s economic and business elite around the time of independence.
7% of the population is Indian. Indians have been living in Malaysia for hundreds of years, but the largest wave of immigration came alongside the second wave of Chinese immigration when Malaya became a profitable British possession. The Indians – most of them Tamil – were imported as indentured labourers to work on rubber plantations. Perhaps not to the extent of the Chinese, Indians in Malaysia are nonetheless fairly economically powerful in the county. They are particularly over-represented in healthcare (doctors etc).
Malay society had difficulty coping with Chinese immigrants, who they viewed as a threat to their majority status, their religion and the Malay language. British colonial rule generally protected Malays, recognizing the authority of traditional rulers (Sultans) over customary law and religion (although they were generally powerless against the British authorities), and their policies purportedly favoured the Malays (public education for Malays, limited preference in the civil service). These ostensibly ‘pro-Malay’ policies, however, only benefited to a small elite and they were used by the British to protect their power rather than favour the Malays.
Nevertheless, Malay nationalism became important in the early twentieth century, in part a response to the fears bred by Chinese and Indian immigration and the perceived threat they posed to the Malay people. In 1946, the British created the Malayan Union, transforming all of Malaya (peninsular modern Malaysia) into a protectorate which reduced the sovereignty of the traditional rulers. Furthermore, the new structure wished to extend citizenship (by way of jus soli) to all Malayans, including the Chinese and Indian. The creation of the Malayan Union boosted the cause of Malay nationalism.
In the years before independence, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a Malay nationalist party founded in 1946, had become the dominant political force in Malaya. The UMNO represented a conservative and elitist brand of Malay nationalism, primarily concerned with Malayan independence (unlike some on the left who supported a Greater Indonesia), protecting the traditional Malay rulers (Sultans), promoting and upholding Malay supremacy (Ketuanan Melayu). The UMNO had opposed Britain’s formation of the quasi-colonial Malayan Union in 1946, and the UMNO’s opposition pressured the British to dissolve this short-lived scheme in 1948 to create the Federation of Malaya, which restored the powers of the traditional rulers. The UMNO’s support had also been crucial to Britain during the most violent part of the Malayan Emergency (a predominantly Chinese Communist insurgency between 1948 and 1960). The Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957.
Independence involved a “contract” between the Malays and non-Malays. Citizenship, and by extension equality under the law, was extended to all residents regardless of race/ethnicity, and the constitution prohibited discrimination on racial grounds (except for Article 153). The Malay nationalists dropped the most problematic “Malay supremacist” aspects of Ketuanan Melayu. In return, non-Malays acquiesced to Article 153 and other elements which defined the new nation as an officially multi-racial but clearly Malay-led and dominated country (Malay as the official language, Islam as the official religion). Therefore, the non-Malays agreed to alleviate the inequalities in economic power between Malays and non-Malays (the latter controlled the bulk of the economy) and recognize the Malay nature of the new state in exchange for citizenship and equality.
The UMNO formed a parochial and sectarian coalition, the Alliance, with the Malaysian Chinese Alliance (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The MCA had been founded in 1949 by conservative Chinese linked to the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT); they strongly opposed the Communist Party which was predominantly Chinese in its ethnic makeup. The MIC was founded in 1946. The UMNO, MCA and MIC found common cause in opposing British rule and supporting independence. The MCA and MIC agreed to the aforementioned “contract” between Malays and non-Malays, which they and UMNO argued was the only way to ensure racial peace in the country. At the time of independence, most non-Malays accepted the constitutional compromise. Many felt that Article 153 would only be a temporary measure, as it had been originally envisioned by the British commission which drafted the text. Besides, the MCA and MIC felt that the “contract” was a fair trade-off – jus soli citizenship was seen as a major concession by the Malays.
The Alliance (UMNO in particular) was the dominant political force in the last elections before independence, and it came to dominate the politics of the new country after independence in 1957. One of the main opposition parties was the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a Malay Islamist party. The PAS was founded in 1956, the successor of Islamist Malay nationalist movements which placed Malay nationalism in a Pan-Islamist context. Although UMNO has sometimes played up its Islamic credentials, the UMNO generally adheres to what it has called Islam Hadhari (‘civilizational Islam’) which is more moderate.
Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore merged with peninsular Malaya to create Malaysia in 1963. Article 153’s protection for ethnic Malays were included to cover Sabah and Sarawak natives (Kadazan-Dusun, Iban etc) even if many of them were animists or Christians rather than Muslims. The merger with Singapore, which was heavily Chinese, heightened tensions in the new federation. Malays feared that they were closer and closer to becoming a minority in ‘their’ country and felt that the merger with Singapore would further worsen their existing economic disadvantage vis-a-vis the Chinese. At the same time, Malay dominance was confirmed with an education reform in 1961 which decreed that only Malay and English would be the languages of instruction in secondary schools, and although communities could maintain Chinese and Tamil primary schools, all students needed to learn Malay and conform to a “Malayan curriculum”. The entry exam for the University of Malaya would be in Malay, even if most courses at the institution were in English.
Singapore’s Chief Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, became a vocal critic of Ketuanan Melayu and promoted an idea of “Malaysian Malaysia” which was anathema to most of the UMNO but which also opposed by the MCA. Lee’s vocal opposition to Malay supremacy heightened and radicalized racial tensions and quickly led to a break in relations between the UMNO and Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP). The non-aggression pact between the two parties was broken when the UMNO ran in the 1963 elections in Singapore and when the PAP ran candidates on the mainland in the 1964 Malaysian election. In both cases, the UMNO and PAP’s attempts to encroach on the other side’s turf ended as massive failures, but the break led to a major deterioration in the situation. Eventually, Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.
In the 1969 elections, the Alliance – particularly the MCA – suffered heavily loses, winning only 45% of the vote although they retained their parliamentary supremacy. The PAS and two new predominantly Chinese parties – the liberal Gerakan and the left-leaning Democratic Action Party (DAP, the Malaysian branch of the Singaporean PAP) – made major gains. A Gerakan-DAP victory rally turned rowdy as the Chinese crowds taunted Malay bystanders and hurled racial epithets at them. The next day, angry Malay crowds burned over 6000 Chinese homes and businesses and killed 184 people. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended the newly-elected Parliament, leading to direct rule by the executive branch. At the same time, UMNO hardliners (ultras) who had a more racially exclusive and radical view of Malay supremacy, clamored for Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation – they viewed the ‘father of independence’ as being too soft on non-Malays. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had been in office since independence, resigned in late 1970 in favour of Tun Abdul Razak, who welcomed the UMNO ultras – such as future Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – back into the party.
The government, ruling with emergency powers, stepped up repressive measures. It strengthened the old Internal Security Act (ISA), which gave the state broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being a threat to national security for up to 60 days and gave the minister authority to detain individuals for up to two years without trial. It amended the Sedition Act, which bans and criminalizes “seditious” discourse. The Sedition Act also bans any public discourse which questions Article 153 and other “matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative” established by the constitution. The Sedition Act acts as a ‘gag law’ which prevents MPs from debating Article 153.
Tun Abdul Razak’s premiership was defined by the New Economic Policy (NEP), a racially-based affirmative action program aimed at correcting the socioeconomic disparity between the Chinese and Malays. In 1971, the bumiputra controlled only 2.4% of the economy, the NEP set a 30% target. The NEP went beyond Article 153, expanding preferential policies to the entire economy. Malays are entitled to a 7% discount on propert, regardless of their income (lower-income non-Malays receive no such discounts). There were quotas for bumiputra students in post-secondary institutions until 2002. Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange must have 30% Malay ownership; a number of profitable government-run mutual funds are available to bumiputra buyers only; most government tenders require that companies submitting tenders be bumiputra owned; and bumiputra have preferential access to imported cars. Unlike Article 153, the NEP represented direct state intervention into the economy to promote and enhance Malay privilege.
Parliament reconvened in 1971, and the Alliance was reformed as the Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) in 1973. The BN was an expanded coalition which included the liberal Chinese Gerakan and the Islamist Malay PAS, although PAS left the coalition in 1978. Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak died in 1976 and was succeeded by Hussein Onn. Hussein Onn resigned due to ill health in 1981, and he was succeeded by his Deputy Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, a prominent ‘ultra’ within UMNO.
Mahathir’s long premiership marked the cementing of Malay-UMNO hegemony and an autocratic, corrupt and centralist regime. Mahathir inherited the NEP and continued affirmative action policies. Economically, the country experienced solid economic growth in the 1980s (except 1985-1986), in part thanks to the government’s policies. It sought to protect Malaysian industry, like a nascent auto industry, through protective tariffs. At the same time, it privatized a number of state-owned companies at home – these privatizations were often murky and enriched government supporters.
Mahathir faced challenges to his leadership and to Malay hegemony in 1987. Within UMNO, Mahathir had made enemies and he was challenged by an old rival, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, for the party’s leadership in 1987. Ultimately, Mahathir’s faction – styled ‘Team A’ – prevailed over Razaleigh by a hair, but the party split into two factions. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear Razaleigh’s appeal of a lower court’s decision (which, by declaring UMNO an illegal organization due to some branches not being formally registered, allowed Mahathir to create a new UMNO which the old UMNO’s assets with it), the government proceeded to sack the chief justice and other judges and removed the court’s power to conduct judicial review. In the 1990 election, Razaleigh’s dissident party – supported by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn – did not pose a serious threat to the BN-UMNO’s power, it won only 15% and 8 seats
At the same time, the government’s decision to appoint non-Chinese speakers to administer Chinese schools provoked an outcry from the Chinese community – including the MCA and Gerakan (UMNO’s two coalition allies). Inflammatory rhetoric swelled on both sides, with UMNO radicals threatening violence and bloodshed. The government responded heavy-handedly, invoking the ISA to arrest opposition leaders.
The NEP expired in 1990. The NEP had fallen short of its 30% target, but Malay control of the country’s economy increased substantially from 2% in 197o to 20% in 1990. Supporters of the NEP credit it with correcting socioeconomic disparities, reducing poverty and increasing the wealth of Malays without negatively affecting Chinese and Indian Malaysians. However, the NEP and subsequent forms of affirmative actions have been widely criticized for having reduced non-Malays to ‘second class citizens’. Furthermore, while the NEP created a new class of Malay businessmen and millionaires, it was in good part due to cronyism. Economic benefits, critics charged, accrued only to the politically connected and widened the gap between rich and poor Malays. The government continued most of the NEP’s policies with the National Development Policy (NDP).
Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth in the late 80s and early 90s (9-10% GDP growth), which continued until the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Most of the credit for the economic growth in the 90s went to Anwar Ibrahim, a former Islamic student leader who had risen to become finance minister (in 1991) and Deputy Prime Minister (in 1993). With Anwar, the government cut corporate taxes and liberalized laws to attract foreign investment. The early 90s were also a period of political liberalization and detente in tense racial relations. The government toned down the old Ketuanan Melayu rhetoric and spoke of reconciliation and common destinies in a multi-racial country.
When the Asian financial crisis hit the country in 1997, Anwar supported the IMF’s austerity policies (spending cuts, raising interest rates). Feeling that Anwar’s policies had exacerbated the crisis, Mahathir sacked Anwar and dropped the IMF’s policies. Anwar was ambitious and started posing a threat to Mahathir’s control of UMNO. Indeed, Anwar and his supporters had started speaking out to denounce (widespread) corruption and cronyism in the ruling party. Anwar was arrested and detained under the ISA in September 1998. In April 1999, he was sentenced to six years in jail for corruption. Two months later, he was charged with sodomy and sentenced to nine years in jail. The two sentences would be served consecutively.
In 1999, an opposition coalition (Barisan Alternatif) formed by the DAP, the PAS and a new party led by Anwar’s wife won 40% of the vote against 56.5% for the BN.
Mahathir stepped down in 2003, handing over power to his anointed successor and Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi. On an appealing anti-corruption platform, the new Prime Minister won a landslide over a divided opposition in the 2004 election, winning 90% of the seats in the lower house.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was released from prison in 2004, after the sodomy verdict was partially overturned. Anwar was still banned from participating in politics for another five years, since Malaysian law bans political activity for a period of five years after the end of a sentence.
Affirmative action policies in education were replaced by “Malaysian meritocracy” in 2003. While the government argued that its new policy gave every Malaysian, regardless of race, equal access to post-secondary education, critics argued that the new ‘meritocracy’ was sham because admission to university is based on two parallel examination systems (a one-year course or a two-year course), which in practice favours bumiputra students who are disproportionately enrolled in the easier one-year program (matriculation). Continuing the trend started under Mahathir in the 1990s, the government’s rhetoric generally became more multi-racial, emphasizing Malaysian “nationhood” rather than purely Malay culture has it had in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abdullah Badawi was a fairly ineffective Prime Minister, and he faced heavy criticism from his predecessor, who remained active in the background. The opposition made historic gains in the 2008 election, winning 82 seats in the 222-seat lower house. For the first time, the BN lost its two-thirds majority which had allowed it to change the constitution. Anwar Ibrahim was still ineligible when the 2008 election was held, in March, but he returned to Parliament in August 2008 after easily winning a by-election in his old constituency, held by his wife. Anwar faced new sodomy allegations in June 2008, but the court finally found him not guilty in January 2012. Like in the first sodomy trial in 1999, Anwar has maintained his innocence and denounced the charges as being politically motivated. The international community, which holds Anwar in high regard, has been critical of the government’s alleged intervention in the trials.
Abdullah Badawi, pressured by Mahathir and other UMNO leaders, was forced out of office in April 2009 and replaced by Najib Razak, his Deputy Prime Minister who had held various portfolios since the 1990s.
Najib Razak has styled himself as a modern, progressive reformer who has sought to downplay old ethnic tensions, liberalize the economy and loosen some of the old restrictive laws.
Najib introduced wide-reaching economic reforms, aimed at attracting more foreign investment and modernizing the economy. The old minimum quota for Malay ownership in publicly traded companies was lowered from 30% to 12.5%, while additional reforms loosened rules on foreign investment (allowing foreign investors to hold majority stakes in most enterprises). Najib’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a high-income economy by 2020, seeks to boost private enterprise. The government has also implemented wide-reaching reforms to the country’s government subsidies program, either cutting subsidies or eliminating them entirely as was the case for petrol, diesel and sugar subsidies. Malaysia’s economy is growing by around 5% per year.
Najib’s government has pushed forward a fairly ambitious agenda of political transformation, aimed at dismantling repressive security laws which had allowed the BN/UMNO to maintain its hegemony in the past. In 2012, the government repealed the ISA, which had given previous governments wide powers to detain their opponents on flimsy political grounds. It has been replaced by a law which still allows detention for preventive reasons, but for a shorter period of time and on stricter grounds (subject to judicial oversight). The Banishment Act, which allowed the government to deport any non-citizens which it deemed to be a threat to the country, was repealed. The Print and Publications Act was amended so that media organizations no longer need to renew their license every year, which the government argues will make for a freer media. The Universities and University Colleges Act, which had banned students from joining political parties and engaging in political parties, has been amended to allow students to join political parties. Yet it still prevents them from engaging in partisan activities on campus. Moreover, any student can still be barred from joining any organisation that the university deems to be “unsuitable to [his] interests and well-being”. Finally, the government has announced that it will repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with a “National Harmony Act”, although the contents of the new bill are still unknown.
The opposition has tended to be cautiously optimistic about these developments, but they have lamented that some of Najib’s ‘major’ reforms might be little more than cosmetic changes. For example, in July 2011, protesters who demanded electoral transparency were met with tear gas and water cannons. Furthermore, the opposition claims that UMNO itself is unreconstructed, with a strong conservative Malay base which blocks any attempts for more radical changes (such as dismantling affirmative action/NEP).
Najib leads the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), the governing alliance of parochial and sectarian-based parties which has governed Malaysia since 1957 and took its current name in 1973. UMNO is, by far, the hegemonic force in the BN equation, dominating all of its junior partners and imposing its direction and agenda on the rest of the coalition.
The UMNO needs no presentation. The three other main national players in the BN are the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Gerakan (Malaysian People’s Movement Party) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The first two cater to the Chinese electorate, while the later represents Indians; however, in both cases, their legitimacy and support with their intended electorate has been badly weakened by their subordination to the Malay UMNO. Furthermore, all parties have been crippled by years of infighting which have left them pretty much entirely useless. Nevertheless, the MCA remains pretty influential outside of politics – it controls Malaysia’s best-selling English daily newspaper, The Star, and also controls a major Chinese newspaper.
The BN includes nine other parties in addition to the four aforementioned parties, and all but one of them are regional parties based in Sabah or Sarawak – and once again, they mostly represent specific ethnic groups. In Sarawak, UMNO does not run candidates and the political scene is entirely dominated by various regional parties affiliated to the BN – notably Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), which has governed governed the region continuously since the party’s creation in 1973.
The opposition is a three-party coalition known as Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance, PR). The PR was founded before the 2008 election, in the footsteps of a quasi-identical opposition coalition which did quite well in the 1999 election but collapsed before the 2004 election. The PR is made up of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
The PKR is Anwar Ibrahim’s party, founded in 1999 after Anwar’s expulsion from UMNO. Although the PKR’s leadership and clientele is largely Malay, it is probably one of the most multi-racial parties in the very racially polarized world of Malaysian politics. PKR largely focuses on corruption, ‘change’, social justice and democratic reform; a platform which tends to appeal to young secular and/or afffluent urban Malay voters, notably in Kuala Lumpur. Critics often deride the PKR as a family business: Anwar is the parliamentary leader; the party’s president is Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail; Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar is a PKR MP in Kuala Lumpur.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP) was founded in 1965 as the Malaysian branch of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. Whereas the PAP has shifted from socialism to conservative free-market economics, the DAP has remained a left-leaning social democratic party and a member of the Socialist International. The DAP is a predominantly Chinese party, and finds most support in Chinese constituencies (notably in Kuala Lumpur or the Chinese-plurality state of Penang); although it has a few Indian MPs and leaders. Having consistently been in opposition to UMNO since the ill-fated 1969 election, the DAP strongly opposes pro-Malay affirmative action policies (the NEP) and adheres to the 1960s idea of ‘Malaysian Malaysia’, developed by the PAP’s Lee Kuan Yew. The DAP has been accused of racism and chauvinism by the governing parties.
The PAS, as briefly described above, was founded in 1956 as the successor of Islamist Malay nationalist movements which placed Malay nationalism in a Pan-Islamist context. The PAS ostensibly seeks to establish an Islamic state or at least a state structured around Islamic religious law and traditions, but it has tended to moderate its Islamism because of its alliance with the DAP and PKR. However, unlike both of those parties, it has kept silent about affirmative action policies. Because of its alliance with the Chinese DAP and the secular PKR, some Islamic clerics and leaders – a few of which are affiliated to the BN – have been critical of the PAS, which they claim has lost touch with their Islamic values.
Both parties led relatively similar campaigns, both pledging to reduce the cost of living, invest more in social programs (such as healthcare, education, public housing) and crack down on corruption.
The government spent the few months before the election doling out the goodies: various public works projects (in marginal constituencies…), cash handouts for poorer families, pay raises for civil servants and promises of affordable housing or new highways.
The main difference between the BN and PR was affirmative action. The PR, specifically the PKR and DAP (the PAS remained silent), pledged to dismantle affirmative action policies (the NEP) which have favoured Malays and other bumiputra. The opposition, claiming that the NEP has been perverted, it has ended up favouring a select few with little trickle-down effect to other Malays and it has dulled their incentives to excel; they wish to replace the NEP by a real meritocracy, which they claim would encourage Malays to excel and leveling the playing field. The government’s official discourse, in recent years, has been less openly Malay nationalist than in the past (although many UMNO hardliners continue to talk in tones of Ketuanan Melayu). It still opposes doing away with affirmative action entirely, arguing that significant gaps between the ethnic groups still exist. At times, some UMNO leaders – including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – have lamented that some Malays have treated their privileges as a right and neglected their studies. The government has also spearheaded a massive promotional/PR campaign, 1Malaysia, stressing national unity and the country’s multi-racial identity. The opposition has said that 1Malaysia is nothing but another gimmick by the BN; keeping in line with the Malaysian tradition of politicians accusing their opponents of being Israeli lackeys and spies, Anwar said something about 1Malaysia being inspired by an Israeli campaign (One Israel was Ehud Barak’s political coalition in 1999).
BN very much ran two parallel campaigns, reflecting UMNO’s long-standing mastery of political communication. On the one hand, Najib targeted urban and secular voters by presenting himself as a modern and progressive reformer who has been boldly modernizing Malaysian politics since 2009. On the other hand, in rural Malay areas, UMNO ran a whole other campaign – one designed to scare Malay voters away from PR and reassuring its conservative and ethnonationalist grassroots that UMNO will continue to champion Malay rights. UMNO, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has campaigned alongside the Malay nationalist (many critics would say racist and extremist) Perkasa organization. In its time-honoured strategy of playing races against one another, UMNO tried to warn Chinese voters from voting for the opposition by saying that the PAS would impose Islamic law on the Chinese and that dismantling affirmative action would spark race riots like in 1969 (UMNO has often used the threat of race riots to justify the NEP and affirmative action). At the same time, a former PAS cleric now associated with the governing alliance exhorted Muslims (Malays) to vote for BN, saying – bluntly – that an opposition victory would mean “equal rights for all”.
Turnout was 84.84%, the highest turnout in decades (according to IDEA’s data). The results were:
Barisan Nasional 47.83% (-2.44%) winning 133 seats (-7)
UMNO 29.32% winning 88 seats (+9)
PBB (Sarawak) 2.10% winning 14 seats (nc)
MCA 8.14% winning 7 seats (-8)
PRS (Sarawak) 0.54% winning 6 seats (nc)
MIC 2.64% winning 4 seats (+1)
PBS (Sabah) 0.8% winning 4 seats (+1)
SPDP (Sarawak) 0.5% winning 4 seats (nc)
UPKO (Sabah) 0.6% winning 3 seats (-1)
Gerakan 1.38% winning 1 seat (-1)
SUPP (Sarawak) 1.21% winning 1 seat (-5)
PBRS (Sabah) 0.08% winning 1 seat (nc)
PPP 0.07% winning 1 seat (nc)
LDP (Sabah) winning 0 seats (-1)
Pakatan Rakyat 50.87% (+4.12%) winning 89 seats (+7)
DAP 15.71% winning 38 seats (+10)
PKR 20.39% winning 30 seats (-1)
PAS 14.77% winning 21 seats (-2)
Independents 1.75% winning 0 seats (nc)
The governing alliance, in power since Malaysian independence in 1957, was reelected to yet another term in office. It was, however, as The Economist put it rather eloquently “a tawdry victory”. Indeed, the BN was reelected and holds about 59% of the seats in the new Parliament, but it was also the BN’s worst result in its existence – even worse than the previous record low, set in the last election in 2008. In fact, the BN actually lost the popular vote to the opposition, winning only 47.8% of the vote against 50.9% for the PR.
Therefore, the government lost the election with only 48% of the vote but won nearly 60% of the seats in the Parliament; a result which reflects the extent of malapportionment and gerrymandering in Malaysia, which have given the BN a structural advantage going into any election. Constituencies boundaries are gerrymandered as to give an advantage to the governing alliance. However, the bigger issue is malapportionment – the states which favour the governing alliance are overrepresented, as are the rural Malay seats where the UMNO has strong support. For example, the most populous state in the country, Selangor (5.4 million), which also happens to be an opposition base, has 22 seats. Sarawak, which has a population of 2.4 million, elects 31 MPs. Similarly, the states of Johor (3.2 million), Sabah (3.1 million) and Perak (2.2 million) all return more MPs than Selangor despite having a substantially smaller population. These four aforementioned states also tend to be government strongholds, particularly the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The largest swings in this election came from Chinese constituencies. Whereas the opposition parties had won about 55-56% of the vote in predominantly Chinese constituencies (constituencies where both candidates are from Chinese parties) in the 2008 election, they won 64% of the vote and took all but 5 of the 45 seats in which both BN and PR candidates came from the Chinese parties. While UMNO’s vote held its popular vote from the last election and actually won 9 more seats than in the 2008 election, the Chinese parties of BN (MCA, Gerakan, SUPP) suffered the brunt of the coalition’s loses – as had already been the case in 2008 (the MCA already lost 16 seats in 2008, while Gerakan had lost 8 seats then). Similarly, the Chinese DAP was the opposition party which gained the most – it gained 10 seats and its share of the popular vote increased from 13.8% to 15.7% (the PKR’s vote increased from 18.6% to 20.4%, the PAS vote barely increased). At the state level, the PR also made sizable gains in Johor, where the Chinese vote had held up better for the government in 2008 than it had in Penang. The DAP won 4 seats in the state, up from only one in 2008. In the state legislature, the DAP won 13 seats – up from only 4 in 2008. The opposition’s campaign focused on scrapping affirmative action policies clearly appealed to the vast majority of Chinese voters. The obliteration – for the second time in a row – of the BN’s Chinese parties (MCA, Gerakan) places their mere existence into jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the result was a bit disappointing for Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition. They had really felt that they could actually win this election, and they had gone all-in to win it. Anwar even put his own political career on the line. The opposition did win the popular vote, but they only gained seven seats – and all of these gains were made by the DAP with the Chinese vote.
The two “Malay parties” of the PR – PKR and PAS – actually lost seats. The PAS suffered rather major setbacks in Kedah, where the BN/UMNO regained control of the state government which it had lost to PAS in 2008 (overall, PAS lost 7 seats in the state legislature, all to BN; it lost all but one of its six federal MPs); and in Kelantan, the PAS stronghold, where the BN (UMNO) gained 5 seats in the state legislature from the Islamist party. It definitely appears as if the UMNO’s “parallel” campaign in rural Malay areas, playing on ethnic/racial fears and stoking Malay nationalist sentiments, worked out quite well for the party – far more than the 1Malaysia/Najib-the-progressive-reformer stuff did in urban and Chinese areas.
The PR failed to make the gains it would have needed in rural Malay/bumiputra seats in peninsular Malaya and, more importantly, in Sabah and Sarawak. In the two oil-rich Borneo states, both real BN strongholds, the DAP gained urban Chinese constituencies but the PKR and PAS failed to gain the rural seats.
The PR is quite bitter over the loss of these seats, claiming that it lost marginal Malay constituencies because of the BN’s dirty tricks and its generous distribution of goodies (free food, drink, straight cash and even raffling cars; voters in Penang also got a performance of Gangnam Style from PSY himself at a BN rally!). Anwar has said that his coalition considers the election fraudulent and that the election commission failed (again). The opposition also claimed that the government brought it workers from Bangladesh to vote for them. This claim might appear a bit extraneous, but there was a big scandal in Sabah a few years ago where the government gave Malaysian ID cards to many foreigners/immigrants in return for their votes (there is currently a Royal Commission investigating the subject).
At the state level, the BN won 275 state legislators against 229 for the opposition (once again, the BN-ruled states tend to have a slightly larger state legislature; and Sarawak, a BN stronghold, did not hold state elections). The opposition (PAS) lost the state of Kedah, which it had gained from the BN in the last election. However, the opposition parties now have a stranglehold on the three states they still govern – urban Selangor (Kuala Lumpur is a federal territory enclaved within the state, but federal territories have no elected legislature), where they have 79% of the seats; Chinese-plurality Penang where they hold a three-quarters majority and the Islamist stronghold of Kelantan where the opposition still holds a 73% majority (smaller, as noted above, than in 2008). They came within two seats of winning a majority in Terengganu, which had been governed by the PAS between 1959 and 1961 and again between 1999 and 2004. The opposition also made substantial gains in Johor (+12) and Sabah (+10), although the BN is still firmly in control in both states, especially in Sabah where they still hold 80% of the seats despite losing 10 seats! The opposition lost ground, substantially, in Kedah and Kelantan, and lost one seat in Negeri Sembilan (once again, the DAP gained but the Malay PKR and PAS lost ground).
The opposition’s support is threefold: a large urban element, an ever larger Chinese element and a slightly smaller conservative Islamic element in some states. The urban middle-classes, including many urban Malays, are generally more concerned about corruption, good governance and cost of living rather than the BN’s old play on racial and religious identities. The opposition won all but two of Kuala Lumpur’s 11 MPs and it swept the extensively urbanized state of Selangor. Given that the Chinese population tends to be mostly urban, the two elements tend to go hand in hand. The opposition swept the urban Chinese vote in Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Ipoh, Malacca and Johor. There is also an element of conservative Islamic support in the opposition’s coalition. The Islamic party has tended to be quite powerful in Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu – three relatively rural Malay states. The conservative Islamic tradition in those states is perhaps due to their status under British colonial rule prior to 1946 – these states, along with Johor and tiny Perlis, formed the ‘Unfederated Malay States’ – British protectorates but British rule over these states was less direct than in the Federated Malay States (Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan).
These results could place Prime Minister Najib Razak is a difficult position, similar to how his predecessor (Badawi) was forced to resign after the BN’s loses in the 2008 election. Most UMNO hardliners never liked Najib to begin with and only halfheartedly backed his reformist and moderate agenda in the hopes that they would allow the BN to win this election. While the BN did win the election, many UMNO hardliners might turn on Najib given the loses incurred by the BN. The UMNO, including Najib, has already blamed the government’s loses on a “Chinese wave” (analysts say it was more of a “urban wave” than anything else) for the opposition. The hardliners, like in 1969, will probably look to oust Najib – perceived as too soft and moderate – and restructure the governing coalition as a defender of Malay interests. Their argument is that Najib’s reformism and moderation on racial affairs failed as the Chinese vote still went to the opposition in droves. Anyhow, the BN is now basically an exclusively Malay affair – the MCA was decimated, and the UMNO and its various Sabah/Sarawak playthings are even more hegemonic within the coalition. It can no longer seriously and legitimately claim that it is a national coalition when it has become an ethnic Malay party. There is no longer substantial Chinese acquiescence for UMNO’s policies, a role which had been played by the MCA and Gerakan in the past.
The BN won another term in office, the preordained result of every Malaysian election since independence; but the result shows that the governing coalition is really nearing the end of its hegemony. It was kept in office thanks to its time-honoured ability to play on ethnic/racial sentiments and appeal to Malay nationalism; but above all only by the simple fact that the electoral system is basically rigged in its favour because of gross malapportionment.
Malaysia is as ethnically polarized as ever, with a quasi-homogeneously Malay governing alliance and an opposition with a distinctively Chinese character. If Najib is able to hold his chair against his party’s hardliners, he might choose to continue his reformist policies; if he is replaced by somebody closer to UMNO’s Malay nationalist hardliners, then the government might prove less friendly towards ‘modernization’. At the same time, the opposition’s defeat begs the question of whether or not Anwar Ibrahim will (or can) continue to lead the opposition. The opposition might benefit from a fresher face, given how it appeals in good part to younger voters; but does it actually have such a face?