Tensions are rising once again in Malaysia, following an UMNO party assembly led by Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the assembly, which attracted thousands of party members, Najib reminded the Malay community, from which UMNO derives nearly all of its support, that they would not be where they are today with UMNO’s affirmative action policies.

Najib Razak

Najib arguing for change and reform in Malaysia

This stance marks a strong shift for Najib, whom once championed creating a “1Malaysia” which would respect the rights of all Malaysians. Najib is still arguing for change and reform, and has claimed that all members of his UMNO party must act as agents of change. The government must continue to focus on economic reform, but affirmative action policies, which Najib was previously trying to roll back, must now be strengthened.

This marks a 180 degree turn for Najib, who was previously seen as one of the more progressive Malay leaders. With the UMNO shifting back to race-based politics and affirmative action, the propensity for increased civil unrest and rising tensions between the ruling party and opposition coalition will only increase. While elections will most likely not be held for nearly 5 more years, the war of words between the ruling coalition and opposition is already intensifying.

Malaysia’s domestic politics

Malaysia’s domestic politics revolve around the three major races: the Chinese, the Indians, and the Malays. Both the Chinese and Indian communities were brought to Malaysia by the British during their efforts to colonize the region. When it became apparent that the British would withdraw from Malaysia, the United Malays Nasional Organisation was formed to champion the rights of the Malay community, which had been largely disenfranchised under British rule.

Following independence, the UMNO and a coalition of other parties (now called Barisan Nasional) was able to soundly secure power. From the 1960’s up to now, the party has worked largely rectify the vast economic gap between the Chinese community and Malay community. When the British ruled Malaysia, they relied on Chinese traders and business men to run industries and entire sectors of the economy, so at independence most economic power was concentrated in the hands of the Chinese.

Even after decades of affirmative action policies, however, the Malay community has still not closed the gap with the Chinese community. Indeed, some claim that affirmative action policies actually hurt the Malay community because they did not encourage competition or achievement, but simply distributed resources based on race. Further, many Chinese and Indian people felt disenfranchised and “foreign” even within their own country.

When Prime Minister Najib came into power in 2009, he promised to build a “1Malaysia” and to rectify the heavy-handed affirmative action policies that concentrated much of the power and economic clout in the hands of the Malay community, often at the expense of Chinese, Indian, and other individuals. Since a poor turn out in the last election and a so-called “Chinese tsunami” that nearly cost the ruling Barisan Nasional power, Najib has changed course. Now, Najib is claiming that only his party will champion and protect the rights of the Malay community.

Najib’s Malaysia campaign

By the time Najib launched his “1Malaysia” campaign, however, it was too late. The opposition movement had already coalesced around the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, a strong-willed leader promising race-based reform, a crackdown on graft and corruption, and economic liberalization that would help Malaysia’s economy excel on the global stage. The Chinese and Indian community, along with progressive, middle class Malays quickly gravitated to Ibrahim, whom nearly seized power in the most recent election.

As a result, Najib was been quickly abandoning his 1Malaysia stance in favor of a Malay-first approach. Yet this strategy makes little sense given that the UMNO already secured most of the rural Malay vote that it is now trying to woo. Rural and poorer Malays have long supported the UMNO due to monetary handouts and welfare programs that have helped said communities tremendously.

As Malaysia’s economy continues to grow, however, the poor rural Malay community that UMNO has relied on for power is slowly shrinking. Many urban and middle class Malays, on the other hand, have been shifting towards support the opposition party, Pakatan Rakyat. Meanwhile, the Chinese community has already abandoned Barisan Nasional in droves and has started supporting the opposition. With UMNO’s power base shrinking and other segments of society quickly shifting to the opposition, reverting to the same old race-based politics will only hasten the party’s decline.