Fading Hope for Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: Sea changing election outcomes, more often than not, come with the risk of creating very high expectations on the winners’ side and their supporters, and thirst for revenge among the losers on the other hand. That looks increasingly evident for the coalition government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which ended the six decades long rule of the UMNO/National Front administration in May last year. The unexpected victory was widely interpreted as due, and deservedly so, to the perceived corruption and money politics of UMNO and especially its leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak. He held the ministry of finance as well, and not everybody believed that the US$ 700 million in his private accounts were nothing more than a private donation from the royals of Saudi Arabia. Political corruption, including control over a big number of government linked companies, plus the related arrogance of power were too much for a majority of voters.
But the new Mahathir government, the Pakatan Harapan or Coalition of Hope, saddled with the highest expectations of reducing the rampant politics of race and religion, and above all, their promises to care for the poorer part of the population and control the cost of living better than the Najib administration, has not delivered as expected. As a clear signal, the Coalition of Hope has just lost the 5th by-election in a row to a National Front which slowly recovers from the initial licking of wounds after being ousted. This by-election in Tanjung Piai, a constituency in the federal state of Johor, turned out to be a humiliating defeat for the Coalition of Hope. It had won the seat in 2018 with a narrow margin of just 524 votes and lost last week by 15,086 votes, a ratio of 1for the Coalition of Hope and 2.5 for UMNO, this time with support of the Islamic party PAS. UMNO and PAS have been competing for the Malay vote for decades, but entered into a marriage of convenience only a couple of months ago.


What is certainly difficult to swallow for all Malaysians who had voted for change, is the open jubilation of Ex-PM Najib Razak among the UMNO leaders and the winning candidate. The man is facing numerous charges of corruption and embezzlement, but the court procedures are difficult and slow. And Najib’s lawyers are trying everything to slow it down even further, because, if the Mahathir coalition should fail and collapse, Najib might get away from his nightmare of ending up in prison. And for too many voters the 4.5 billion US$ which have vanished from the 1MDB Sovereign Investment Fund under his control are obviously too abstract and complicated to remember.

The Tanjung Piai constituency has some 57 per cent Malay voters, but the Chinese minority is increasingly disappointed by the very Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) which, so far, has not managed to capitalize on its new role as a coalition partner in government. For many of its members and supporters the party does not shine and remains all too quiet in the shadow of PM Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. This widespread criticism may not be completely justified and fair, because one big question is dominating the public debate and keeping the wildest rumours alive:


Anwar Ibrahim (72) and Azmin Ali (55): Who will be the next Prime Minister?

The big issue is the mystery around the succession of 94-year-old PM Mahathir. To cobble together the new coalition against UMNO and Najib, Mahathir had promised to hand the premiership over to Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Peoples Justice Party (PKR), within two years. Mahathir’s sometimes cryptic statements oscillate between strong confirmation and remarks that he must solve the most urgent problems first. In addition, there are two factions in the Coalition of Hope, one supporting Anwar, and another being against Anwar and supporting Azmin Ali, the Minister of Economic Affairs. The latter’s meeting last Monday with a bigger group of UMNO MPs did not help to reduce speculations and rumours.

The political development is not encouraging. Hopes for a “New Malaysia” without corruption and race and religion issues are more difficult to maintain, and the Malay majority has as many grievances as the strong Chinese and the Indian Minorities, and the poor people don’t see improvements in their livelihood. The old forces around UMNO, with secret and open support by the over 90 per cent Malay civil servants which feel less privileged under the new governmnet, will do anything necessary to come back to power. With every by-election the number games are starting from scratch, though right now, the majority of the Pakatan government still looks rather stable.


Muslim Malay Party and Malay Muslim Party Join Forces


The party leaders, Zahid Hamidi (UMNO) left and Hadi Awang (PAS)

Partyforumseasia: The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which dominated Malaysia’s politics for over six decades and unexpectedly lost power in May last year, was licking its wounds since then. It looked knocked out while its leader and former Prime Minister Najib Razak is indicted for bribery and money laundering on the biggest possible scale and awaiting the first conviction after the 1MDB scandal. It might turn out to be one of his biggest political misjudgments caused by arrogance of power, that he thought his UMNO-led National Front Coalition was friendly enough with the other Malay-first Party Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) but did not need a formal election agreement with them. So he lost 54 seats and the Pakatan Harapan (or coalition of hope) won the decisive 53 seats which brought the former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (94 and sharp as ever) back to power.

In the meantime, soul-searching and finger-pointing seems to be over, the acting opposition feels revived and aggressive, but the political cooperation pact between UMNO and PAS, inked last Saturday, 14th September, in Kuala Lumpur, stoked fears of reviving racial and religious politics because the event was called “HimpunanPenyatuan Ummah” or “Unity Gathering of the Muslim Faithful“. Many of the roughly forty percent Non-Malays in the country, predominantly Chinese and Indians, feel more than uncomfortable with the traditional affirmative action and identity policitics in favor of the Malay majority, especially when it comes with strong religious undertones. PAS vice-president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man cited the Prophet Mohamed as mandating that the majority Muslim Malays must lead the country, and that especially the Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) cannot be entrusted with a role in government as it has now in Dr. Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition.

The ongoing debate about a popular Muslim preacher, Dr. Zakir Naik, who pretends to promote Islam but questions the loyalty of Indian Malaysians, Christians and Jews, and calls the Chinese Malaysians “only guests” in the country, is certainly not calming fears that the UMNO-PAS marriage is not totally harmless. Zakir Naik, infamous as antisemitic in the USA and anti-Indian in his homeland India, is a permanent resident in Malaysia, but banned from public speaking in the meantime. But even the Mahathir administration is not inclined to revoke his permanent residency status because his popularity with Islamic groups. And another hype is adding to the dilemma. A growing movement wants consumers to buy halal goods only from Muslim producers which would discriminate on halal products made by Indian or Chinese enterprises. From food and fashion to lipsticks and banking, halal certificates are getting more important, in Malaysia and for many Muslims in Southeast Asia.

While many Malaysians outside the beneficiaries of Malay privileges and Ummah feelings were hoping that the new Mahathir government were more multi-racial and less focusing on religion, the new united UMNO-PAS block will have a good chance to win the next general election, due latest by 2023. For this opportunity, old rivalries can be overcome and PAS may forget that their leader called UMNO members “infidels” when PAS felt morally superior over the corrupt rival. All that is not surprising, opposition is no fun, especially after so many decades in power. All over the world, party alliances and marriages of convenience easily bring together the strangest of strange bedfellows which UMNO and PAS are certainly not, they are “family” now.

Pakatan Harapan-Broom to Sweep Malaysia Clean


Partyforumseasia: The Pakatan Harapan or Coalition of Hope suffered a setback by losing an important by-election last weekend, which actually gave an opportunity to the opposition UMNO to develop new hope in turn. See the previous post

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (93) is killing two birds with one stone simultaneously by launching a wide-ranging National Anti-Corruption Plan yesterday, 29th of January. It shows him as a reformer and highlights the endemic corruption of the former government. His only eight months old new government is facing the unpleasant task to clean up the gigantic swamp of graft and corruption which served the former dominant UMNO party to rely on quasi-unlimited political funding. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was simultaneously Finance Minister. With a rather hybrid entity, called Ministry of Finance Corporation, he could control a  huge network of Government Linked Companies (GLCs). But what was all too visible for the voters and finally broke his political neck was the growing evidence of criminal manipulations within the state-owned Sovereign Wealth Fund 1MDB with billions of dollars disappearing in black holes.

As laudable and timely as the National Anti-Corruption Plan is, some Malaysians remember Dr. Mahathir’s money politics in his first 22 year-long term as Prime Minister until 2003. Yet, the concept of eradicating corruption in Malaysia within the next five years and the planned reform measures sound convincing enough.

The most important points are as follows:

– New laws on political funding for politicians and political parties will be introduced.

– Review appointment procedures for key government posts.

–  Politicians and high-ranking civil servants will have to declare their assets.

– The credibility of the legal and judicial system must be enhanced.

– Corporate governance needs reform.

Ex-UMNO-President Najib Razak, facing a slew of graft charges, is still maintaining his innocence, and even may not be completely wrong in a technical sense because political funding has been totally unregulated in Malaysia so far.

The just-published Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International does not show any dramatic changes for Southeast Asia in comparison with the previous years. With rank 61 out of 180 countries, Malaysia is still ahead of most other ASEAN countries. Obviously, the 1MDB saga has not really affected the result.

For more details about political funding and money politics in Malaysia see:

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ICERD and the elimination of racial discrimination in Southeast Asia


Partyforumseasia: Singapore has just submitted its first report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which it ratified in November 2017. And multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious Singapore is proud of decades of “racial harmony” and equal rights for everybody. Neighboring Malaysia, in contrast, suddenly belongs to the remaining 14 countries worldwide which have not signed the convention. In force since 1969, the ICERD has been ratified by 179 countries and signed by 4 more. The new Pakatan Harapan government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had promised to sign and ratify it but bowed to pressure from huge protest rallies by tens of thousands of Malays who feared for their positive discrimination and exclusive rights in the mixed ethnic setup of the country.

KL Icerd rally

On 8 December 2018 about 50.000 Malay Muslims protested against the ICERD in Kuala Lumpur.

The decades of racial politics by the former UMNO-Barisan-governments which helped to win all elections until May 2018 are backfiring now, that a strong Chinese-based party, the DAP, is part of the ruling coalition and accused of being a threat to the Malay majority. And even more backfiring is the focus on Islam by UMNO and especially the Islamist PAS party. Malaysia has a secular and neutral legal system, Islam is formally “the religion of the Federation” but not a state religion. For radical and many other Muslims, though, this is not enough. They campaign for more Sharia-based criminal punishments (hudud), and a right-wing Malay Muslim group,  Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), known by its Malay acronym Isma, fights for giving up the secular principle and establish the country as a genuine Muslim state. The political parties which have promoted these social undercurrents for their electoral advantage, now see it as a vehicle to promote their comeback after being ousted in the May election. For the time being, UMNO is split and in disarray, but the ruling coalition is not really strong and united, holding together mainly by the towering personality of PM Mahathir.

With its evident idealistic undertones, ICERD itself may have an open flank by focusing on “racial” discrimination. In Article 1 it defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

But the notion of “race” is in many ways outdated since in terms of species, humankind consists only of the “homo sapiens” variety for the last 40.000 years. Neanderthal and other genes have survived in rather small percentages, and cultural differences may distinguish the existing subgroups a lot more than shades of skin and hair color. Among many pseudo-sciences, race biology has been one of the most destructive, historically an outgrowth of the need to justify slavery and colonial supremacy.

Southeast Asia is characterized by an outstanding number of distinct ethnic groups with their own language and culture, though closely related by phenotype and genetic composition. Indonesia counts over 300 ethnic groups, Myanmar 135, Thailand about 70, and Vietnam 54. Malaysia and Singapore, for administrative and political reasons, have decided to classify along the main racial lines, namely Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Others, thus simplifying the many shades of ethnic and cultural differences on the ground. In Malaysia, the ratio of “immigrant races” and the Malay “sons of the land” or Bumiputera was controversial from the beginning and later developed into a religious issue as well.

Singapore started her independence in 1965 with a Chinese majority of 75%, and the Malay, Indian and Other minorities to be accommodated as equally as possible. With the increasing migration and the ageing of traditionally more homogeneous populations, an ethnic mix will be the future of most countries. It is already and will remain an enormous political challenge, which is hardly understood by political parties in Europe and the US. The ongoing, though imperfect, solutions in Southeast Asia may present some clues for a better understanding, hopefully without the historical baggage of the outdated race biology.

False Hope for the Alliance of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: 

With the wild rumors swirling about an early date for the next general election in Malaysia, everybody wonders about the chances of the opposition to win in its third attempt. 2008 and 2013 saw important advances against the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition, but the gerrymandered election system, expensive gifts to certain voter groups, clever fear mongering, and insufficient co-ordination among the opposition parties kept UMNO and BN comfortably in power.

Prime minister Najib Razak, who is also president of UMNO, quite shrewdly managed to dismantle the People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) by eliminating its leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, probably the only politician who could unite the opposition. The seventy-year-old leading figure of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), is still in jail with a controversial conviction for sodomy and banned from politics for five years. For the ruling BN coalition, the end of the Pakatan Rakyat in 2015 was a dream come true.

PM Najib, in the meantime, had other dangerous problems. The 1MDB financial scandal with billions disappeared from this state fund and hundreds of millions discovered in the prime minister’s private accounts would have led to his resignation or unseating in most other political systems. Not so in Malaysia. With remarkable cold blood and chutzpah, Najib has not only survived the storm so far but cemented his leadership in party and coalition as well.

But the opposition is reorganizing itself as well. And 91-year-old veteran politician and former long-term prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is playing an interesting role in this new game. He has left UMNO and started a new party, the United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or PPBM) and just joined the new opposition coalition, the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan).
This new coalition unites now four opposition parties, namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Chinese-dominated party with a socialist approach, the National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara), a splinter from Islamist PAS, and Mahathir’s PPBM as newest member since 20 March. The PH coalition is planning to optimize its forces by campaigning with a common logo and without competing against each other in any constituency.

With PAS keeping a hostile distance toward Pakatan Harapan because of the “anti-Malay” DAP and the “renegade” Amanah, the opposition has lost a former ally with a stable number of seats in the national parliament. The BN coalition of UMNO and twelve component parties holds 132 of the 222 seats. To oust BN and PM Najib, the opposition would need at least 112 seats. This looks like a tall order at the moment, up from 75 in the sitting parliament.

The next general election is formally only due by August 2018, but in the British tradition, the prime minister can call it earlier at his discretion and sense of opportunity. Najib is obviously playing the guessing game for all, has started the BN campaign machinery, and, most importantly, has survived the financial scandal so far with gaining more strength and power in his own party and coalition. His power to fire any internal critic and any civil servant or legal office bearer, and his grip on the government’s and the party’s cash flows, make him look more or less unbeatable. Large parts of the population, especially his Malay vote banks, seem to be relatively unfazed by the financial scandal, and the new proximity with PAS and its Islamist hudud (Muslim criminal punishments) project makes it even more difficult for the opposition.

But no election victory is ever guaranteed. With all the instruments in his hand, from the Election Commission to the money supply and distribution, the prime minister may still be feel too sure about winning. If the Pakatan Harapan coalition manages to unite and avoid all three cornered fights, and, of course, find the appropriate central message to the voters, nothing can be excluded.

PAS-UM-NO, PAS-UM-YES, PASUMNO-MAYBE?


Partyforumseasia:  MALYSIA’S CHANGING COALITION ARCHITECTURE

Najib-Hadi

PASUMNO maybe? Are the party leaders getting cosy?

UMNO  stands for UNITED MALAYS NATIONAL ORGANISATION, but the nation’s Malays are not as united as UMNO leaders like them to be. In fact they are divided since 1951 when Muslim clerics split from UMNO and founded Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) or Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. PAS developed into a leading opposition party with a cleaner public image than UMNO which is perceived as corrupt by many Malays, but also as the better defender of Islam. The decades of competition for the same voter pool of rural and pious Malays had a number of detrimental effects in a country with strong ethnic and religious minorities. Trying to harp on religious credentials in an era of growing international Salafism and Jihadism and the continuing attempts to introduce hudud, the harsh Muslim criminal law, had rather polarizing effects and undermined the multi-cultural concept of the country.

But as old as the PAS-UMNO rivalry are discussions about reunification:
There are weaknesses on both sides. The now defunct opposition coalition without imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim tries to resurrect as Pakatan Harapan  (or Hope Alliance, consisting of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Democartic Action Party, and Parti Amanah Negara which last year splintered from PAS). The three parties just inked an agreement on ideology and dispute settlement on 9 January. And the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is losing the anaemic component parties of the Chinese and Indian minorities. This is why a rapprochement  between UMNO and PAS could be easier than ever before since the split in 1951.
The debate is on in the media and among party members. Here are some recent headlines:
(Deputy Prime Minister) “Zahid is confident of Umno-PAS compatibility” (December 26, 2015, The Malay Mail Online, Link here),
Despite decades of bad blood, PAS members ready to work with Umno“, (December 27, 2015, The Malaysian Insider, Link here),
“PAS advising BN to save Malaysia, says Hadi”, (the PAS president, December 26, 2015, The Malaysian Insider, Link here).
So far only mildly challenged by the break-away group Parti Amanah Negara in the renewed opposition coalition, the remaining more clerical “ulama faction” in PAS must nevertheless be concerned about the Malay dominance which they share as central concept with UMNO. To convince skeptics in his party, Hadi has packaged his insinuated co-operation in religious terms: “We start by advising the people in power to abandon what is wrong and do what is good, and if in the end they do not change their ways, we take over as saviours, without any rancour. (…) In defending PAS’s new advisory role, Hadi cited verses of the Quran and a few hadith, or prophetic traditions, on the importance of good counsel. “Advice is one of the words in the Quran (a miracle of knowledge) that has vast meaning, to the point that it encompasses all words and methods used to enjoin others to what is good and forbid what is bad.”
For UMNO the partnership with PAS would certainly be a safety belt of sorts, but difficult to get used to. As a Spanish proverb says, partners are also potential bosses, so PAS might be a rather uncomfortable partner for a party like UMNO that is used to rule more or less alone for 60 years.