As expected, the National Front (BN) coalition won Malaysia’s May 5 election, but not without widespread allegations of electoral fraud, including the use of Bangladeshi migrants as illegal voters and other gerrymandering tactics. The opposition People’s Pact (PR) coalition leader Anwar Ibrahim refused to concede defeat and held a protest rally on May 8, attended by about 100,000.
The election’s outcome and the immediate responses by BN leadership threaten to undermine the powerful example of Malaysia as an Islamic country with parliamentary democracy and a parallel legal system of civil and Islamic laws. Even though the US has recognized the BN win, the White House has called on the Malaysian authorities to investigate the claims of election irregularities. It is imperative that the United States spoke out on this issue as it still plays a huge role in promoting democracy through fair elections.
A BN win also promises a continuation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. It has been announced that President Barack Obama is expected to visit Malaysia this fall for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, marking the first visit by a US president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. This is a positive indicator of a continuous advancement in US-Malaysia relations.
Additionally, this election and the racial issues surfaced matter externally especially to Southeast Asia and the US because it could possibly threaten the economic stability of this country and create a setback for the region. If the racial issues and electoral fraud are properly dealt with in the future, while allowing fair competition for opposition politics, it could signify that autocratic leaders and single party politics are diminishing in Southeast Asia, allowing maturity and more accountability in governance.
What about the significance of post-election development in Malaysia? Results showed that BN won 133 parliamentary seats to PR’s 89, but lost the popular vote, gaining a minority vote of only forty-nine percent. This is the result of the gross imbalance in the district sizes, ranging from less than 25,000 to over 100,000 voters, that tends to benefit pro-BN rural districts at the expense of urban voters.
Rather than be chastened by the fact more Malaysian voters preferred the opposition, Prime Minister Najib Razak held the Chinese population in Malaysia responsible, calling it a “Chinese tsunami.” Najib’s attempt to racialize the election outcome was a grave strategic error and indicative that ending the racial divide is not a priority. This racial marginalization has fueled more anger amongst many Malaysians who felt that they have been robbed of a clean and fair election.
Many predict Najib will now focus on the near term to regain support for the next United Malays National Organization (UMNO) General Assembly at the end of this year. Even though PR failed to generate a regime change, it has successfully created a non-racial opposition that has forever changed the facade of Malaysian politics to bring it in line with other democracies by highlighting the corruption and abuse of affirmative action pro-Malay policies. Affirmative action was implemented in the 1970s to create opportunities for Malays and defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the 1969 racial riots but they have largely excluded sizable Chinese and Indian Malaysian minorities. Reform is favored by not only ethnic Chinese and Indians but also a large number of urban Malays who feel affirmative action often benefit only a group of the rich and well-connected Malay elite.
In his victory speech, Najib announced that he will provide a national reconciliation plan in the near future to decrease voting polarization by what he believes is only a racial issue, instead of recognizing the widening rift of Malaysia’s urban-rural population. Instead of focusing on the 1Malaysia campaign he launched in 2010 to promote ethnic harmony and national unity, he has caused even more anger among Malaysians by blaming his bad electoral performance on the Chinese community.
What about the rural versus urban population divide that has been revealed so visibly in this election? If left unattended, this social division could weaken the stability of Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy. Does this also entail a middle-income trap that Malaysia will need to tackle? Malaysia used to be one of the tiger economies in Southeast Asia that was comparable to Singapore. However, it has since failed to following in the footsteps of other Asian countries. The New Economic Model implemented by Najib in 2010 has seen some successes through the increase of private investment and improvement in Malaysia’s business climate. But this model does not address the affirmative action policies that provide privileges to ethnic Malays to access a range of economic opportunities through government-linked corporations.
If Najib is serious in bringing 1Malaysia to reality, he must first eliminate racial politics and the affirmative action policies that are causing more harm than good to Malaysia’s stability. There is a desperate need for ethnicity-blind programs especially targeted toward the poorer areas. Besides diminishing poverty and increasing equality of opportunity, this will also help eliminate the discrimination against poor ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as defeating the middle-income trap. There will always be strong opposition against creating an equal and inclusive Malaysia, but in order for Malaysia to prosper in the long term, drastic measures need to be taken. With all the proper institutions already in place, BN has a great opportunity and challenge to bring real change that many Malaysians are seeking. The next election in 2018 will see an even younger, further urbanized, and more demanding population, and BN needs to swiftly tackle the disenchantment that is plaguing the majority of Malaysians now.
HuiHui Ooi is an assistant director for the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.