Among the legacies of British colonial rule in Malaysia were marked economic and socio-cultural divisions between the country’s ethnic groups. For many years after independence, the Malays, the largest ethnic group, played a negligible role in the economy relative to large minorities of people of Chinese and South Asian descent. Since the 1970s, the state-led effort to boost the economic role of Malays under coalition governments led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been at the very core of Malaysia’s politics.
Debate continues about the extent and sources of, and appropriate remedies for, the economic divide. Still, the intentions of UMNO leaders from the 1970s onwards in championing positive discrimination in favour of Malays were understandable, given the obvious hazards for social cohesion posed by a highly visible wealth gap between ethnic groups.
The cause of Malay economic empowerment brought its fair share of problems. By the end of the 23-year rule of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, it was clear that the UMNO-led effort to build a Malay capitalist class had helped sanctify and institutionalise a system of cronyism. Affirmative action policies for the Malay middle class — ranging from generous racial quotas in public universities to subsidised loans for Malay borrowers — were increasingly resented by non-Malays, many of the more skilled and affluent of whom joined the ‘brain drain’ overseas.
Moreover, Malaysians paid a heavy price in terms of their political freedoms. Behind the economic growth and political stability that UMNO could advertise to the world was a marked decay in the quality and independence of the country’s political institutions — particularly the judiciary and civil service — censorship of the media, and pervasive corruption.
Yet judged in pragmatic terms, the formula worked. Most notably under the rule of Mahathir Mohamad from 1981 to 2003, rapid growth — with the dice loaded in favour of Malays — succeeded in both creating a large Malay middle class and generating performance legitimacy among minorities, who also felt the benefits of the economic boom and accompanying political and social stability. Politically, this inter-communal settlement found expression in the form of the Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition, whereby UMNO became the senior partner in a coalition with Chinese, Indian and Bornean parties — an arrangement which endures today.
Will that arrangement endure much longer?
In this week’s lead article, which launches our year in review series, Clive Kessler argues that in the general elections widely expected for the first quarter of 2018, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s strategy to secure his hold on power may be steering Malaysia towards a significant political realignment. For the first time, Kessler writes, the election ‘will see the two great Malay political parties — UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) — working implicitly as allies, not rivals’.
The longest standing sources of political opposition to UMNO-led rule have been the secularist, Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), on one end of the political spectrum, and the Islamist PAS, on the other. Periods of cooperation between these two forces in opposition coalitions has been — understandably, given their radically different visions for Malaysian society — marked by tension.
Unless united in a coherent coalition, none of the opposition parties — the DAP, the UMNO offshoot Bersatu (led by the 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir), or Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) — can hope to overcome the parliamentary gerrymander which helps keep UMNO in power. Thus, as Kessler notes, driving a wedge between the Islamist and secularist blocs of the opposition has been a key part of Najib’s strategy to ‘break’ the political opposition during his prime ministership.
The wedge in question was the perennial issue of the role that Islamic law should play in Malaysia’s legal system. UMNO has always understood the versatility of Islam as a wedge issue; posing as the defender of pluralism in elections past to win votes for the BN coalition from non-Malays spooked by the opposition’s accommodation of PAS, while at other times peeling away Malay votes from PAS by portraying the opposition coalitions as hostile to Malay economic interests and, increasingly, Malay and Islamic cultural dominance.
But in the aftermath of the near-abandonment of the BN coalition by non-Malay voters in the 2013 general election, UMNO sees increasing monopoly over Malay votes — potentially, in coalition with PAS, its long time rival for Malay support — as the path to continuing political preeminence. As Kessler observes, ‘UMNO knows the score — it can rule forever, so long as PAS wants it to and lets it do so’. Thus, a new political settlement may be emerging, one which Kessler argues will see non-Malay political forces sidelined.
The result of this electoral strategy is UMNO’s increasingly strident Malay supremacism — now accompanied by concessions to PAS’s agenda of enshrining sharia law federally. PAS understands the opportunity, knowing well how it can ‘make UMNO its hostage and ensure it would forever find itself pressured to adopt PAS-congenial and Islam-promoting policies’. This interplay, Kessler writes, ‘has produced the increasing and, over recent years, radical de-secularisation of Malay society and Malaysian politics’.
What would another term of government for Najib under such a political settlement mean for Malaysia?
The first implication is that Najib will almost certainly survive the 1MDB Berhad corruption scandal unscathed. Decades of institutional degeneration under UMNO rule, and the concentration of power in the office of the prime minister, has seen Najib able to swat away any domestic attempts to hold him account for his role in the 1MDB affair. The unfortunate importance of identity politics in shaping voter behaviour also helps insulate him from much of the electoral backlash.
The second is the acceleration of Malaysia’s march towards a greater role for Islam in the law and in society. In the coming years, Malaysia’s minorities will be increasingly left in little doubt as to their status as second class citizens, with diminishing political clout as the gerrymander, and the increasing interdependence of UMNO and PAS, render their votes less important. Liberal Muslims will likely see their personal freedoms further eroded as the government enforces puritanical interpretations of Islamic law with greater vigour.
Under the new political formula outlined by Kessler, the rule of UMNO, already the world’s longest-governing political party, looks set to be extended for many years to come. If the party continues down its current path under Najib, the losers will be the people of Malaysia, as the post-independence dream of a secular, pluralist and democratic nation drifts further out of sight.