from Asia Unbound

Meredith Weiss: What More Do Malaysian Voters Want?

May 14, 2013

A billboard encourages Malaysian citizens to vote for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat party in state of Sarawak.
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Meredith Weiss is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Albany.

Adamantly pro-government newspaper Utusan Malaysia raised hackles among opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) supporters two days after Malaysia’s May 5 election with its blaring headline, Apa Lagi Orang Cina Mahu? (What more do the Chinese want?) The barb refers to what incumbent Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has called a “Chinese tsunami:” his Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) coalition’s unprecedented failure to secure a majority of the popular vote—even if a highly disproportionate electoral system has left the BN still with 60 percent of parliamentary seats. It is true that public opinion polls indicated—and campaign staff nationwide confirmed—that Chinese Malaysians were highly dissatisfied with BN rule and likely to vote for the Pakatan Rakyat, instead. And yet as Pakatan supporters were quick to point out, it was not just Chinese voters (who comprise only about one-fourth of the population) who supported the three-party coalition, contesting in its current form for the first time this election. In Malaysia’s political landscape, particularly with the anniversary of post-election riots in May 1969 just around the corner, to suggest that Chinese have been “selfish and greedy” and want to topple the Malay-based order (as the Utusan editorial, plus subsequent coverage, suggests) is clearly race-baiting.

In point of fact, it is not just Chinese voters who want a change from politics-as-usual in Malaysia, nor is race sufficient explanation for why any specific voters have turned toward Pakatan. Much has been made, too, of a rural–urban divide in Malaysia: that rural voters supported the BN, while urban voters supported Pakatan. But just as it is not the fact of being Chinese that turned voters away from BN—of “cultural” or communal interests per se (shown not least by the fact that it was the BN that really touted these)—nor is there something intrinsic to being “rural” that inclines one to BN, particularly given how many voters with a rural address actually live and work in urban areas.

Economics was the main story of this election. Each side had a manifesto including a wide range of issues. One could sum up the difference as: BN = populist economic programs + communal harmony (and the security of a known quantity); and Pakatan = populist economic programs + good governance. But the main stress for both sides was on the first part of those formulae. The BN stressed ad nauseum the government’s raft of “1Malaysia” programs (which it claimed entirely for the party, handily eliding party and state), especially one-time RM500 ($167) payouts of 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M), for which any household earning less than $1000/month is eligible. Though definitively government, not party funds, BR1M payments were frequently dispensed via party offices and/or officials, including during the campaign period itself. (One Kedah BN campaign manager, for instance, noted that his candidate comes to shake hands as citizens collect both their BR1M checks and government loans for entrepreneurs during the campaign; his aides, though, are the ones to handle the checks.)

Pakatan, for its part, argued that its own package of subsidies (for everything from water to cars to education to WiFi) would reduce the cost of living long-term, and thus be a better deal for poor and middle-class citizens. While Pakatan stump speeches I heard nationwide did, for instance, raise issues of corruption, cronyism, and good governance generally, these seemed to carry more clout with the audience when connected back to their own circumstances—for instance, a gifted speaker in a low-cost housing area in Sabah, who gracefully tied a critique of the graft-funded palaces of BN elites to the dilapidated housing of his audience. Such links do resonate, given the extent not just of interethnic, but intraethnic, inequality. Pro-bumiputra (Malay and indigenous peoples) affirmative action policies may indeed irk non-Malays, yet the real gains remain concentrated among a narrow elite, not the Malay masses.

What these elections demonstrated was that as Malaysian electoral politics converges upon a two-party system (taking the two fixed coalitions as parties; the BN is already registered as such), interests and issues are increasingly crowding out identities as grounds for mobilization and voting. In my travels across Malaysia throughout the campaign period, it was clear that issues of land tenure, jobs, the inefficiencies of cronyism and corruption, and the rising costs of living—everything from water to tolls to petrol—raised more hackles on the ground than the tried and true bogies of race and religion. That fact alone tells us little about which coalition might win next time around, but it does suggest that communal politics has lost real ground, no matter how shrill the recriminations.