Malaysia’s Coming Elections: Between Change and Inertia

Farish A. Noor

Posted Feb 14, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia’s Coming Elections: Between Change and Inertia

By Farish A. Noor

And so, with the dissolution of the Malaysian Parliament on Wednesday, Malaysia is heading to the elections once again. The precise date of the 12th General Elections of Malaysia is yet to be known, but it is clear that this will be one of the more hotly contested elections that Malaysia has witnessed.

Over the past two years alone a string of controversies have stirred the Malaysian public’s interest in the goings-on in the corridors of power in the country: The highly publicised case of the murder of a Mongolian model has dragged many a famous name (including that of politicians) into the limelight; the revelation of irregularities in the appointment of senior judges has brought the judiciary into close focus; the destruction of a number of Hindu temples has aroused the anger of many Malaysian Hindus; while the plethora of on-going marriage and divorce cases between Muslims and non-Muslims has added to the widening of the gulf between the religious and ethnic communities in the country.

What is more, the spate of public demonstrations – many of which took place in the capital Kuala Lumpur – would suggest that sections of the Malaysian public are more politically aware and politically literate than before. The BERSIH campaign calling for free and fair elections, for instance, was a movement that is rooted in Malaysia’s civil society and which cut across the racial, ethnic and religious divides which have always been the salient markers of the Malaysian political landscape. Conversely the demonstrations organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) would suggest that communitarian and sectarian political remains a defining factor of Malaysian politics until today.

All eyes will now be on the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who faces the tough prospect of retaining the public’s support for a second term.

Badawi came to power following the resignation of former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, who led – and in many ways transformed – Malaysia for more than two decades. In the immediate aftermath of Mahathir’s unannounced resignation that stunned the nation, Badawi was chosen as his successor. Yet when Badawi came to power with an enormous mandate in the elections of 2004 (with one of the highest approval ratings ever given to any Malaysian leader) he promised a wide range of reforms that included the promise of greater accountability, transparency and a thorough overhaul of some of the key institutions of government including the civil service, judiciary and police force.

Four years on, there seems to be the widespread perception that the Badawi administration has failed to deliver. Despite earlier promises that the long-standing cases of alleged corruption and nepotism between government and the corporate sector were to be resolved, no major cases have been dealt with until now. Instead the Malaysian public has been witness to a number of embarrassing revelations about the murky dealings within the governmental system instead.

Another area where Badawi seems weak is his stand on Islam, which was encapsulated in his vision of a modern, progressive, ‘Islam Hadari’. While admittedly Badawi has expressed the keen desire to see Islam understood and practiced in a universal, inclusive and tolerant manner, the realities on the ground would suggest that the religious authorities in the country have not taken heed of any of the universal principles he has espoused all along: The seizure of Bibles by Malaysian customs officers, the activities of the morality police that spy on the private lives of Malaysians, the banning of books that are deemed ‘a threat’ to Islam and Muslims, etc. have all prompted Malaysians to ask: ‘What sort of modern, progressive Islam is this?’

But Badawi’s greatest challenge to date has been the pervading presence of his former mentor Tun Mahathir himself. More than the danger of increased communitarian and sectarian politics, more than the challenge of a resurgent Islamic party (PAS) waiting to regain control of the Muslim-majority states, more than the challenge posed by the new generation of politically-conscious urban civil society activists and dedicated professional classes; it is the dominating presence of Tun Mahathir that looms over the Badawi government at the moment.

When Badawi promised a new era of transparency and openness, many observers of Malaysian politics noted that this was a departure from the ways of the Mahathir administration. To some extent it has to be said that Malaysia’s civil society and media have indeed opened up, with issues being discussed in the public domain as never before. But this has also incurred a cost to the Badawi government, and it has irked those who were more comfortable with the ways of the Mahathir era when governance was strictly a top-down unilateral process with less public participation.

The down-sizing of several mammoth projects that were initiated during the Mahathir period, the revelation of corruption and abuse of power dating back to the 1980s, the attempt to introduce some degree of accountability to the workings of the police and security forces; etc have been seen as a means of overturning many of the developments made during Mahathir’s time. The former Prime Minister has further upped the stakes by publicly stating that Badawi was perhaps not the best man to replace him, and to suggest that Badawi may eventually be a ‘one-term’ Prime Minister.

This, then, is one of the core issues that is really being fought out in the coming elections of Malaysia. While the Badawi government is pressed to take on the opposition parties and to address a host of demands from a wide section of Malaysia’s now vocal civil society, the real – and perhaps only – threat to Badawi’s position in power comes from the old guard of the ruling elite and governmental system itself, who do not relish the prospect of real, long term institutional change, reform and modernisation. The 12th General Elections of Malaysia will therefore determine whether the reform process continues, or whether institutional inertia will win the day.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.