Malaysia’s political tsunami: next the shockwaves

KLs Petronas Towers (Simon Roughneen, Aug 09)

KLs Petronas Towers (Simon Roughneen, Aug 09)

In what Kuala Lumpur’s Star newspaper dubbed ‘ a political tsunami’, elections in tourist-haven Malaysia have cut the ruling coalition majority by a third, and threaten discord in the usually peaceful multiethnic society. The shockwaves hit in earnest on Tuesday when the new ethnic Chinese-led state government- in industrial powerhouse state Penang – stated it would discard a long-running and controversial pro-Malay affirmative action policy. The last time Malay interests were challenged so directly, in 1969, race riots left over 1000 Chinese dead.

In Saturdays election, the incumbent National Front coalition lost control of four state governments and shed 60 seats, as ethnic minority voters deserted the coalition that has governed since independence, raising questions about Malaysia’s future stability. The 14-party amalgam came into the election with a mammoth 199 out 220 seats, a 91% majority garnered with only 64% of the popular vote in the last election, held 2004. While the NF remains at the helm, its reduced majority means the hitherto typical rule-by-fiat will not longer be possible. Chinese- and Indian-Malaysian voters have opted for ethnic opposition parties, and even some of the country’s 60% Malay majority have voiced their concerns over growing crime, economic slowdown and ethnic tensions, by divesting from the status quo.

In August 2007, the country marked the 50th anniversary of its independence, but one of the world’s post-colonial successes has seen a marked rise in ethnic and religious tensions over the past year, in a Muslim-majority country. Since 1969, the majority Malays, all Muslim according to national law, have benefitted from the New Economic Policy (NEP). NEP gives Malays preferential treatment in business start-up, education and housing, and was implemented after vicious race riots in 1969 left over 1000 Malaysian-Chinese dead. The idea is that eventually the Malays will ascend to socio-economic ladder to be on a par with others, particularly the Chinese community, which has dominated trade and enterprise. Critics from the Chinese and Indian communities, mainly Christian and Hindu respectively and making up around 34% of the population in total, feel that the programme has run its course.

Adding to these divisions has been what non-Malays feel to be an encroaching Islamisation of politics and society. Last year, a high-profile case saw a Muslim Malay convert to Christianity, Lina Joy, be told that her conversion was inadmissible in the country’s civil courts, as it was a sharia matter. This effectively rendered her conversion illegitimate, or at best, in limbo, under national law, and more generally, apparently placed Islamic law above its secular civil counterpart in the juridicial heirarchy. That was followed by an official attempt to proscribe Christians from using the term ‘Allah’ to refer to God.

Malaysian Hindu’s are mostly Tamils brought as indentured migrant labour from India during British colonial rule. Generally poorer than Malays, though government statistics will outline otherwise, they have been more strident than local Chinese in protesting Malaysia’s political malaise, taking to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in their thousands last autumn, only to be met by baton-wielding, tear gas-pumping water cannon-spraying police. Five lawyers – the protest frontmen – from the Hindu Rights Action Force were then detained without trial, under Malaysia’s draconian internal security laws., but one of these won a seat in the Saturday polls. A Chinese party swept the board in Penang, hub of the electronics industry and source of half the country’s exports.

While the leaching of Chinese and Indian support for the NF was predictable, the key variable was whether some Malays desert United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the main Malay component of the NF. The volume of seats lost suggests that enough Malays did just that. UMNOs unprecedented losses have prompted calls for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to quit. His predecessor Mahathir Mohamed, famous for his acerbic lecturing of the West on the merits of ‘Asian Values’, has led the charge. The PM said he is going nowhere, apart from meeting the monarch next week to take the oath of office. Mohamed’s chagrin at the decline of his once-omnipotent party may be exacerbated by the revival of Anwar Ibrahim, who Mohamed had jailed for corruption and sodomy back in 1998. Anwar remains, after Mohamed, Malaysia’s best-known politician, and despite being barred from running in the election, is the opposition figurehead.

The loss of the two-thirds majority in parliament means that the National Front will have to mean meaning a toning-down of the pro-Malay agenda, given the new balance of power in parliament, and this may ease inter-communal tensions. However, the enemy-of-my-enemy electoral alliance building now prevalent, means that the elections did more than just revive Anwar Ibrahim or boost opposition Chinese and Indian parties. The Malaysian Islamic Party will feature prominently in the opposition coalition, now quadrupled in size from 2004. It ditched plans to turn the country into a full sharia state, as it courted ethnic opposition to UMNO. This party sees UMNO as insufficiently and insincerely Islamist, and as having rejected the ‘universalism’ of Islam for a narrow Malay-ethnic politicised version. The question now is: will the four other states that have elected opposition parties also reverse NEP, following the potentially-explosive example set by Penang?

Simon Roughneen reported from Malaysia on a number of occasions during 2007, for ISN and The Irish Times.

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