Malaysia will hold its 13th parliamentary elections on May 5 against a backdrop of acrimonious debate relating to misuse of power, communalism and nation building, corruption and crime.
In order to evaluate the major issues before the electorate (13 million voters, of whom 25 per cent will be voting for the first time), it is essential to keep in mind the changing nature of Malaysia’s political system. First, the demographic change. On the eve of independence, on August 31, 1957, the Malays, who consider themselves as the Bhumiputras (sons of the soil) constituted 49.8 per cent, Chinese 37.1 per cent and Indians 11.1 per cent. When Malaysia was formed in 1963, with the incorporation of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, the Chinese were the largest single minority, 42.2 per cent, Malays 39.2 per cent, Indians 9.4 per cent and the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak 7.0 per cent. Today (with Singapore out of Malaysia), the Malays, including the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak, constitute 61.4 per cent; Chinese 24.0 per cent, Indians 7.0 per cent and others 7.8 per cent. Given the large proportion of non-Malays in the population and in order to retain Malay political supremacy, on the eve of the formation of Malaysia, the government enacted a law under which the rural constituencies (predominantly Malay) were given additional weightage, so that Malays could return more members to Parliament. Recently, the Malaysian government delimited the constituencies again, an exercise which the Opposition has charged was intended to gerrymander the urban (predominantly non-Malay) constituencies.
Every issue in Malaysia — political, economic, educational or cultural — is dominated by an ethnic shadow. When the British transferred power, it was preceded by a “bargain” between the Malay and the non-Malay political elite that political power will be in the hands of the Malays, while economic power will be retained by the non-Malays, mainly the Chinese. The Constitution was enacted and the political system functioned on the basis of this bargain. It was believed that with the passage of time, a new and viable equilibrium would develop, with the Malays entering the economic scene and the non-Malays participating more actively in the political life of the country. The ruling coalition that assumed power in 1955 was an inter-communal alliance consisting of three partners — the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). UMNO was the dominant partner, and the leaders of the MCA and the MIC were content to play second fiddle to Malay supremacy.
The first major challenge to the Alliance was in the 1969 general election, in which it fared badly, though it retained power and a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The results were followed by large-scale communal riots, and Emergency was proclaimed. When democracy was restored, a new political system came into existence, further entrenching Malay predominance. The Alliance was transformed into the Barisan Nasional (National Front) with the incorporation of more non-Malay and Malay political parties. Malay political dominance continued without any credible challenge under the stewardship of Tun Abdal Razak and Hussein Onn.
The Mahathir era (1981-2003) witnessed the economic transformation of Malaysia, but also saw increasing authoritarianism, intolerance and large-scale corruption. Political discontent began to spread in the country. In addition to the disenchantment among the Chinese and Indians, there were political stirrings among the Malays too, culminating in the 1988 revolt led by Anwar Ibrahim, who was Deputy Prime Minister in the Mahathir government. He formed a party called the Partai Keadilan Rakyat (Justice Party) under the leadership of his wife. His unfair trial, the trumped up charges and third degree methods used on him earned Anwar Ibrahim much goodwill both within the country and abroad. After his release from prison, he began to speak in democratic idiom, music to the ears of Malaysians. He has also shown more sensibility to the aspirations of non-Malays. Equally important was the revolution in communication taking place across the world. While the print and visual media in Malaysia is under the tight control of the government, Opposition parties and non-governmental organisations championing human rights are increasingly making effective use of the new media.
Anwar Ibrahim was able to bring together a broad coalition of Malay and non-Malay opposition parties on the eve of the 2008 elections. The Pakatan Rakyat brought together the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Malay supported Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and Anwar Ibrahim’s Partai Keadilan . As a result, the Barisan Nasional , which many observers of the Malaysian political scene considered to be “invincible,” was weakened in the 2008 elections. It lost its two-thirds majority, depriving it of its power to amend the Constitution. It could win only 140 of the 222 seats. The message was clear. All the three major communities, in varying degrees, exercised their franchise against the ruling Barisan Nasioanal . In Malaysia, it is very difficult to ascertain how each ethnic group has voted, but according to a study undertaken by a well-known scholar Ong Kian Ming, the Barisan could win only 58 per cent of Malay votes, 35 per cent of Chinese votes and 48 per cent of Indian votes. Incidentally, since the 1955 election the Indian community had solidly backed the ruling coalition. The main reason they did not in 2008 was due to the sustained campaign spearheaded by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF).
An important feature of Malaysian politics is that it is very difficult for Opposition parties to actively function in Malaysia. The draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which provides for detention without trial, has been frequently used against Opposition parties, both non-Malay and Malay alike. Bersih 2.0, an NGO coalition led by the Indian-origin lawyer, Ambiga Sreenevasan, has been demanding that the election in order to be fair should be monitored by international observers. Malay leaders have denounced Ambiga, with sections of them demanding that her citizenship should be revoked.
The 2013 election will be closely fought with Barisan Nasional trying its best to recapture its political base and a resurgent Opposition determined to unseat the government. The government has, during recent months, spent millions of ringgit through cash handouts, pension hikes and bonus. The Opposition, in turn, has accused the ruling party of unbridled corruption. The University of Malaya held a sample poll, which gave the Barisan Nasional 42 per cent support, while Pakatan Rakyat had the support of 37 per cent, and 21 per cent were undecided.
It is interesting that HINDRAF, which tilted the Indian votes in favour of the Opposition in 2008, has recently decided to extend its support to the Barisan Nasional . This surprise move was preceded by a memorandum of understanding in which the ruling coalition has given a solemn undertaking to find a quick solution to the manifold problems facing the Indian community. However, given the past record, many Malaysian Indians do not have any faith in the government. As a result, HINDRAF is facing mounting criticism from its followers.
(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is senior professor and director (retd.), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.)