How will Malaysians interpret the 14th general election? Its predecessors – 2008 and 2013 – were about change and hope, respectively. Change happened: the country finally saw the makings of a capable opposition under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim. But hope?
If anything, this coming elections is about resilience on both sides of the political divide: for Barisan Nasional, particularly Umno, it will be about legitimacy; for the opposition, it will be about the validity of its struggle as the better and much-desired alternative. In reality, the two blocs seem to be out of touch with reality.
Helping to make sense of what lies ahead for Malaysians come GE14 is seasoned observer and scholar Bridget Welsh, who was recently in town to talk about her upcoming book Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore.
She argues that this elections will ultimately be a battle of different versions of the past as opposed to fundamental shifts and changes.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I’ll kick this off with the coming general election, and as it’s around the corner and you have been studying and observing Malaysia for a very long time, what has changed since GE13 and what's unique this time round?
Let's start with some of the basics first. Of course, we have a different opposition where we have a split opposition between PAS and Pakatan Harapan, and PAS has seen to be closely allied with Umno although officially independent.
I think PAS has a bit of an identity crisis in that type of situation, but this opposition dynamic makes more for a very messy contest especially in close three-corner races. Disproportionally, the three-corner dynamic advantages the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN), although not in all seats.
Some seats in fact it would work to the advantage of the opposition such as a seat like Seremban where three-corners will strengthen DAP's hand. But I think for the most part, what we see is a situation where we have a more divided opposition.
The second thing that has shifted is BN or Umno itself. This election is about political weakness on the part of both the opposition and the government. Najib Razak is the most unpopular prime minister in history and he is trying to carry an election not with his own persona but on his use of the office that he holds, and the use of the resources that he controls.
In the context of the governing coalition, it has good reason not to have confidence because of this sense of weakness, the weight that the coalition is carrying. In 2013, Najib carried Umno and the BN; now Umno and the BN are carrying Najib, and although the media portrays this differently, that is the reality.
This election is also not about reform on either side. The opposition is very much being led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Mahathir is representing a version of the past and Najib is again also representing the past. He has been in office for almost ten years.
It’s a question of which versions of history will dominate and whether or not people will see their future in those respective histories. This is an election is about different versions of the past as opposed to fundamental shifts and changes.
The perception is also different in that the people are missing in this election. Not only there is a sense of apathy or disengagement or a lack of choice among some sections of society, especially in the urban electorate and among young people, but its seems more so than other elections, very much about a contest of personal power as opposed to fundamentally coming up with policies and programmes to address the concerns of the electorate.
And politicians will say, “We are better. They are not.” But they are focused on each other and there is that missing element and you can feel that – there is no real excitement.
A lot of minds have been made up already and the big issue is: how many people will stay home? So, in contrast to the protest votes in 2008 or even in 2013, there may be more silent protests.
Despite what everybody is saying that this is in the bag, I argue that this election is one of the most uncertain, disproportionate and most competitive elections in the country's history.
In part because new seats have become competitive as a result of the three-corner races and, of course, by the contestation of Mahathir. So we have states like Kedah and Johor that are much more competitive than they might be.
Kelantan remains competitive, again, in part, if we go back to this issue of weakness, PAS is weak. It’s split and has continued divisions within it. They all talk as if they are psychopathically behind the leader, and it’s the same thing in Umno.
But those divisions are very quietly percolating and you know people feel a sense of not anger – which we saw in 2008 nor hope as we saw in 2013 – but I would say discontent. And that's a different type of emotion.
Also, in this election, emotions will be the decisive factor, and that the use of identity politics is becoming pervasive and the playing of ethnic groups. Old tactics, but they have taken on a different parameter as my new book points to.
But I would say that identity politics will be something all sides will try to use, and in a very calculated way, to galvanise support. Because they are not offering anything much different in terms of platforms. So due to this disconnect among the electorate, they are going to depend on identity politics to galvanise people.
For example, I project that Najib's close relationship with Donald Trump will be used by some people to say they shouldn't vote for him. The use of Islam and religion will be played by Umno, PAS and also the opposition. These sort of identity politics are going to be quite important, in that kind of diversions from the status quo.
The final thing that is quite important in understanding this election is, despite it being very competitive, many people don’t see this as an election that is going to yield outcomes. In part because the contest itself is highly rigged and in part because a lot of people don’t see political parties as being able to find solutions to their problems. So it’s in that context, these uncertainties will play out in very interesting sets of ways.
And anybody who tells you they know they are going to know the results, is either a fool or a liar and I would try not to put myself among those. We can see those trends but whether or not we see those results, is a very different thing.
So will this discontent and disconnect we are talking about be realised by way of a lower voter turnout?
Absolutely. Voter turnout will be decisive in the results but disconnect has actually led to many different types of things that are not being recognised. We see the dominance of “right politics”, or the narrative of the right.
If we look on social media, we have very pronounced echo chambers in Malaysia. We also see on social media, among some parts of the Malay community, very powerful ultra conservative messages being exchanged..
Some of it with fake news. Some of it with identity politics that are very conservative – anti-Chinese, “don’t elect a Chinese person” – vis a vis the politics of racism and the politics of intolerance that we can see in parts of the right. And that narrative is sometimes played out in the media and it seems to predominate.
Then we also have very interesting narratives that this disconnect is hiding. We see identity politics among Malaysian Indians and there is a lot of dissatisfaction about the treatment of the community and the lack of and this is a product of the weakness of the BN.
There is no meaningful Indian leaders in the system and so is it a makkal sakti (Tamil phrase for people power)? Not yet. But is there disconnect? Yes. Is there discontent? Absolutely. Is there discussion? Yes.
And, again, we don’t see this, right? Because what we see is being told to us in a narrative which is predominantly the narrative of the right or the narrative of the government, which is heavily using its propaganda and its cybertrolls and others.
But that doesn't take away from that there is a narrative of vulnerability and let's be real, despite what government says, living in Malaysia is the most expensive it has ever been. Incomes are not making ends meet. Everyone – especially the lower and middle classes – are feeling those differences in the past.
For goodness sake, who pays RM40 at a public hospital for parking and this is just for a night? When certain families don’t want to get sick because they can’t afford it, that's telling you something: that wasn’t the Malaysia of the past, but this is the Malaysia of today.
Yet despite all these issues, Umno is still here. It has survived economic crises, dissent, scandals. Why is it so resilient?
We can point to a few very important changes. In my previous book, The End of Umno, the central argument of that book is the Umno of the past is dead and that a new party is emerging.
I am assuming you are not referring to Umno Baru?
Not an Umno Baru in the sense of the Mahathir, but an Umno that is not based on certain principles and necessarily a party tied to long established machinery.
It has become more centralised. It has become much more about interests of becoming privatised. It has become much more corrupt and it has become much more – for a lack of a better word – conservative and insular as a result of the transformation that it has and that also has become a part of its weakness.
What we've seen in the last few years is that Umno has become Najib's party: it's full of sycophants. And why is that? Well the dominant issue is about economic interests in the party.
Umno has always been a vehicle of Malay political and social advancement from its origins. That has not shifted. But the way that it has gone about and the mechanisms and the measures and the tools have somewhat shifted.
And Najib has been effective in using the office from his position and the levers of the other parts of the executive, from the MACC and his control over appointments, to secure those interests.
That there is limited debate and discussion and even challenge within the party, doesn’t mean there isn’t discontent. There is. But that discontent is not voiced in such a manner because they know that there is positioning and interests that are dominant and people are in a kind of wait-and-see mode.
Also I think leaders of or from Umno, be it Anwar or Mahathir and I would say be it Najib, should learn from the past: in that loyalty is not personal, loyalty is to the position.
So its resilient because it controls those levers and it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the levers themselves insure the resilience but the mechanisms that the party has adopted have shifted and changed and that is what the book discusses.
It talks about the shifting natures of patronage and electoral manipulation and how that has evolved in different ways. The use of ideology and the use of ethnic politics in different mechanisations as well as Najib's ability to use crises as a way to bring people together inside the party.
Najib was very effective in making 1MDB the ship that sank the government and in fact it nearly did, but the burden that Malaysians will have to pay for this kleptocracy is very high.
So what are the traditional explanations? Economic legitimacy and economic performance. Now, it is not really about how much the government moves, but where you fit within the inequality scale and those factors.
Traditionally it is about ethnic relations and being able to accommodate different views. Now it is using polarisation to your advantage. Traditionally it is been about leadership, now it's about position.
Traditionally it has been about engagement, in terms of the sense of responsiveness in the system, now there's much less of that, because the system and the civil service are overburned because of the budget cuts they have had to make in the institutions themselves, and that the corruption within the civil service is at a much higher level than before.
And services have been affected in real sense, in terms of meaningful areas. Najib's rural support doesn’t come from just education and media. It comes from the fact that Umno helped bring about a different quality of life in these rural areas, but some of that is now eroding in very meaningful ways.
You could just see some of the roads, especially in certain areas. God bless, Sarawak and the Sarawakians who drive on the roads that they suffer.
So, I am giving you a long answer to these questions to point out that these traditional factors have to be conceptualised somewhat differently. Umno is resilient not just because it controls them, but because it adapts and because Najib has chosen to make these choices.
But these choices come at costs and that contributes to what I was saying earlier, to the politics of weakness, because these choices are undercutting the future for the country, not strengthening it.
Now, I am looking at the opposition and it has been promising a lot of stuff. But how successful will it be, should it come to power?
One has to look at the records of Selangor and Penang, and voters need to ask themselves is the government better now than what it was beforehand? People have different opinions on that, but all I can say is, as someone who lives in Selangor, that the trash is picked up, and there have been some noticeable improvements in governments that I can point to.
There have been some debates and issues about questions of managing parks and roads among others that would perhaps not have happened in the past. Does it mean that things are ideal in terms of questions of corruption or questions associated with where it should be? Far from it.
So you have to begin by asking what type of governance is there and what’s your standard and where you want to be in that context. I’m not a voter but a resident some of the time and I would say this is not so easy questions to answer.
But going back to this broader question of whether or not the opposition is or has been able to move in a very different sets of ways and will they fulfil their sets of promises, one has to understand that the problems of Malaysia are not rooted only in politics, but they extend into the education system, they extend into media socialisation, that corruption is much a responsibility of the business community as it is of the politicians.
Racism is much a responsibility of ordinary citizens as it is of the system itself, and how do you get beyond those things when you have been socialised for such a long time into these sets of norms and practices? A part of it is you need to have leaders that are not corrupt and are leaders that are not racist, but when you have leaders that are both, then it doesn’t help the situation.
And not all of the opposition people send a consistent message in this regard but the underlying drivers have to shift in this country and have to involve education, a reform and a strengthening of institutions to make them more inclusive, and this will only come with good leadership and a recognition of wanting to have some sort of cooperation to put the country and people first.
If I look throughout the year about things where I felt positive about what people were doing, one of those were the reactions of the Penang floods, where you actually saw opposition and government people actually sitting down and you saw a mobilisation of civil society to help.
This is a moment you say, “Wow, Malaysia boleh. Betul boleh.” And you feel heartened by these types of outreach initiatives because people put away their blinders for that. Are people capable of it? Yes. But the environment needs to be conducive to that, so this is where questions arises where the electorate will have to make those types of choices.
What hopes and aspirations they want in that context? Do they want to accept the status quo or do they want to realise something different even if it’s not necessarily exactly what they think it is going to be?
And Malaysians – in contrast to many other places – are very patient but they are also very accepting. There is a sense of the silent majority wanting one thing: a better Malaysia, a better future for their children, a better future for their grandchildren, and you know that goes back to what I said, the weakness and the disconnect and the dissatisfaction – we need to be conscious of that.
I mean people are talking about policies from both sides and assessing them. But generally do voters have policy preferences?
Some do. There is a sophistication among a lot of the Malaysian electorate and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Although in the campaigns themselves people aren’t thinking about tax policy and the like, because the reality is there is very little difference between Pakatan and BN, in terms of economic policy. The only big difference is PAS doesn’t have an economic policy.
So it comes down to what is the different between Pakatan and BN. And Pakatan tries to portray itself like, “Look, we'll give you more”. That’s not necessarily a constructive policy; it’s just a sense of trying to outbid and you are outbidding someone who has the money when you don't have the money.
So people look at you and say, “Well, I'd rather bid with someone who has the money.” It's a bad tactic.
But there are some issues that do connect with certain electorate such as the policy towards education, towards their children, and importantly the issues of shariah and Islamic law are connecting with different parts of the electorate in varying, salient ways.
People are concerned about these issues and unfortunately these issues are not necessarily treated with a degree of nuance that is meaningful. But I think to say that people are not concerned with what these will do and how they will be implemented – it’s a misnomer.
One example, is the management of the environment. This is an issue that resonates in places like Kuantan for obvious reasons and generally people are conscious of that – the managing of the hills and local communities and landslides. These did have impact in 2008 and 2013, and would have impact in the next election in 2018.
So we are looking at Penang, Selangor and Pahang and let's not forget, these flooding problems in Kelantan can also be traced to the mismanagement of the environment and the deforestation that has happened.
In Machang, we have still has a problem in terms of communities not being built and houses not being built. Parts of Kelantan are still recovering from the flooding disaster few years ago and frankly it's a disgrace – it's a disgrace to the state and the federal governments that you have this level of mismanagement of these things to this day.
And this in part is due to Kelantan being so far away that people don’t see how ordinary Kelantanese are still suffering.
So how do choices get formed, or opinions get framed under a resilient regime?
One of the things that Najib has been very successful from 2008 to now, is to dominate the social media and the digital space. We have about 80% internet penetration in Malaysia and depending on how you look at the mechanisms, social media usage, look at who controls those narratives. The narratives, especially in the Malay community, are controlled by the BN.
And that's part of an adaptation strategy and controlling those sets of discourses. PAS also has quite a significant following but, again, you have to look at how that's evolving and who is speaking to whom and how.
And English speakers don’t follow the Malay social media and Chinese speakers just treat it as a different world and for them it is a different world. So until you cross into the different chambers of different discourses, you are not recognising how the world’s perceiving it.
I mean all the opposition supporters think that there's nothing else and all the government supporters think there's nothing else. So you are living in different twilight zones. But there are people who crossover because of family connections and others. These crossovers are in the minority.
Do we need a stronger or different party system then to correct some of the systemic issues in the country at the moment? Are we in need of something radically different if we want to – for lack of a better phrase – dismantle the regime?
You need different narratives, and you need leadership to portray and to focus on those narratives, and you need people to stand out for some of the things that are right and to put the people first.
For good or bad, all the politicians across the divide are perceived to putting themselves first. And there everybody is so righteous and they all think they are right when in fact this in itself is very alienating.
Look, mistakes get made, some of them are substantive and some of them are less substantive. The question is accountability for those mistakes and learning the right lessons and having solutions to address them.
The mode is fake news, propaganda and it's feeding a lot of cynicism that is existing within society. So, the party system itself is not the solution. Some people say should there be a new party?
We have a big change in the run up to the next election. We see a different sets of political alliances and the opposition or Pakatan Harapan for the first time is arguably one of the most secular alternatives the country has ever had in terms of an opposition coalition.
That doesn’t mean it’s not representing the communities and looking at issues of ethnic and religious faith, but it is very different than with PAS there. So that is a different alternative.
The question is people don’t yet fully understand what is different about them because they seem to be hesitant to speak out for a different set of narratives, so as a consequence the government narrative dominates.
I think civil society here serves as a check and balance but is it doing its job? I’m looking at people like Bersih 2.0, Lawyers for Liberty and all the other activist groups. Because, from my observation at least, they come off as partisan.
First of all, we have civil and uncivil society in Malaysia. We have a very robust civil society and non-governmental organisations. Some of them are partisan, either pro-government or opposition.
One of the biggest developments in the last five years has been an expansion of uncivil society and those kind of organisations, of which many of them have received some government funding, but not exclusively. And they represent very different visions of the future.
But we have to be cautious to treat civil society as all pro-opposition or others. A second big development is civil society has now become, more or less, disenchanted with partisan politics, given the fact that they are not so clear and do not see the change that come about at the polls.
So many parts of civil society have chosen to engage in alternative types of activities, philanthropy, working directly with the poor, or through social services such as teaching. I think one has to appreciate there is still considerable citizenship within civil society.
And even in parts of uncivil society, they also engage in philanthropy and others, but just different groups. But there is a sophistication and transformation of civil society groups in terms of how they engage politically and what they conceptualise as politics is actually very different.
That said, I think in between these two groups is a third group consisting of people doing important things. I hope to have a piece out soon having traced the impact of Bersih's movement going from the streets to the courtroom.
And I think Bersih has done a big service to the country by taking all these legal cases to challenge the delineation process, and that in itself is important because this involves the fundamental representation of ordinary Malaysians.
And being part of protesting or being part of articulating parts of a different community has become the norm, so much so people don’t see this as something as unique, but in fact for those of us who have been in Malaysia and connected to Malaysia for a long time, this is very different.
Ten years ago you wouldn’t talk about being part of a movement but civil society today are in large numbers and does that speak to civil society doing its job? I don’t think about it as a job per se but more of a passion, a commitment in terms of being able to transform society and to make it in itself more civil and that is happening.
But if there are weakness in civil society, they can be twofold. One, they succumb to the weaknesses in the system itself by personalising things. And these things become very petty in terms of the discussions and very narrowly focused.
Two, they live in their own echo chambers. When we always think we are right, we are always right and therefore everybody else is wrong. We learn more from our mistakes than from the things we do right and I think the challenge for civil society is to understand what those lessons are, and to evolve and figure out how to apply those lessons.
Some groups do it better than others, but keep in mind without civil society we would not have important discussions about women's rights, accountability, corruption, and many of these individuals have been on the frontlines of an increasingly, more oppressive response by the government to those groups.
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