Malaysia prepares for a divisive election

Malaysia will soon announce the date for its next general, the 14th since the end of colonial rule and invariably referred to locally as ‘G.E.14’.

Malaysia election

Under the country’s constitution the general election must be held on or before 24 August 2018, two months after the current parliament automatically dissolves on 24 June 2018.

The choice of when to call the elections within this window is in the power of the government, a coalition dominated by the Barisan Nasional (B.N.) comprising the dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and 12 other parties, including two notionally representing the country’s ethnic Chinese and Indian communities and eight from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The de facto main opposition has coalesced around the Pakatan Harapan (P.H.) grouping, fronted by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s recently formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), imprisoned former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largely ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) intended to attract the Muslim constituency. The third political grouping is led by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) which seeks to represent what could be termed conservative Islam and without comprising its religious values by joining any electoral pacts.

Malaysia’s politics have always been contested on the basis of communal concerns, interests and prejudices rather than along more conventional shared ‘class’ linked issues

Umno has led Malaysia since independence in 1957, largely by emphasising its status as the ‘defender’ of Muslim Malay interests. This appeal to shared Malay ethnicity is rooted in the implied and overt threat other races pose to the Malay community’s economic, social and religious values and culture. As a result, Malaysia’s politics have always been contested on the basis of communal concerns, interests and prejudices rather than along more conventional shared ‘class’ linked issues. This racial and often theological compartmentalisation has automatically created divisions within the country that are at the core of understanding Malaysian political structures and the tensions and pressures that underpin them.

Assessment

Decades of political dominance, the de facto support of state funds and a huge party war chest, a largely compliant mainstream media and a carefully worked skein of constituencies and their nurtured voters should ensure Umno is able to win G.E.14 almost regardless of the opposition’s performance at the polls.

In G.E.13, for example, the B.N. coalition won 133 seats in the 222-seat national assembly (Dewan Rakyat) with 47.38 per cent of the vote. By contrast Pakatan Harapan’s predecessor grouping Pakatan Rakyat won 50.87 per cent of the popular vote to win 89 seats. The imbalance reflects the constant readjustment of parliamentary constituencies to ensure a ‘Malay’ vote is invariably more productive in electoral terms than one from another ethnic or non-Muslim group.

This is most evident in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, where the electorate drawn from its 5.5 million population, or around 20 per cent of the country’s total, gave the B.N. a third of parliament’s 222 seats in G.E.13.

The conduct rather than the outcome of the polls and whether they will create destablising tensions that could damage Malaysia’s political and economic structures and systems

One example explains why the East Malaysia states are often referred to as ‘fixed deposits’ for the B.N. and the principal means by which the coalition retains – and is likely to retain – power. During G.E.13, 15,735 voters in the remote region of Igan in Sarawak carried the same weight as 53,216 voters in Bandar Kuching constituency of the same state, making the 37,481 votes in the former seat effectively worthless. This is clearly advantageous from Umno’s perspective as Kuching’s mainly ethnic Chinese voters sent an opposition DAP legislator to parliament while Igan opted for the B.N. candidate.

Nevertheless, and despite such in-built advantages that point clearly toward a B.N. electoral victory, many observers – including Allan & Associates – are focusing their attention on the conduct rather than the outcome of the polls and whether they will create destablising tensions that could damage Malaysia’s political and economic structures and systems.

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