An article that was published in the Economist 11 May 2013.
Re-published in Lim Kit Siang’s blog on 14 May 2013.
After a tainted election victory, Najib Razak needs to show his reformist mettle.
AT FIRST sight, the general election in Malaysia on May 5th, the closest-fought since independence in 1957, looks encouraging. A lively campaign inspired a remarkable turnout of 85% of the country’s 13.3m voters. The government’s victory seems recognition of Malaysia’s solid economic performance and of the progressive reforms introduced by Najib Razak, the prime minister. He has repealed some oppressive, colonial-era laws. He has even begun to dismantle the affirmative-action policies favouring the ethnic-Malay majority over Chinese Malaysians (about a quarter of the population) and Indians (8%). Those policies are at the root of the corruption and cronyism poisoning Malaysian society.
Look again, however, and Malaysian politics seems near breakdown. The opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim alleges electoral fraud and has refused to accept the result. Whether that is true or not, it is certain that the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, has huge inbuilt advantages. Gerrymandered constituencies meant that with less than 47% of the popular vote, its worst-ever electoral performance, it still won 60% of the 222 parliamentary seats. The state has dispensed cash handouts and other goodies, while much of the civil service works as a party-political tool, and the election commission has long brushed aside allegations of malfeasance. Add in an obsequious mainstream media, and it is rather remarkable that so many Barisan Nasional campaigners still felt the need to resort to blatant vote-buying.
All of this gives rise to two dangers. The first is of a loss of faith in the political process itself. Mr Najib argues that, in a parliamentary system, it is not the popular vote that matters. But in any system it is time to redraw boundaries when distortions have reached this level (something for others, such as Britain and Japan, to note). And Mr Najib owes it to Malaysians who backed the opposition—more than half of the electorate—to investigate the alleged frauds.
The second danger is of a rekindling of the ethnic animosities that led to bloody rioting in the 1960s. Mr Najib has said he wants to be prime minister for all Malaysians. Sadly, however, he presided over an ugly campaign by his United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, the main component of Barisan. In the rural Malay heartlands, UMNO was as negative, racially divisive and pro-Malay as ever. Barisan’s ethnic-Chinese parties did lamentably at the election. Mr Najib has blamed Barisan’s losses on a “Chinese tsunami”, encouraging disgraceful anti-Chinese headlines in the Malay-language press.
Casting the election in such racial terms is neither wise nor accurate. The tsunami washing over Barisan is of the young and the rising urban middle class, sickened at the unfairness, cronyism and corruption they see around them. Mr Najib has taken to Facebook to court these groups. All things to all Malaysian voters, he is more popular than his party.
Show your true colours
The threat he faces now is from UMNO itself. It was quick to dispatch Mr Najib’s predecessor after he did almost as badly in the previous election in 2008. Likewise, UMNO hardliners might argue that what is needed now is to bolster support among its Malay core by replacing Mr Najib with a less bashful Malay supremacist. In fact, if UMNO is to have a future in a prospering Malaysia it needs young urban voters, not poor rural ones. To counter his opponents in the party, Mr Najib therefore needs to capitalise quickly on his own popularity to reform more boldly: to complete the demolition of the affirmative-action edifice; to go further in improving civil liberties; and, above all, to make the electoral system fairer.