Malaysian Elections: A Case of Too Little, Too Late for the Government?

By Farish A. Noor

The by-elections in Malaysia this week have demonstrated in many ways the fact that Malaysia’s political landscape has changed very little over the past year:

The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) that is dominated by the UMNO party won the by-election in East Malaysia, but lost both by-elections in the West Malaysian states of Perak and Kedah. In the case of the latter, the results of the elections have shown that the prevailing political mood in West Malaysia remains in favour of the opposition made up of the parties of the Peoples’ Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), which won a majority of the votes in the Peninsula during the general elections of March 2008.

Political commentators and analysts will now set about dissecting the results of these elections and engage in the arcane art of political predictions: Not least for the simple reason that the by-election results will be seen as the peoples’ verdict on the standing and popularity of the country’s new Prime Minister, Datuk Najib Razak.

Sworn in as the country’s sixth Prime Minister less than a week ago, Najib Razak hails from one of the oldest elite families that have dominated the internal politics of UMNO – and by extension Malaysia – for more than half a century now. Son of the country’s second Prime Minister and connected to several of the aristocratic families of the country, Najib ironically cuts a curious figure in the context of Malaysia’s new and increasingly complex politics. In the 1950s and 60s he would have been seen as a prime candidate for the office of Prime Minister thanks to his elite background and Western education. But today Malaysia is witnessing the emergence of a new society that is infinitely more complex compared to the Malaysia of the 1950s.