Prime Minister Najib managed to hold onto the parliament in a hotly contested election that saw the opposition party Pakatan Rakyat (PR) take the popular vote but incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) took a majority of the seats anyway. There have also been widespread reports of voting irregularities committed on BN’s part, though some of these reports have already been discredited by external outsiders and opposition leaders as false rumors.

Malaysia elections

Now tensions are at an all time high. In the aftermath of the elections tens of thousands of Malaysians packed the Kelana Jaya Stadium in a show of force that must be making BN leaders nervous. Indeed, Anwar has promised more rallies and is increasing pushes for reform. The police have responded with threats to charge speakers at the last rally with sedition, which PR quickly condemned.

Tensions are now rising and for the first time in decades there is a serious risk of protests erupting into major confrontations and perhaps even riots reminiscent of the 1969 “race riots” that nearly tore Malaysia apart and resulted in heavy handed security laws and tactics being implemented.

While BN has tried to paint the election as a Chinese vs. Malay/India battle, labeling it a “Chinese Tsunami,” a closer look at the results and the following rally suggests something entirely different. Many analysts are arguing that the biggest swing came between rural and urban voters. Granted, the Chinese dominant many major urban centers but there is also an emerging Malay middle-class. This emerging Malay (and growing Indian) middle-class also demonstrated a strong swing towards Pakatan Rakyat. Indeed, PR did well in many urban areas, and is accusing fraud for several of the urban districts that went to BN.

Malaysia’s Past and Its Impacts on the Present

Malaysia’s political system is heavily gerrymandered to favor rural Malay voters, whom traditionally support BN. While BN secured only 47 percent of the vote, it took about 60 percent of the seats in Parliament. Chinese meanwhile, have tended to dominate urban areas, though there is an emerging urban Malay middle class which also showed a strong preference for PR.

At independence in 1957 there was a strong need to provide affirmative action and support for the Malay community, which was largely disregarded and isolated under British Colonial rule. BN and its predecessor the Alliance, was formed to ensure that Malays had their voices heard and government actions were installed to help bring them up to speed.

In 1969 the Alliance’s efforts to uplift the Malay community led to race riots between the Chinese and Malays. The conditions then are eerily similar to the conditions now: The alliance lost the popular vote but secured the government.  The resulting riots would lead to several casualties, resulted in increased gerrymandering to support BN (which subsequently replaced the Alliance), and led to the installation of heavy handed security laws.

Unfortunately, many of the government’s efforts resulted in bloated state companies, a large and corrupt patronage system, along with a dependency on cash handouts. For decades, government policies have favored Malays, often at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities. These conditions are now the main source of complaint among the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat. And now, middle class urban Malays are becoming fed up with corruption and cash handouts.

The Emergence Of Tensions In Modern Malaysian Society

Enter Anwar Ibrahim. The charismatic former Deputy Prime Minister was once seen as the heir to long-ruling strong man Dr. Mohamad Mahathir, but continuous clashes with Mathatir over a push for economic reform led to Anwar’s ouster and politically motivated  charges landed him in jail for six years. After charges were thrown out in 2004, Anwar stormed back into the political scene, rallying a broken and uncoordinated Opposition movement to its then most stunning electoral success in 2008. For the first time in history, BN lost its absolute majority in parliament.

This led to the ouster of then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the rise of now Prime Minister Najib Razak, a reform-minded politician and son of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister. While Najib has pushed forward with increased liberalization of labor and economic markets, and installed efforts to modernize the economy, his critics say he is not working fast enough. Further, there have been numerous charges of corruption and continued cronyism.

Building on this Anwar has managed to propel Pakatan Rakyat to even greater heights in the recently concluding 2013 General Elections. PR took 89 seats, its highest showing ever, and perhaps more importantly secured the popular vote with 51 percent of the vote to BN’s 47 percent. Alleging rigged elections, Anwar held a stunning rally attracting 10’s of thousands of people in a massive show of force. He has promised to continue to stage rallies until electoral fraud charges are addressed.

Malaysia now stands at a dangerous crossroads. BN may control the parliament, but lacks popular mandate. Controlling the political infrastructure while not having the backing of the Rakyat (Malay word that rougly means citizens) as a whole creates a dangerous situation, and one that could prove to be prone to protests and potentially even violent riots. This is especially true given that Anwar has accused BN of rigging elections, and appears to have strong evidence for doing so. Now, as the de facto leader of Pakatan Rakyat, Anwar is promising to stage protests across the nation. It may only be a matter of time before one side or the other decides to resort to violence.

And yet should Malaysia descend into open conflict, the government may revert to heavy handed security measures and even marshal law. The Alliance was able to use the last “race” riots as an excuse to exercise heavy handed government. Urban vs. rural riots could result in similar outcomes. An attempt to use such tactics now could potentially lead to conditions reminiscent of the Arab Spring that swept the Middle East only a few short years ago. Protests in the street, and even armed skirmishes, are not out of the question.

Barisan Nasional now finds itself caught in a tricky catch 22. The party must continue to drive economic development forward, but that means expanding the very same urban middle class that largely opposes the party. Despite accusations that Chinese Malaysians are leading the charge to end assistance to Malay communities, it appears more that urban middle class voters are simply fed up with corruption, cronyism, and crime (sometimes labeled as the three C’s).

There are rumors being spread that BN may try to redraw district lines to curry them even more power from rural districts. Such a move could result in national suicide and threaten to throw the country into chaos. PR supporters who are already upset that the party secured the popular vote, but BN still retained over 60 percent of the seats would likely be pushed towards radicalization.

Further, if BN does not address the wants and needs of the rising urban middle class, there is a serious risk of a massive brain drain.

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