“Flooding Malaysia with pictures of a smiling, almost saintly Najib ignored the PM’s deep unpopularity”

Illustratioon by sul.

Illustratioon by sul.

Three weeks in, and Malaysians are finally getting used to a new government for the next five years. But what does this mean for a country that’s coming off 60 years of single-party rule.

John Funston, a visiting fellow in the department of political and social change at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australia National University, believes the outcome of the May 9 elections was perhaps the most remarkable.

A leading scholar on Malaysia and Southeast Asian studies, Funston’s work spans more than four decades, and among his seminal works is the book Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of Umno and PAS, published in 1980.

His most recent contributions are: “Umno – From Hidup Melayu to Ketuanan Melayu”, in Bridget Welsh’s The End of Umno: Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party (2016); as well as “Change and Elections: 1969 and 2013 Similarities” in Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore (2018), also edited by Welsh.

Here, Funston speaks about that eventful day when Malaysians voted for change, the political future of the country, as well as the challenging road ahead for Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Umno.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows:  

Share with us some of your initial reactions when then news of Pakatan Harapan’s victory reached you? Were you expecting that?

At a time of world-wide election upsets, a PH victory in Malaysia was perhaps the most remarkable. It was a vote for democracy, not a populist rejection of democracy as in Trump’s America. The obstacles PH faced in defeating an entrenched and ruthless authoritarian regime were much greater than those experienced by the supporters of Trump and Brexit.

And PH’s margin of victory was much greater than the narrow wins in the US and UK – PH and allies won 125 seats (with 50% of the popular vote) against the ruling BN’s 79 seats (only a third of the popular vote). Umno, the dominant party in BN, declined from 88 to 54 seats.  

(Islamic party PAS – previously in the opposition alliance – took 18 seats and the remainder of the popular vote.)

In 12 contested state assemblies BN went from controlling nine to two.

By midnight Australian time it had become clear that the opposition would win. The following hours were tense as BN leaders sought to overturn this result, but these efforts ended with Mahathir Mohamad’s swearing in around 10pm. The full extent of PH’s win became apparent shortly after this.

Was this a result I expected? GE14 was more unpredictable than any previous election because the politically-dominant Malay electorate had never been confronted with such a wide array of choices – Umno, PAS, and three PH parties, PKR, Bersatu and Amanah.

The impact of three-cornered fights for most peninsula seats was also difficult to assess. I thought the overwhelming advantages of incumbency would probably see the BN over the line.

I did see a PH win as possible because of the BN’s inability to regain Malay support after the 1999 election, a momentum shift in PH’s favour in the last week of the campaign. What I was not prepared for, however, was the massive support for PH, including  states such as Sabah and Sarawak (the “fixed deposit” states) and Johor.

Most of the polls, save for a couple, expected a Barisan win but with a lower popular vote. This was a massive swing. Election polling is tough business, but what did the polls miss? 

I suspect they were not able to take into account the impact of three-cornered contests. Malaysian pollsters (Invoke and Merdeka) were largely correct, except that they failed to predict PAS successes. Bridget Welsh reported that the result would be close, and that PAS remained influential in Kelantan and Terengganu.

Poll respondents may have hidden their intentions – several reports said respondents were fearful of declaring support for PH. And the rapid change in momentum over the last few days may have been too late to be included in poll surveys. 

Let’s break down BN’s messaging going into the May 9 contest. It was a typical one: 1) using economic performance to defend its political legitimacy; 2) typecasting DAP as a treat to Islam and the Malays; 3) distributing various types of handouts. What went wrong with this decades-old formula?

I would add two further matters that were at the heart of BN messaging: putting Najib at the centre of the BN campaign and calling for a strong show of gratitude to him; and dismissing all opposition criticisms of BN, especially in relation to the 1MDB scandal, as “lies”.

Among the reasons this messaging failed to make an impact were:

The economic message failed to convince because the electorate experienced a sharp increase in the cost of living, particularly as a result of a highly unpopular GST.

Demonisation of the DAP has made little impact in recent elections, perhaps in part because in recent times the party has attracted a number of high-profile Malays to its ranks, and DAP leaders have worked cooperatively with Malay opposition leaders (other than those in PAS).

Handouts failed probably because PH mounted a strong campaign to argue that this was merely giving their taxes back, and asked the electorate to vote for pride, not bribe.

Flooding Malaysia with pictures of a smiling, benevolent, almost saintly Najib, supported by “I love Najib” banners at election rallies, ignored the prime minister’s deep unpopularity – caused by factors such as multiple corruption scandals (particularly 1MDB), autocratic style, and ostentatious lifestyle shared with his wife. Najib’s omnipresence contrasted unfavourably with the BN-controlled Election Commission cutting out photos of PH leader Mahathir.

BN was unable to dismiss accusations of massive corruption by claiming that this was all opposition lies. A nation-wide roadshow by 1MDB CEO Arul Kanda Kandasamy attracted nothing but ridicule. And 1MDB was not the only scandal – a string of others involved Felda, allegations of massive Defence Ministry corruption made by former minister Rafidah Aziz a few weeks before the election, and long-standing cases such as the purchase of French submarines and a cattle project involving the family of the head of Umno’s women’s wing (NFCorp).

In all cases BN relied simply on denials, and failed to provide documentation. Apart from such campaign issues, several other factors contributed to the election outcome.

Both sides had many campaign weaknesses, but PH did better than BN. It was able to decide on allocation of parliamentary seats well before the election, and published its manifesto before BN did. Mahathir was a much more effective communicator than Najib.

The alliance between former enemies, Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, brought together the two most charismatic Malay leaders, each with committed followers. PH also used social media more effectively than BN, offsetting BN control of the mainstream media.

The electorate also reacted against BN unfairness – from use of its parliamentary majority to rush through legislation approving a grossly unfair electoral redelineation and an anti-fake news law; use of the Registry of Societies to prevent PH registering as a party and suspending the registration of Bersatu; use of the Election Commission to impose multiple obstacles before the PH, including the aforementioned redelineation; outlawing the use of Mahathir’s picture; refusing to allow over 100,000 voters registered in the first quarter of 2018 to vote; and refusal to allow the government’s own Human Rights Commission to monitor elections.

In spite of such obstacles, trained election monitors of PH and NGOs such as Bersih were able to ensure reasonably fair elections.

Finally, three-way contests did not provide the advantages BN had expected. In some cases this did help Umno, but overall PH and PAS benefitted more.

Many say this is a “Malaysian tsunami”. Your thoughts? Are we going to see a change by way of a post-racial Malaysia or will race-based policies still have a place moving forward? 

Voters rejected the ketuanan Melayu doctrine espoused forcefully by Umno and PAS before the election. But race was still important. The Malay-only Bersatu took votes from Umno, and was necessary to get PH across the line.

I’m thinking about the social contract” and whether we will see a new or more egalitarian one where all races are able to stand on equal footing and affirmative action is based on needs rather than ethnicity?  

Claims of a “social contract” first emerged during the 1980s, and were based on the idea of Malay dominance (“ketuanan Melayu”). More recently others have sought to link this to commitment to an Islamic state.

This was not the original “bargain” arrived at for Malayan independence in 1957, which was for a country that retained important symbols of Malay identity, but was to be democratic, secular and extend essentially equal rights to all through a common citizenship.

The PH government has already indicated it will give greater attention to needs rather than ethnicity, but many of its opponents remain committed to the ketuanan doctrine, and will likely make their views known forcefully.

How does this affect BN and its multiracial dynamics? Its component parties were decimated.

BN, established by Najib’s father Abdul Razak in 1974, has effectively ended. Non-Malay representation on the peninsula has been reduced to two for the Malaysian Indian Congress and one for the Malaysian Chinese Association.

Non-Malays have deserted the BN, and there is little likelihood they will regain any ground in the future. That leaves Umno with two alternatives, either to address non-Malay concerns by reorganising the party as a multi-racial entity, or pursue a more intense ethno-nationalist path by establishing a firmer relationship with PAS.

On that note, is this the end of Umno? (Yes, it's a play on Welsh's book of the same title.)

Umno is in disarray at the moment. Its leadership has been discredited, its financial dominance taken away, and its ability to impose its will through control of government has ended. Reform has often been attempted in the past without success.

Both Abdullah Badawi and Najib began their leadership promising Umno would be more democratic and would end corruption. But they made no progress, and reform is much more difficult now.

Still, if it can begin this process in the current parliamentary term – and especially if the PH falters – it may slowly return to compete in the political arena, as others such as the Congress Party in India and the LDP in Japan have done.

While we are on the book, I'd like to get your thoughts on the final two paragraphs of your chapter, "Umno - from hidup Melayu to Ketuanan Melayu". You wrote:

“But the impetus for change within Umno is weak, conservative groups are well organised and vocal, and opposition parties so far have been too divided to pose a serious threat. 

“Past crises have often exacted a heavy price, pushing the party and the state further away from democracy and towards more ethno-nationalist solutions. A concerted effort will be needed to prevent this happening again.

How did all these play in the run-up to the polls?

In the two years since I wrote these words Umno did not change, it continued to drift towards ethno-nationalist solutions, but the opposition successfully cooperated to resist this. The 1MDB crisis was critical, pushing Mahathir and Anwar into cooperation and offering electors a choice.

I am still thinking about the possibilities of a real Umno-Barisan Nasional comeback.

As noted, an eventual Umno comeback cannot be ruled out. After the initial euphoria public dissatisfaction is inevitable.

Among the multitude of issues the PH government must address are investigating numerous corruption cases; jailing the corrupt; reforming a politicised bureaucracy and judiciary; passing a raft of new laws; allowing media freedom; reforming the education system; and introducing new economic policies to aid the less well-to-do while ensuring the economy continues to grow and foreign investment remains.

It has to make such changes while managing difficult relations between five coalition partners, and will face intense opposition from influential Malay NGOs and sections of the Islamic bureaucracy committed to the ketuanan Melayu doctrine.

Major political change has usually been followed by disillusionment, and this provides the best hope for a future Umno comeback.

Now, Mahathir is back as prime minister. What are some of the pros and cons of having him at the helm? 

Mahathir is seeking redemption for past mistakes. Having suffered from the excesses which his earlier rule facilitated, he seems genuinely committed to consultation, democratic rule, accountability, transparency, and the rule of law.

The extent of this change has been dramatically illustrated in his appointment of Lim Guan Eng to the important post of finance minister – Mahathir the ketuanan supporter of old would never have contemplated such a move. He also brings an experienced hand to pulling the levers of political power.  

Still, many remain hostile because they remember the old Mahathir, including democrats, Islamists and sultans. Relations with Anwar Ibrahim will inevitably be strained – each has supporters who remain hostile to the other side. And Mahathir’s propensity for abrasive comments on foreign policy issues may cause difficulties from time to time.

Pakatan Harapan is banking on institutional reforms to carry them over. Its critics say it lacks sound economic policies referring to the zerorising/abolishing of the GST, among others. Has the coalition bit off more than it can chew? Or will the conviction of Najib over 1MDB be enough to placate the masses?

Mahathir has started well by appointing a five-member group of eminent persons with strong economic credentials. The new government will need to establish its own credibility – other achievements including possible conviction of Najib will not be sufficient if basic economic needs are not met.

What is the likelihood of a disintegration of PH? Previous opposition coalitions were never stable. Then it was the DAP-PAS dynamic. PAS is out on its own. But Mahathir has never been reliable either, with his reputation for airing his grouses. We are also seeing the comeback of Anwar. Will the coalition stand the test of time at least for a term or two?

PH will face enormous challenges, for reasons already noted. The absence of PAS helps, and so far it has made a reasonable start.

Read more: Malaysia’s “new” politics and the fall of Barisan Nasional