The political malaise in Malaysia

There is no doubting the desire for a change of government in Kuala Lumpur, but the choices on offer are uninspiring.

Many expect Malaysia’s general election on 5 May to bring about big changes.

For a start, of the 13million people eligible to vote, 2.5million are first-time voters. As a result, the ‘political tsunami’ of 2008, in which the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), wrested control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states from their long-time rulers, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is expected to continue. Opposition supporters certainly sense that further change is in the air.

The ruling coalition government, Barisan Nasional - in which UMNO is the dominant partner - has responded to the threat of PR in a variety of ways. Since 2011, the government has been handing out RM500 (which is about £120) to poor households – an action that PR condemned as ‘vote buying’. The government has also widely distributed food parcels in many rural areas.

On the campaign trail, BN has even wheeled out 87-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister from 1981 to 2003. His main contribution has been to insist that this election will be ‘much more racial now’, with many Chinese Malaysians turning away from BN. He has urged Malay Malaysians to be loyal to the government if they want stability.

Mahathir’s argument is not new. Race, or rather, ethnicity, has long played a key role in Malaysian politics; Malaysia is 60 per cent Malay, 25 per cent Chinese, with the rest mainly Indian.

In 1969, I was a 15-year-old living in the capital Kuala Lumpur when the country’s most significant racial riots broke out. The Malays, who were mostly rural farmers, took to the streets to fight the Chinese. The violence left hundreds dead. The Malays were aggrieved that although they were the ethnic majority, they were heavily disadvantaged economically and socially. They wanted ‘more’ from the government. The Chinese were businessmen and easily became the target of the Malays’ rage. Parliament was suspended for two years and the military was brought in to establish control.

The 1969 riots changed the political landscape in Malaysia, with the government introducing the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971. The NEP brought in affirmative policies favouring Malays in every way. Successive NEP plans from 1971 to the 1990s continued to grant Malays far-ranging privileges: Malays were to own at least 30 per cent of all commercial and industrial activities; a Malay-controlled industrial sector was to be created by conscious state intervention; the employment pattern in rural and urban areas was to reflect the racial composition of the country.

The government actively intervened to create a Malay (Bumiputera) ‘industrial and commercial community’. For example, the 1975 Industrial Coordination Act required non-Malay manufacturing firms (provided they had more than $100,000 in shareholder equity and more than 25 employees) to divest at least 30 per cent of their equity to Malays. Other measures included: making it mandatory for owners of new businesses to have a Malay partner; the creation of special categories of bank loans for Malay-owned businesses; and the provision of home mortgages with two interest rates - a lower one for Malays and a higher one for non-Malays.

A national cultural policy was also launched in 1971. This resulted in the introduction of higher-education quotas for non-Malays, forcing many either to go overseas for higher education, if they had enough money, or to register for non-government-funded universities; the majority of the government scholarships were given to Malays.

Unsurprisingly these social and economic privileges have long generated resentment among the Chinese and Indian Malaysians. So it is not surprising that most political parties are organised along ethnic lines.

The government’s message in this election, however, is that it wants to create ‘one Malaysia’ - that is, a racially integrated and united country. It is difficult to see how this can be achieved without overhauling the morass of affirmative, pro-Malay policy initiated since the early 1970s. Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the PR alliance, wants to do away with these affirmative policies, but PR also has a problem. One of three main PR alliance parties, the Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS), wants certain Islamic laws to be instituted in Malaysia. But another key member of the PR alliance, the Democratic Action Party, wants a more secular society. It is difficult to see how such contradictory political visions can be reconciled in one ruling party.

The friction within the opposition alliance is one of the main reasons it has campaigned chiefly on a platform everyone agrees with: namely, anti-corruption. It is a popular move, especially among Malaysia’s growing middle classes. Social media are awash with stories of corrupt individuals and states. Rent-seeking and patronage politics runs deep in Malaysia. Contracts worth millions are given to Malay companies without any due diligence, and scandals recently engulfed some leading BN figures, too. So an anti-corruption platform is popular and safe, and it soothes tensions between the opposition parties.

The ready audience for this anti-corruption message reflects the way Malaysia has one of the fastest growing and most affluent middle classes in emerging Asia, a product of Malaysia’s steady economic development over the past three decades. Economic output registered a healthy 5.6 per cent growth in 2012, making Malaysia one of the best regional performers. Inflation remains low, at 2.5 per cent. Unemployment at three per cent is also low and stable. The national poverty rate halved between 1990 and 1999, from 16.5 per cent to 8.5 per cent; in 2004, it was just 5.7 per cent. And growing incomes and a better-educated workforce mean that more people now want a say in the social and political make-up of the country.

The aspiration for change evident in this election is therefore a good thing. And it is striking that it is happening in spite of Malaysia’s authoritarian state: the media is government-controlled, there is no real free speech, and although the hated Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed for detention without trial, was repealed in 2011, its replacement, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, is just as oppressive. It allows police to detain people for a maximum of 28 days without trial, and, in some cases, without access to lawyers.

However, despite the growing yearning for a different, more democratic Malaysia, the anti-corruption election platform of the opposition is not enough to bring it about. Attacking the corrupt behaviour of a few individuals at the top will not address deeper problems. If a broader, popular movement for democratisation is to be built in Malaysia, there needs to be a clash of ideas over how to build a better society in the future, not just having a go at the corrupt beneficiaries of the old order. 

This election may see the ruling BN coalition stay below a two-thirds majority yet again or possibly do even worse this time. But that would still leave it in a stronger position than it should be in. With the opposition narrowly focused on corruption, the government can simply point to the benefits of continued economic development without having to do much to defend its policies or to contest alternative economic and social programmes for change. The opposition is letting the government off the hook.

Para Mullan is a human-resources professional based in Britain.

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Picture: Gary Chuah/AP/Press Association Images