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Ethnic unity ushers in a new phase in Malaysia

By Michael Leigh - posted Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Malaysians have voted for a sea change, shocking the leadership of a coalition that has governed Malaysia for more than half a century and, in doing so, removed the basis for the historical success of the ruling National Front Coalition.

The coalition has now lost its crucial two-thirds majority in Parliament, a majority that has enabled it to amend the constitution at will for its own benefit. The Government has used this untramelled power to fundamentally reshape the polity, suspended opposition state governments, abolished the independence of the Electoral Commission (allowing gerrymandering to become an established art form) and declared states of emergency when its political power has been challenged.

Indeed, since federation in 1957, about 650 single and 42 multiple amendments have been made to the Malaysian constitution. One of the most recent constitutional amendments specified that no election result could be challenged based on the validity of the electoral roll. But the political landscape has changed overnight after the Government won only 140 of the 222 seats in the national Parliament in Saturday’s poll. The opposition has won 82 and a majority of seats in five state legislatures. Crucially, the government will no longer be able to change the constitution to bolster its position.


A great deal of credit for this landmark change must go to the People’s Justice Party (PKR), led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. It was Anwar’s persistence in hammering out agreements between the three major opposition parties, that only one of their representatives would contest each constituency, which is absolutely essential for any hope of success in a first past-the-post voting system. PKR won 30 extra parliamentary seats and was able to draw on a multiracial support base, and also attract urban Malay voters in a swathe of constituencies where no one race dominated the electoral arithmetic.

Until now, Malaysia has been caught in a time warp of ethnicised politicking that has always worked to the benefit of the ruling coalition. Historically, and in this campaign, the National Front has stressed that only its coalition of ethnic parties could successfully protect the interests of each component race. This has meant that dissatisfied Malays could not bring themselves to vote for the “Chinese” Democratic Action Party, and unhappy Chinese would not vote for Party Islam, given its commitment to an Islamic state.

But the PKR broke through that block by leading a loose opposition grouping, with no one of those three parties - PKR, DAP and PAS - fielding enough candidates to win in its own right. Instead, Indian, Chinese and Malay voters embraced the opportunity to send a strong message to the National Front Government by voting for opposition candidates across ethnic boundaries. As a result, PKR, DAP and PAS secured 31, 28 and 23 seats, compared with one, 12 and six seats, respectively in 2004.

It remains to be seen how the National Front will respond. Historical precedents worry Malaysians. Many are concerned about the threat of a repeat of the street violence of 1969 when the ruling party lost control of the state legislature of Selangor, and then chief minister Datuk Harun encouraged his followers to use almost any means to retain power. In their post-polling state of shock, Government leaders have already bandied about phrases such as “the Malays have lost”, and that Malays are feeling “hurt” by their election defeat. This is dangerous ethnicised rhetoric. Hopefully, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will be able to contain such hotheads, to whom the end could justify the means of restoring their own political power.

However, after this massive electoral loss, Abdullah has been severely weakened, and will be under pressure to hand over the top job to his deputy, Najib Razak. To make matters worse for the Government, in a month, when he is no longer legally barred from doing so, Anwar Ibrahim is sure to contest a byelection in the parliamentary seat first won by his wife in 1999. As a newly invigorated member of Parliament, he will be a thorn in the flesh of the Government, which is fighting growing inflation. This is tipped to rise further as soon as cuts are made to unsustainable fuel subsidies that have maintained the price of petrol at 65 cents a litre, and are said to be costing three times total federal expenditure on health and education.

Malaysia has entered a new era of competitive party politics, moving on from five decades of government that has faced down fragmented and impotent opposition by using the power of the state and media manipulation to maintain the myth that voters should support the Government, or risk societal breakdown.


The Government’s ethnicised formula of retaining political power has been put on notice and, as such, politics in Malaysia is unlikely to be the same again.

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First published in The Age on March 11, 2008.

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About the Author

Professor Michael Leigh is a former director of the Asia Institute at Melbourne University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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