Hope for a Malaysian Spring

Sven SchottmannDr Sven Schottmann
La Trobe University
Email: s.schottmann@latrobe.edu.au

Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim
University of Sydney
Email: lily.rahim@sydney.edu.au

First published on Eureka Street on 28 April 2013.

 

Malaysians will soon vote in one of their country's most anticipated elections since independence in 1957.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has yet to lead his government to success at a federal election, having been appointed when his predecessor stepped down in the wake of the ruling party's worst performance in decades.

Amid uneven economic growth, anxieties over increased levels of crime and anger over the government's mishandling of an insurgent stand-off in Sabah state, Najib had long been reluctant to call for elections. The government appeared intent on exhausting the opposition in an undeclared, two years long campaign period.

Almost four years to the date he was appointed, Najib dissolved parliament, and elections are to take place next Sunday 5 May. Most analysts expect his Barisan Nasional/National Front coalition (BN) to scrape in, largely through gerrymandering, control of the mainstream media and other impediments to the increasingly popular opposition.

But the BN is widely predicted to lose further seats in federal parliament, continuing the process of attrition that became evident at the 2008 elections, when it lost its customary two-thirds majority.

Malaysia's ruling coalition faces a dilemma similar to the People's Action Party in neighbouring Singapore, which experienced its worst performance in the island republic's 2011 elections. Ironically, both appear to have sowed the seeds of their own decline, having delivered prolonged periods of economic growth and overseeing the emergence of a sizeable, educated and prosperous middle class.

But for how much longer can a party like the BN retain its claim to uninterrupted rule without reinventing itself and adjusting to new realities?

Amid the democratic transitions that have swept Asia over the last 20 years as well as the protest movements of the Middle East, a growing number of Malaysians appear unwilling to countenance any further the BN's paternalistic brand of politics — or acquiesce in the myriad corruption and political scandals to which some of its politicians have been linked.

Large-scale protests, including the 'Bersih' rallies demanding electoral reform, have galvanised civil society. There is a palpable demand for change, particularly among younger voters. While Najib's personal popularity remains relatively high, polls suggest that only 45 per cent of Malaysians are satisfied with BN rule.

Whether this groundswell of dissatisfaction will translate to a change in government is in some ways immaterial. What does matter is that the old ways of governing have lost much of their former appeal, and the government can no longer afford to treat general elections as foregone conclusions.

A change in government in Malaysia has also been hindered by lingering doubts about the viability of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat/People's Pact coalition — a tenuous alliance of Islamic and secular parties that has yet to clearly spell out its alternative nation-building paradigm. Nonetheless, the PR's de facto leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, has succeeded in bringing together these disparate forces.

PR won control of five states in the 2008 elections, and has performed reasonably well in federal politics. Whether it can ultimately succeed in unseating BN at the federal level will depend on the degree to which the Islamic party PAS can position itself as a centrist party to 'middle-Malaysia'. Reformist elements in PAS recognise that the party must modernise if it is to emulate the success of Turkey's pragmatic AKP government.

This includes reaching out more effectively to non-Muslim Malaysians who make up just below 40 per cent of the population. To do this, PAS must clearly articulate its position on the Islamic state, constitutionalism, religious pluralism and gender and citizenship rights. Thus far, it has managed to remain opaque.

BN is at a crossroads. Does Najib have the political will and vision to initiate genuine political reform? Or is the son of Malaysia's second and nephew of the country's third prime minister too closely embedded in the old order? In his four years as prime minister he has exhibited a somewhat uninspiring and sometimes dithering leadership, with bold visions for renewal often melting away into inaction.

What Malaysia needs is a new governance paradigm to meet its many pressing socio-economic and political challenges. The country has to make critical adjustments in order to reposition itself over the next decade. Economic growth appears to have plateaued and Malaysia must reinvent itself in the face of growing competition from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and China.

The road ahead will also entail some serious rethinking of what it means to be Malaysian. As a growing number of Malaysians look for alternatives to the racialised status quo, political elites are called upon to provide better leadership to consolidate notions of 'Malaysian' identity.

As the eminent Malaysian social anthropologist Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin remarked recently, the country has made progress in state-building but is still no closer to achieving nationhood nearly 60 years after independence. Whoever wins the elections will have to confront the daunting task of rebuilding state institutions and forging a new consensus on what it means to be Malaysian.

Dr Sven Schottmann is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University.

Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim teaches Southeast Asian Politics and Political Islam at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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