Ethnic politics makes Malaysia’s transition to a contested democracy fraught and ugly
Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
SKYSCRAPERS and lampposts in Kuala Lumpur are still festooned with flags left over from independence day festivities at the end of August. Fittingly, this week they were shrouded in the annual “haze” of smog from forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Malaysia’s politicians are not in the mood to celebrate nationhood and unity. Rather, with an election in the offing, everything is a chance for political point-scoring.
That includes independence itself. One huge banner in the centre of the capital shows the country’s six prime ministers since the British left in 1957, with the incumbent, Najib Razak, in the foreground, gazing into a visionary future. All six hailed from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has led the “Barisan Nasional” (BN) coalition government ever since 1957. Some opposition politicians now complain that the official narrative of Malaysia’s history ignores the role of non-UMNO freedom fighters. Since the most recent general election, in March 2008, the opposition has had a real chance of winning power. For the first time since independence in 1957, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament that allowed it to amend the constitution on its own. No longer a one-coalition state, the opposition argues, Malaysia has to rethink its own history.
- The Libyan dilemma
- Bloody Wednesday
- Slow movers
- Not all smiles
- Visa procedures
- »The haze and the malaise
- Correction: Mohan Peiris
The next election is not due until 2013. But, out of tradition and political calculation, Mr Najib is expected to call it earlier—and to win it. Some think it could come this year, after a generous government budget in October. A crowded calendar of regional summitry makes that awkward, and Mr Najib has other reasons for delay. Since he took over in 2009, he has launched a plethora of initiatives to improve Malaysians’ lives and a “Performance and Delivery Unit” to implement them. Results take time.
Three factors, however, argue for a hasty dash to the polls. The first is that Mr Najib, who took over UMNO and the prime ministership after the BN’s unprecedentedly poor showing in 2008, still had an approval rating of 59% in a recent survey. That is well below his initial popularity, however, and he will not want to mimic Britain’s Gordon Brown in delaying too long before seeking his own mandate. Second, economic storm clouds are gathering in the West. Malaysia’s economy is still growing at over 4% a year, but is vulnerable to a downturn in external demand.
Third, the opposition coalition is in some disarray. Its figurehead, Anwar Ibrahim, is on trial for sodomy, illegal in Malaysia, and many expect him to go back to jail soon, as he did (for the same alleged offence) in 1998. He is a divisive figure. But without him, there is no obvious opposition candidate for prime minister. The president of his party is his wife, and its most impressive politician is his 30-year-old daughter, Nurul Izzah. The other components of the coalition are the Democratic Action Party, which draws its support from the Chinese minority, and an Islamic party known as PAS, whose religious conservatism alienates many liberal Malays. So there is even talk of a revival of the prime ministerial ambitions of Razaleigh Hamzah, a veteran UMNO rebel, as an opposition rallying point.
The government helpfully provided another rallying point with its cack-handed crackdown on an NGO-led protest in Kuala Lumpur in July calling for electoral reform. Mr Najib has since agreed to a parliamentary committee to look into the demands, which are mostly unexceptionable: to clean up voters’ lists, allegedly swollen with “phantoms”; to extend the election-campaign period, at present just seven to nine days; to tighten up the postal-vote system; and so on. But he has not agreed to postpone an election until after the committee has ruled.
Whatever technical reforms are made before the next election, it will still be dominated by the original sin of ethnic discrimination set out in the country’s 1957 constitution. This was designed to allay the fears of the majority ethnic-Malay population of being marginalised by Chinese and Indian minorities, which now make up respectively 23% and 7% of the population of 28m. Perks, much extended after race riots in 1969 (still often referred to in Malaysia as if they happened yesterday), gave Malays privileged access to public-sector jobs, university places, stockmarket flotations and government contracts.
Both government and opposition talk of dismantling these privileges, which have contributed to corruption and large-scale emigration. Mr Najib has indeed started tinkering with Malay privileges, much to the outrage of the UMNO right and a vocal Malay-rights ginger group known as Perkasa. Ibrahim Ali, Perkasa’s front man, argues that, with the Malay vote split, the minorities have disproportionate electoral power, to which the mainstream parties pander.
That is nonsense. As elections loom, it is the Malay voter whose opinion matters, and he is assumed to resent any effort to curtail his privileges. And that means that both coalitions have to resort to defending the indefensible: a system in which families that have lived in Malaysia for generations are told to tolerate discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, to bolster allegedly fragile racial harmony. Malays and minorities alike lament that the races are living increasingly separate lives—studying in different schools, eating different foods and going to different parties. The divide is further widened as more Malays, who, constitutionally, are all Muslims, become religiously conservative.
The Malaysian malaise stems from the congruence of two seemingly conflicting trends. One is the healthy development of pluralist competition in a system that had seemed stuck for ever in an UMNO-dominated quasi-democracy. The other is the sharpening of ethnic and religious dividing lines. It is alarming that, instead of seeing competitive politics as a way of bridging the ethnic divide, too many Malaysian politicians see the ethnic divide as a way of winning the political competition.
from the print edition | Asi