Since its independence in 1957, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has ruled over Malaysia uninterrupted. UMNO has controlled Malaysia through a coalition, first called the Alliance, and later expanded and renamed Barisan Nasional (BN). In the recent 2008 elections BN lost its absolute majority, marking the first time the ruling coalition has lost its absolute majority since 1969, the year of the Race Riots. BN could now find itself losing its majority position entirely in the up-coming elections.

malaysia flag

UMNO and BN have traditionally controlled the political scene in Malaysia. UMNO relies on the “Malay” vote from the Malay community, which makes up approximately 50 percent of the population. The Chinese, who are by far the wealthiest demographic in Malaysia, make up 25 percent of the population, and Indians make up an additional 7 percent. Other Bumiputras, or “sons of the land” make up most of the rest of the population.

The date for the election has not been set, but must be held by June 27, 2013. Many observers believed that elections would be held this past summer, with tell-tale signs, including increased investments in public projects and reduced toll charges. Often, as elections approach BN will push for the increased provision of social services. Trains start to run more frequently, subsidies and cash payments will be handed out, and numerous other policies will be instituted, which critics charge as “vote buying.” So far, the election date has not been announced but must be approaching soon.

In recent years Malaysia has seen mass protests and heightened demands for political reform. The Bersih movement, or “coalition for clean & fair elections” has attracted a large following in Malaysia. The movement has staged several rallies in recent years. In April 2007, the first Berish rally attracted some 30,000 people, and is credited with having a major impact on the 2008 elections that saw BN lose its absolute majority for the first time in decades. In July 2011 the Bersih 2.0 movement was launched and staged another rally, attracting between 10,000 to 20,000 protesters, though many more were kept out of the Kuala Lumpur city center due to government clamp downs. Bersish 3.0 in, April 2012, saw renewed strength and effort from protesters, with approximately 100,000 people protesting for reform.

Meanwhile, Barisan Nasional is increasingly losing the trust of the Malay community, which it has relied on to stay in power. Traditionally, BN and especially UMNO has relied on the rural Malay vote, which through gerrymandering has a disproportionately large representation in parliament. Now educated and urban Malays are starting to turn to the opposition. At the same time, UMNO is losing some rural votes in some areas to the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), an Islamist political party.

BN has never fared as well in cities, or among the middle class. With Malaysia’s population rapidly urbanizing and becoming better educated, BN’s traditional base of power is shrinking. Unless the party can adapt to changing times and modernize its policies, it may someday find itself representing a “minority” segment of society.

The domestic scene can be described as complicated, at best. Malaysia has posted strong growth since its independence, with national development projects being fueled by petro-dollars. The country also enjoys a strong manufacturing sector, though many of the workers in this sector are foreign.

The nation has had a harder time competing in high-value industries, and its education system remains subpar. In order to keep unemployment low, the government has traditionally “mopped” up unemployed graduates, especially Malays. As a result, government payrolls have expanded to some 1.4 million people, in a nation of only 30 million. With petro-dollars running out (Malaysia is projected to run out of oil as soon as 2030), the government will not be able to afford  expanding payrolls forever.

Certainly Malaysia has launched attempts at reforms. Prime Minister Najib has launched a “1Malaysia” campaign to try to rectify the tensions between the three major races. The Prime Minister has also launched the New Economic Model (NEM), which will increase emphasis on creating high-skilled middle class jobs and ensuring that Malaysia does not fall in the Middle Income trap.

Each attempt at reform, however, has been plagued by cronyism and corruption. Many critics believe that top-down economic policies, such as the NEM, will largely benefit those with strong connections to the government. Meanwhile, the 1Malaysia campaign has been criticized for cronyism, with millions being spent on pet projects. Perhaps most infamously, RM 50 million was spent on a largely redundant “1Malaysia” email system for Malaysian citizens, even though there are dozens of free email services available online.

Even if BN should retain its majority and Prime Minister Najib continues to enjoy high approval ratings, there is a high risk that he will be pushed from office anyway. Following Barisan National’s losses in the 2008 election, Abdullah Badawi was swept from office, despite having a high individual approval rating. Thus, while Prime Minister Najib is perceived by many as a moderate reformer and enjoys comparatively high approval ratings, he may find himself out of a job none-the-less.