Amidst the tangled chaos of vitriolic spin in insinuating tweets, bulldozer-like compendia in the New Straits Times, and over-the-top blogs telling us why the results of the Sarawak provincial elections held April 16 were a victory for the opposition or the ruling coalition, one would be hard-put to conclude that the message is that Malaysian democracy is blossoming. Yet that is exactly what is happening.
The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) lost 8 seats to the opposition, led by a surge among urban Chinese voters turning to the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Chinese party that is part of the Pakatan Rakyat (translated a Peoples’ Pact) opposition coalition. That total doubled the opposition’s previous number of seats in Sarawak and sent another wake up call to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The BN had planned on losing 5-7 seats in Sarawak, understanding that resentment against its (too) long standing standard bearer, Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, would cost them votes – but it didn’t see as many as 8 seats going over. Two political take-aways for Najib include: first, get rid of the “dead wood” of legacy leaders who personify the “old system,” and have become anachronisms in Malaysia’s rapidly developing new political landscape; and back away from racial politics and focus on economic growth and competition to woo Chinese voters back to BN.
While BN took a hit in Sarawak, it retained a two-thirds majority, winning 55 of the 71 seats contested by flexing its muscle and pocket book in rural areas in particular. Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) won only 3 of 49 seats it contested.
The evolution of a sophisticated and broader opposition to BN is an important development in Malaysian politics. Anwar Ibrahim’s contribution has been to unify a disparate band of opposition parties – his own PKR, dominated by reform minded Malays willing to fight for change; the DAP, a left leaning Chinese party; and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), dominated by conservative Muslims. In aggregate, the opposition coalition (PR) is broad, clearly viable– having won 5 of 13 states in the March 2009 elections– and holds over a third of Parliament, empowering it to question the Government on new laws, spending and other issues.
While Prime Minister Najib surely would rather have an unquestioned two-thirds super majority and rule the country as his father did, he is responding well to the challenge and working hard to implement political and economic reforms that will deliver economic growth, expand equity and competition, and draw voters back to his UMNO party and to BN. That is what political competition is all about.
Malaysia is an important model for rapidly developing countries, Asian democracies and Islamic nations. Malaysia is an Islamic state by constitutional mandate (notably, Indonesia, which made a historical determination to be a secular nation, is not). Measured by gross domestic product per capita, Malaysia is the most prosperous Islamic country, the third most prosperous in Asia, and 37th in the world. As the political opposition matures and expands, Malaysia is arguably becoming one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia and the Islamic world.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.