Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, has long relied on cash handouts to shore up support, especially among working class and rural Malays, who form the party’s power base. Last week, however, some 17,000 Malaysians rejected the latest cash hand out under the ‘Malaysia Peoples‘ Aid program (BR1M).

Mahathir Mohamad

The government has tried to spin the rejection as a sign that Malaysia’s population is “maturing” and no longer needs the handouts. Former Prime Minister Mahathir, however, has come out with public statements warning the ruling coalition not to misread the recent development. Mahathir even called the ruling government delusional, arguing instead that people will not be swayed to vote for BN with cash handouts.

Mahathir has repeatedly lambasted the BR1M program, despite the fact that it mirrors many of the policies that he himself used while in power. According to Mahathir, the program will not be successful in securing votes and cash handouts do little to lift people out of poverty.

Indeed, late in his administration, Mahathir began to admit that many of his own welfare programs failed to create the self-reliant and industrious workforce he had envisioned. Now, Mahathir is pointing out that college graduates and others are struggling to find jobs.

BR1M program cornerstone of Barisan Nasional’s efforts

The BR1M program, a component of Najib’s 1Malaysia program, is supposed to be one of the key cornerstones for shoring up support and securing votes for the ailing ruling party. So far, BN has given out two different cash handouts through the program, and in the 2013 election cycle promised at least one more.

According to BN’s election manifesto, it will give RM1,200 to every family earning less than RM3,000 per month. If carried up, this program could cost upwards of RM8 billion dollars, a huge sum for a government that has seen rising debt levels in recent years and is nearing its constitutionally mandated 55% debt ceiling.

Cash handouts have long history in Malaysia

Barisan Nasional has long relied on cash hand outs and other welfare programs to maintain support. Often, as elections near, the government will increase the number and amount of handouts and other forms of welfare programs. In the last election cycle, for example, the government gave RM200 vouchers to college students so they could buy books.

Yet the voucher did little to buy Barisan Nasional support among college students. Indeed, Malaysia’s student population has emerged as one of the strongest opponents to Barisan Nasional and have been fueling the Opposition.

Indeed, if anything, Barisan Nasional’s cash handout programs may now be drawing more criticism than support, even among average citizens. Many observers and citizens are now coming to see the handouts as attempts to buy votes and support, which may be why some 17,000 citizens rejected the last payments.

Opposition blasting cash handouts

In the last election cycle, the Opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, secured the national popular vote for the first in history. This marked a stark turning point for a country that has been dominated by Barisan Nasional (and its precursors) since independence in 1957.
Pakatan Rakyat charges that Barisan Nasional is literally buying votes through its cash hand out programs. At the same time, Pakatan Rakyat has argued that Barisan Nasional is driving the country towards fiscal ruin. According to the Opposition, Barisan Nasional is responsible for huge levels of corruption, expensive welfare programs, and creating an economy that is no longer competitive internationally.
While it’s difficult to know exactly why 17,000 people rejected Barisan Nasional’s most recent cash hand out, the Opposition and Mahathir may be right. People could potentially be sick of Barisan Nasional and the perceived attempts to buy votes. If so, Barisan Nasional may have lost its main strategy for shoring up power.