Is Malaysia on the Verge of a Political Transition – A Talk by Dr. Jason Abbot

Farouk A. Peru

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Dr Jason Abbot from the University of Surrey on whether Malaysia was on the verge of a political transition. Was the Pakatan Rakyat a challenge to the one party hegemony of the Barisan National?

This lecture was organised Dr Ben Murtagh of the Centre of South East Asian Studies  based in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London on the 27the January 2009. It was a very thought-provoking lecture which I summarise below and occasionally interject my own comments.

Dr Abbot began by reminding us of the financial crisis of 1997. The economic slowdown was a great opportunity for political reformists to instigate political change in our nation. Indeed, this crisis was one of the key factors behind the overthrow of the Suharto regime in Indonesia yet Malaysia although faced with the memorable reformasi protests of the time never even came to the brink of such a radical transition.

The general election which came in 1999 reflected the dissatisfaction the public harboured towards the government.. BN lost the gains they made from the 1995 elections (a time which could be classified as an economic boom)  and also Terengganu to PAS. It is said that the Malay electorate had more support for PAS in 1999 than they did for UMNO. Certainly, Mahathir experienced the lowest ebb of support during this time than during his entire tenure as PM.

In 2004, a reversal of fortunes happened. Mahathir had left office the year before and a fresh face was on the scene. Abdullah Badawi, Mr Clean himself. Perhaps it was due to this freshness coupled with an renewed economic momentum that the BN managed to snatch an unprecedented victory. PAS actually lost 20 seats from 1999 along with Terengganu itself.

However, 2008 told a different story. 4 years after the victory of 2004, the Malaysian electorate had had enough. Corruption (despite Mr Clean’s promises), the oppression of minorities (towards which groups like HINDRAF rose up to eradicate), nepotism (does anyone still remember KJ?) and of course the return of Anwar to the fray cost BN a total of 5 states. The euphoria of the March elections reached almost epic proportions. The talk was about that this was the beginning of the end for BN.

Is this really the case though? To answer the question, Dr Abbot made a comparison between the number of seats won and lost in the 1999 and 2008 elections. It appeared that while BN simply regressed from their victory in the interim 2004 elections to the level they attained in 1999, UMNO actually gained the number of seats won! PAS conversely climbed back almost to the level they attained in 1999. It is the DAP and the PKR however who showed the biggest gains. The DAP climbed from 12 seats in 1999 to 28 seats while the PKR astoundingly climbed from a mere 5 seats in 1999 to 31 seats.

From the election results, it seemed a little ambiguous at this point if Malaysia was really on a path to transition. While DAP and PKR made significant gains, UMNO did not actually fall to the level of support they had in 1999.

It seems that notwithstanding the euphoria of March 2008, the results were not heralding the great winds of change everyone had hoped for. Rather, the voters were protesting against the poor governing of Badawi’s government. The support of the Chinese and Indians which was crucial to save UMNO’s bacon back in 1999 had all but disappeared.

So why was this the case? Why was the momentum gained during the 2008 elections not enough to take Malaysia to the throes of liberalisation? Dr Abbot expounded some theories to explain:

For a start the political climate in Malaysia isn’t conducive to regime change. Malaysia is best termed as a ‘semi-democracy’ or a ‘quasi-democracy’. The ruling coalition government have dealt with their opponents with co-option (read : Gerakan and even PAS at one point) and coercion. They are not above using methods such as the ISA and OSA. It’s electoral commission can only be called ‘dubiously independent’ (hence the need for a group like ‘Bersih’ whose name itself is highly suggestive of that fact).

A theory behind political transition sees democratic transition as a teleological process, that is a process which is slowly moving towards a democratic ideal, in other words almost a political Hegelianism. Economic development, development of a middle class, the growth of society and the emergence and are observable phenomena parallel to this movement. While Malaysia fits this description, it does not seem that democratic ideal is being realised.

The reason behind this may be due to the cultural peculiarities of the region and indeed of Malaysia itself. The theory above fit the society of the west which enshrined the protestant work ethic and entrepreneurship. However, communitarian values of the east may respond to this situation somewhat different. Coupled with that, our middle classes are notoriously dependent on the government (as Mahathir would say, the encrutched nation) and do not, save for a few of us, possess that spirit. Furthermore, the political instability we perceive is limited to only the Mahathir-Anwar spilt in 1998. Beyond that, UMNO remains as stable as ever though one has to say only due to repressive measures to stifle real democracy in their ranks.

Therefore, it does not look like Malaysia is in transition after all. Dr Abbot’s reasoning seems quite sound to proving this. I would further add that until the Malays, the bulk of the Malaysian electorate, can move beyond racial and religious politics (read: UMNO and PAS), Malaysia will not see much change beyond the minor quakes we see along the political fault lines. Indeed, DAP and PAS’s recent repartee involving hudud laws is probably an omen that the Pakatan Rakyat euphoria was a mere flash in the pan.