There remain, however, lingering doubts as to what might happen at the next elections, whenever they may be called. Local surveys conducted in Malaysia suggest that the electorate is evenly divided into three camps: Hardcore BN supporters, hardcore PR supporters, and a substantial third bloc made up of fence-sitters. Complicating matters further is the apparent abandonment of the BN by the non-Malay voters of Malaysia, notably Malaysian Chinese, who seem to have thrown their weight behind the opposition coalition.
Dr Farish A. Noor, New Mandala
There has, of late, been much speculation about the date and timing of the upcoming 13th General Elections of Malaysia. For more than a year now, Malaysia-watchers have speculated about the date of the elections which will undoubtedly be one of the most important elections in Malaysia’s postcolonial history. Since the elections of March 2008 – where the opposition coalition known as the Pakatan Rakyat managed to gain control of five (later four) state assemblies – questions have been raised about the future of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has helmed the state since the creation of the Federation of Malaya in 1957.
Two significant developments have ensued since March 2008: Firstly, the mantle of leadership of Malaysia has been passed from former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to his successor Prime Minister Najib Razak. Though Badawi failed to secure a similarly impressive mandate as he did at the elections of 2004, and was blamed for the decline of the BN’s fortunes in 2008, it cannot be denied that many of the reforms that were introduced during his brief tenure have changed the socio-political landscape of Malaysia, permanently. It was during Badawi’s period that the media was given relatively more freedom to operate, and Malaysia’s cyberspace witnessed an explosion of many new websites, newsites and blogs that have significantly expanded the public discursive domain in the country. Similarly, Prime Minister Najib has attempted his own series of market-friendly reforms; opening up several sectors of the economy that were hitherto protected, and bringing to an end some of the more contentious laws such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) that were seen as a bane to civil liberties in the country.
Secondly, the fact that five (later four) state assemblies had fallen into the hands of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat meant that for the second time – since the elections of 1969 – the country’s federal system is being tested by state governments that have, on occasion, chosen to go against the will of the centralised Federal government. During the past four years the economies of two of the states under opposition control – Penang and Selangor – have registered positive results in terms of investment and investor confidence, suggesting to the Malaysian electorate that the opposition is able to govern relatively well, albeit on the level of state governments at least.
Added to these two factors are other vital variables such as the emergence of the ‘youth vote’ bank, with millions of first-time voters going to the polls at the coming elections; and the rise of a new generation of first-time politicians (mainly from the opposition parties) who have considerably altered the complexion of Malaysia’s political scene.
There remain, however, lingering doubts as to what might happen at the next elections, whenever they may be called. Local surveys conducted in Malaysia suggest that the electorate is evenly divided into three camps: Hardcore BN supporters, hardcore PR supporters, and a substantial third bloc made up of fence-sitters. Complicating matters further is the apparent abandonment of the BN by the non-Malay voters of Malaysia, notably Malaysian Chinese, who seem to have thrown their weight behind the opposition coalition. The BN’s age-old formula of ethnic compromise and multicultural representation at both Federal and state level will be severely dented at the coming elections if the current trend does not change, for it implies that the non-Malay component parties of the BN will be virtually wiped out.
This complex scenario gives rise to a host of what-if questions: What if the BN wins with a slim majority but with almost no significant representation of non-Malays at the Federal government level? What if the opposition PR wins but without the overwhelming endorsement of the Malay-Muslim majority? What if there is a hung outcome in the Malaysian Peninsula and one (or both) of the states ofEast Malaysia decide to switch camps at the last minute? Can Malaysia be governed by an overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim government without visible non-Malay support? Will the parties of East Malaysia be the eventual king-makers in a last-minute settlement that concedes more representation to East Malaysian politicians at the Federal government level and the cabinet? And most pressing of all: If there is a transition of power – which will be unprecedented in Malaysian history – can it happen peacefully?
Malaysia and Malaysians are now faced, for the first time, with the possibility of radical contingency: the occurrence of an event that has no precedent and for which there are no established norms or modalities that may help them understand and anticipate what may happen next. Such occurrences are rare in the case of any country, but at this juncture it might be useful to look at some of the other countries in the ASEAN region that have likewise experienced unprecedented changes, and to consider how they coped with them. Two cases come to mind: The Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998.