By John Pang
May 4, 2013
MALAYSIANS are going to the polls Sunday for the most important election in our history. The opposition stands a real chance of winning, for the first time since independence from Britain in 1957. Recent polls show the People’s Alliance, the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, running neck and neck with the governing National Front, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The National Front, the direct successor to the Alliance Party of the 1950s, has been one of the world’s longest-governing parties, outside of authoritarian regimes like China, North Korea and Cuba. For half a century, until 2008, it had a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which allowed it to amend Malaysia’s Constitution at will.
Since the 1980s, the governing party has resorted to stoking fears among the country’s many ethnic communities — Malays, Chinese, Indians and many non-Malay indigenous peoples — to keep them beholden to its rule. It has abused affirmative action policies, intended to help impoverished ethnic Malays, in order to enrich its members and their cronies.
Malaysia’s outdated model of governance — a system of racially exclusive parties that deliver patronage to captive racial voter blocs — is no longer sustainable.
The National Front’s brand of racial politics is the disease to which it pretends to be the cure. And it is the reason genuine reform is not possible without a change of government.
Malaysia is a multiethnic, middle-income country. Just over half of its 28 million people are of Malay origin, a quarter is of Chinese descent, 11 percent belong to other indigenous groups and 7 percent are of Indian descent. Malaysian politics since independence have been shaped by issues of race and identity and dominated by the National Front’s majority coalition partner, the United Malays National Organization and its successor, the more racially chauvinistic party, Umno Baru. After race riots in 1969, the “New Economic Policy” was launched to reduce inequality and increase the share of the economy held by Malays. This policy provides preferential treatment to Malays in business, jobs, education, scholarships and access to loans, assisted saving and housing. Although it was originally intended to end in 1990, it has since become permanent as part of the ruling party’s doctrine of Malay supremacy over and against “immigrant races.” In the name of advancing ethnic and religious interests, the National Front divides the Malaysian people and plays us against each other.
Today, after more than six decades in power, the lines between the assets of the state, the ruling party and its leaders are blurred. Corruption and deceit are now endemic to the system. Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University, has estimated that Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mr. Najib, in power since 2009, has spent close to $20 billion on populist election-related incentives over the four years of his administration.
The National Front controls the mainstream media and uses the machinery and resources of the government for partisan purposes. Electoral fraud is widespread and the election commission is believed to be partisan. Although international monitors will be present for Sunday’s vote, and the government has set up an online portal for citizens to monitor the balloting, many citizens fear that cheating will determine the outcome due to allegations of widespread fraud.
Malaysia has a history of electoral manipulation. In one of the most brazen examples of manufacturing ethnic identity for political gain, Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, imported about 700,000 Muslim immigrants from the southern Philippines into the Malaysian state of Sabah. They were secretly issued Malaysian citizenship in order to create a “Malay” Muslim vote base for Mr. Mahathir’s party.
This scam altered the demographic composition of a state that previously had only 2 million inhabitants and a Christian rather than a Muslim majority. To this day, the government relies on what it calls its “fixed deposit” of votes from Sabah to stay in power. The National Front secured this deposit by trading citizenship for votes.
Fortunately, Malaysians of all races have come together to protest the deceit, corruption and race-baiting practiced by the National Front. Street protests have grown since the first demonstrations demanding electoral reform in 2007. In January, more than 150,000 Malaysians demonstrated in the historically significant Stadium of Independence in Kuala Lumpur to demand political reform.
The race is close, in spite of the gross unfairness of our electoral process. The Malaysian electoral system is heavily gerrymandered against the urban and Chinese vote. The use of “phantom” voters and the manipulating of ballots cast by post are routine.
Even by those standards, what we have seen in the last two weeks already qualifies this as the dirtiest election Malaysia has ever seen. The National Front has gone to astonishing lengths to buy votes, abuse government resources and engage in electoral fraud. Over the past week, chartered flights that may have been ordered by Mr. Najib’s office have flown thousands of foreign laborers working in Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak provinces on the island of Borneo into key voting areas in mainland Malaysia. There are grounds to suspect that they will be supplied with fraudulent credentials to vote.
The opposition leader, Mr. Anwar, a former finance minister and deputy prime minister, and his coalition are riding a tide of desire for reform and national renewal. He survived trumped-up charges of sodomy and faced accusations of corruption, which landed him in prison from 1999 to 2004, and the vicious efforts of the government to destroy his reputation, to emerge as the leader of a broad movement for change.
The People’s Alliance coalition he leads has been criticized as an expedient but unstable coalition of ideologically incompatible parties, united only in their desire for power. But its leaders have been consistent and firm in rejecting the old brand of racial politics that has cast such a pall on Malaysia’s politics, society and economy.
Against the government’s ideology of “Malay Supremacy” — an ideology that has been entrenched in school curriculums and even Civil Service training, the People’s Alliance has pledged to replace the corrupt ethnicity-based affirmative action program that has benefited cronies of Mr. Najib, with a program that bases assistance on need. These proposals have been greeted with enthusiasm by many among the Malay majority, who are tired of the corruption and theft of public assets practiced in their name.
The opposition’s popularity has been aided by a demographic bulge of young people, a rapidly urbanizing population and the widespread adoption of social media and smart phones that circumvent the government’s monopoly over mainstream media. Open vote buying and electoral fraud, when videos of such malpractice can be circulated via Facebook and YouTube, has provoked anger and ridicule.
If, against all odds, the opposition wins, this may go down as a revolution in which the incumbents were laughed out of power.
John Pang is chief executive of a research institute focused on economic integration in Southeast Asia.