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.
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.
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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. Already, many of the countries best and brightest have been flocking overseas, leaving Malaysia with a dearth of talent. Many of those leaving are Chinese, but if disenfranchisement of the urban middle-class continues, more and more people of said social class will likely start to look overseas for better opportunities.
In my humble opinion, the best step moving forward would be a power sharing agreement between PR and BN. PR officials should be given increased input into national policies and also key positions within the federal government. Anwar Ibrahim is serious about reform, and Prime Minister Najib’s efforts to establish an economic modernization effort under Unik Inovasi Khas, roll back security measures, and slowly wind down Malay affirmative action, along with other initiatives, prove that Najib too is serious about reform too. Why not create an Agensi Reformasi Malaysia to oversee these reform efforts and place Anwar as the head of the cabinet level department?
Critics will quickly point out that such a move would create political infighting within the government. Najib and Anwar are believed to hold a deep hatred for each other, even if they are largely publicly cordial. These critics are right, but the question to ask is whether it is better to have political infighting, or open protests on the streets? By taking the conflicts behind the scenes and mediating them through internal political processes, Malaysia can strive to create a platform where both parties and the needs of the respective constituents can be heard.
BN’s Chinese Party, the MCA, was also trounced in the elections, while PR’s Chinese led DAP scored several stunning victories. Already DAP members have reached out with an olive branch by discussing willingness to form a coalition government. BN and Najib should and must embrace these efforts to bring Chinese representation through the DAP into the government. If not, BN faces the task of ruling without a popular mandate. Only a coalition government with members of both PR and BN can claim to truly rule with the will of the people. If BN turns down this olive branch and opportunity to achieve the popular mandate, the consequences could be dire.
So far, the elections have been painted as a lose-lose for both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Raktan, along with their respective supporters, but if managed properly it could become a win-win. Rural Malays must be protected and assisted as Malaysia continues its drive to emerge as a major force in the global economy. Without the proper assistance, the gap between the urban middle class and rural poor will only continue to widen. Still, this assistance must shift from welfare and cash handouts to developing a truly vibrant and independent rural community capable of competing in a globalized economy.
At the same time, the emerging urban middle class must be empowered and given the freedom to drive Malaysia forward and to build a globally competitive economy capable of taking on companies and countries across the world. And make no mistake, if the urban middle class succeed, the rural poor will benefit, so long as efforts are managed properly.
Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional must now decide whether they wish to lift up the banners of violence, hate, and contention, and continue to fight for control of Malaysia, or whether to lay down their arms and lift up the banners of peace and prosperity to drive Malaysia forward. There has been no Tsunami yet, but the storm is brewing and only through collaboration can it be prevented. This means that both parties, and the full needs of all Malaysians, must be brought into the fold and moderated through political processes and negotiations.
The question should not be which party is right and wrong, but instead which path is best for the Rakyat and Malaysia as a whole.
Disclaimer: I am a foreigner, and consulted for the Malaysian government. I try to present my opinions humbly and as an objective external outsider, to the best of my limited abilities. If a Malaysian (or anyone else) were to come along and tear down my entire argument, but then take the opportunity to build a better and more accurate one that leads to meaningful change, I would consider my article a resounding success.