New battle lines in Malaysian politics

Author: Yang Razali Kassim, RSIS

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak enters 2014 with one big worry on his mind: how to win — and win decisively — the next general election (GE) that must be called by 2018.

The last one seven months ago on 5 May saw his ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition in its worst victory since 1969: despite winning the majority of seats, BN lost the popular vote to the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim. As the New Year begins, the big signal from Najib is that ‘1Malaysia’ will probably have to be set aside as an electoral strategy. This is significant as it could mean that 1Malaysia — his vision of a unified, cohesive and inclusive plural society that was much touted in the 5 May GE — is as good as thrown onto the backburner.

At UMNO’s recent 5–7 December general assembly (UMNO being the anchor party of the multi-racial BN coalition) 1Malaysia was hardly mentioned in Najib’s keynote speech. Yet when resolutions were debated, one delegate spoke to kill the whole idea, calling for 1Malaysia to be replaced with ‘1Melayu’, or 1Malay, referring to the majority community that UMNO represents. Najib did not respond in defence of 1Malaysia. In fact, his speech during the assembly was primarily about advancing the Malay and Muslim agenda — signifying a major refocusing on this core constituency as UMNO gears up early for the 14th GE.

Uncontested as UMNO president in party elections prior to the assembly, Najib now has one eye on his own political survival. The still-influential former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has been uneasy with the BN’s worst showing at the 5 May polls and may want Najib out.

As Najib’s popularity dips due to some economic belt-tightening policies expected in the New Year, his swing to appease the UMNO conservatives is not surprising. Party hardliners are convinced that the multi-ethnic BN’s political survival rests increasingly with UMNO, whose survival in turn rests on the Malay constituency, which is synonymously Muslim. While 1Malaysia was designed to embrace all of Malaysia’s races, its failure to attract non-Malays, especially the ethnic Chinese, at the last GE has weakened Najib’s hand.

The conservative faction’s argument is this: forget about winning over the non-Malay vote and focus on winning more of the Malay and Islamic ground. UMNO is strong enough to stand on its own. While the BN coalition won 133 seats in GE13, UMNO alone won the most seats with 88 — even more than any of the opposition parties individually, whose combined tally of 89 seats was just one more than UMNO’s. In other words, it is UMNO that will remain the backbone of the political system. Thus Malay political power will be pivotal to everything in the country — from political stability and security to economic progress and development.

This conservative logic formed the bedrock of the ‘back to basics’ strategy that was spelt out in no uncertain terms by Najib, whose speech was themed ‘Fortifying the Future’. Going forward, UMNO will pursue three strategic thrusts — or what Najib called the ‘three messages from the assembly’: a turn towards Shariah; a stronger Malay and bumiputra agenda, for which, he said, UMNO need not be apologetic about; and a ‘transformed UMNO’ as a party of the 21st century.

Under the first thrust, becoming more Islamist for a Malay-nationalist party like UMNO is an equally significant shift that is clearly geared to position itself as the primary political vehicle for the Malay/Muslim constituency, thus pitting it in a more intense contest for power with the opposition Islamist PAS, even as UMNO paradoxically woos PAS for unity talks. UMNO’s drift towards a more Islamist identity was marked by a highly controversial drive to pitch itself as the defender of Sunni Islam in the face of what UMNO paints as the growing threat of the Shia sect in the country which it regards as deviationist. The UMNO constitution would be reworded to define the official religion as ‘Sunni Islam’, not just simply Islam. That this move is partly politically motivated is seen in the immediate targeting of the PAS deputy leader as a closet Shia and therefore a threat.

The second thrust for a greater push for the Malay and bumiputra agenda is clearly aimed at solidifying the Malaysian Peninsula-East Malaysia axis around the Malay core. Najib conceded the crucial role of the ‘fixed deposit’ states of Sabah and Sarawak in BN’s ultimate win in the last GE — as many see it, if not for these two states there would have been a change of government in Malaysia. With Najib’s renewed emphasis on the Malay and bumiputra agenda, the New Economic Policy that officially ended in 1990 has been resurrected in all but name. CEOs of all government-linked companies have been given KPIs to realise this goal or see their contracts not renewed.

To complete the three-pronged strategy, UMNO will go all out to win the young voters. In the next GE, some six million new voters will be voting for the first time. The majority are likely to be anti-establishment and anti-UMNO, and could bring about a change of government. No wonder Najib’s third thrust involves winning over the young voters and mastering the new media the young are savvy with.

UMNO’s eagerness to recover its eroding political ground has seen it responding in unexpected ways, with implications yet to be fully fathomed. Its readiness to go by its own drumbeat is a warning to friend and foe alike that the rules of the game will be set by UMNO alone. To its ethnic-based political allies in BN, which are facing their own internal crises, the message is that the BN power-sharing system will be on UMNO’s terms. To the opposition, the message is clear: whoever controls the Malay and Muslim ground will control power — and it is not going to be the opposition, which is not homogeneous ethnically and ideologically. UMNO is desperate to win. Going forward, all stakeholders in the political system will be forced to ponder what this means for them.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

This article is a part of an EAF special feature series on 2013 in review and the year ahead.

UMNO divides Malaysia

Author: Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, Universiti Sains Malaysia

Malaysia is a divided nation.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak holds the national flag during the opening ceremony of the UMNO 67th General Assembly in Kuala Lumpur, 5 December 2013. (Photo: AAP)

The grim reality of elusive unity, plagued by ethnocentric and ethno-religious divisions, is underlined by the continual existence of fault lines that anthropologist Shamsul A. B. calls ‘axes of contradictions’. The stubborn presence of such social cleavages, after half a century of nationhood, raises the issue of the efficacy of integrative policies pursued by successive Barisan Nasional (BN: National Front) governments.

Momentarily eclipsed by the modernisation ethos of Mahathir’s Vision 2020 and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Islam Hadhari (civilisational Islam), the ‘national unity’ agenda has made a comeback during Najib Razak’s era since 2009 in the form of his ‘One Malaysia’ (1Malaysia) scheme.

It has not been smooth sailing for Najib. It is understandably difficult for him to admit that the multiple polarisation of Malaysian society was effected at the hands of none other than his colleagues and former bosses in the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), let alone for him to exorcise completely UMNO-linked ghosts of social fragmentation.

Rising politically via UMNO and its entrenched system of vested interests, Najib’s political survival depends on UMNO, whose apparent improvement in the 13th General Elections (GE13) of May 2013 has lulled its leaders and members alike into believing that continual UMNO hegemony could be best brought about by appealing to Malay ethnocentric sentiments.

Najib in all probability realises that it was UMNO internal politics rather than opposition attacks that had led to the undoing of his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose administration was brutally cut short following BN’s post-GE12 imbroglio in 2008. Abdullah’s ouster meant that his pluralist vision of a unified nation driven by enlightened interpretations of religion (as encapsulated in his conception of Islam Hadhari) never tasted success.

While some figures within the UMNO ruling establishment lament with other concerned parties at the growing divide within the Malaysian populace, Najib’s inability to stem the tide of UMNO grassroots’ embrace of ethnic exclusivism was made all too clear during the recent UMNO General Assembly (5–8 December 2013). The Assembly was preceded by Najib’s launching in September 2013 of a slew of Bumiputera economic empowerment programmes, which some have opined as the outcome of sustained pressure from the UMNO rank and file, besides being a commensurate reward for the Malays’ support for BN-UMNO in GE13.

The Assembly proper was laced with vociferous statements that make a mockery of Najib’s One Malaysia vision. Delegates openly called for, among other things, the replacement of One Malaysia with ‘One Malay’, the denial of Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M: 1Malaysia People’s Assistance Funds) cash entitlements to opposition party supporters, and the re-orientation of national economic policies such as those pertaining to government-linked companies to the advantage of the Malay community.

Reacting to allegations that UMNO’s voices on the ground were dangerously treading on ethnocentrism, Najib meekly denied that UMNO had degenerated into an overtly racist party. The need for such a denial itself is indicative of the insular trajectory that the UMNO grassroots are taking, even while Najib ostensibly calls for Malaysians to become more globalised. Clearly, after four years at the helm of UMNO, BN and the nation, all of Najib’s expletives on One Malaysia have failed to strike chords even among UMNO’s own members, some of whom are unfazed at being labeled ‘racists’ so long as what they perceive as Malay rights are legally protected.

If Najib cannot put even his own UMNO house in order, what hope does he have of repairing the country? Not surprisingly, the UMNO-led BN’s capacity and willingness in healing Malaysia’s societal fragmentation has been earnestly questioned by informed observers.

Ironically, the utopia that UMNO has in mind is not even Malay-centric, such that Najib’s protestations against UMNO’s alleged racist strand is, taken at face value, tenable. Exclusion from the UMNO-approved body politic is not based on racial affiliation per se but rather on a skewed (mis)understanding of what constitutes being Muslim and Malay. A Malay-Muslim who chooses not to be part of this entity lays himself vulnerable, in UMNO’s eyes, to accusations of disloyalty and even to stripping of citizenship — a call often heard in the past few years.

Although Najib has been strongly urging Malay-Muslims to embrace moderation in their understanding and practice of Islam, it is UMNO’s grassroots who have been enthusiastically imbibing Islamist conservatism to the detriment of harmonious ethno-religious relations.

In the president’s closing speech, exhorting UMNO members to reclaim popular Islamic ground, Najib unabashedly claimed that it was UMNO who forked out funds to build mosques and suraus (prayer houses), only to see them later taken over by anti-UMNO elements. From the top to bottom of UMNO’s hierarchy, there seems to prevail a widespread sense of exclusive entitlement to the nation’s coffers and assets.

As greed multiplies, corruption and ill-gotten gains continue to mar Malaysia’s economy. Massive sums of money are unlawfully siphoned out of the country year in and year out, contributing to the downward rating of Malaysia’s creditworthiness. If all groups are treated as national stakeholders who deserve to be rewarded for hard work irrespective of political and ethno-religious affiliations, and readily accept precepts of One Malaysia out of sincere patriotism, one wonders whether the need exists at all to transfer wealth to safe havens abroad. Surely something is wrong somewhere with Najib’s whole national set-up, of which One Malaysia purportedly serves as an important pillar but looks more like a spent force today.

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid is Associate Professor and Chairman of Political Science at the School of Distance Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

This article is a part of an EAF special feature series on 2013 in review and the year ahead.

The project MY-CF-Kota Kinabalu Composting Project has changed to Closed

The World Bank’s projects and operations are designed to support low-income and middle-income countries’ poverty reduction strategies. Countries develop strategies around a range of reforms and investments likely to improve people’s lives from universal education to passable roads, from quality health care to improved governance and inclusive economic growth. In parallel, the Bank strives to align its assistance with the country’s priorities and harmonize its aid program with other agencies to boost aid effectiveness.

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Malaysia economic monitor : high-performing education

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