Professor Catharin Dalpino on Malaysian General Elections

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emerita at Georgetown University, where she taught Southeast Asian Studies and launched the university’s Thai Studies Program.  She is also Adjunct Professor in the Washington Program of Seton Hall University.   Professor Dalpino has also taught Southeast Asian politics, security and international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University and Simmons College. From 1993 to 1997 she was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 

Professor Dalpino has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; an Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  From 1983 to 1993 she was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years.  She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009).  She was the founding president of the board of the War Legacies Project; a member of the US-Thailand Fulbright Board; and a Board member of the Commonwealth Club of California. Image courtesy of Catharin Dalpino.

What makes the upcoming general elections in Malaysia noteworthy?

With each successive election in recent years, the margin that UMNO’s Barisan Nasional has gets smaller and smaller. And the opposition, although it’s rather disorganized, seems to be getting stronger in some ways. As these elections go forward, the question is always going to be ‘is this the election when UMNO’s Barisan Nasional, which held power since Malaysian independence, finally loses the election?’ I don’t think that’s going to happen. But I think that the question is very relevant, and interestingly points to some changes in Malaysia politics, the weakness with the current prime minister, and the ways that certain issues are set in Malaysia.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by the weakness of the prime minister?

It’s no secret that Prime Minister Najib has been under siege for the past two years. First, the 1MDB scandal, which he has in some ways deflected through a bailout from China, still undermines his public image. Second, they have never really solved the mystery of the Malaysian plane that went missing in 2014. And I think that’s something that makes the Malaysian people feel uncomfortable, because the people would like an answer, even though It’s not necessarily the government’s fault that they haven’t. But interestingly, the most pressing issue in this election is that neither of those two, because to a certain extent, both of those are recent history, but that they are still in the past.

Rather, what’s most important is the rising cost of living In Malaysia. All voters, in all countries where they have elections or any kind of political contest, look to their own lives when they have elections, and ask whether they are economically better off than they were before, or whether they are starting to hurt economically these days. That’s the real challenge in this election.

And lastly, the two things that Najib did at the very last minute when parliament was in the last days of its session before he dissolved it to call elections, are the redoing of the electoral districts, and the so-called “fake news” bill. These are certainly incurring some negative impacts for him now.

Najib has been described by his political opponents as a “kleptocrat”, in the aftermath of the 1MDB multibillion dollar corruption scandal in 2015. Has Najib done a good job of maintaining popular support through publicity on Malaysia’s economic development, or has the public sentiment turned antagonistically towards him since then?

The scandal is a little bit of old history - I think it’s hard to highlight economic development when the costs of living are going up. I would say he has at least successfully dealt with the scandal so that it’s not going to bother him going forward. I think one of the things that helped him was a visit to the White House in the first year of the Trump Administration the timing of which did not make a lot of sense to American analysts because there was nothing in particular that America got out of it. But that certainly helped to boost Najib’s international credibility and that helped him deemphasize the scandal.

As you’ve mentioned, the Barisan Nasional passed a “fake news” law, which covers a wide range of speech, punishable with fines and imprisonment up to six years. A researcher at the Atlantic Council also revealed news of Twitter bots propagating pro-government messages. How will these affect the general election?

What the law does is that it has the potential to criminalize the criticisms of the government. The government is going to decide what is fake news and what is not. Traditionally in Malaysia and Singapore, libel suits have sometimes been filed against political adversaries, but those are civil suits. And this law will take things to the criminal court. I think that the WhatsApp messenger app is what the government will target, but that’s encrypted and so that might not be easy. You not only have public criticisms, but also if you’re going after social media, then that’s a different level from what you might see in the press. That will be seen as an attempt to censor free speech and to kill the political opposition.  There’s no quantified reaction from the public that we’ve seen yet, but I’ve seen a lot of commentators say they have seen self-censorship on the part of government critics, which is exactly what the government wants.

The Barisan Nasional initiated the redelineation of constituency borders, effective this election period for the 14th general election. What was Najib’s justification of the redelineation? How does the redelineation of aggravate the divide between religious, racial and economic classes?

I don’t think he bothered to justify it at all. His motivation for doing so was quite clear. Let me say that this is quite a common thing.  First, Malaysia is not the only country to do this: that the party in power will try to redefine the electoral district to their advantage. Second, Malaysia and Singapore are both known for is trying to politicize the judiciary, and trying to get the judiciary outlaw the opposition party, which also happened in Thailand as well. There was a recent attempt to do that with Mathahir’s party, but I think that recently the court had to put a stay on that, so Mathahir’s party is going to be allowed to contest the upcoming election. Basically, what the redelineation does is shrink the size of those constituencies in which the Barisan Nasional usually has a majority in, and therefore is expected to win, so that it doesn’t take as much for them to win the constituency, but it expands those constituencies that are traditionally saved for the opposition, so it’s going to be more difficult for the opposition to win those. Since Najib got it done just before the parliament got dissolved, it is unlikely that the courts are going to reverse it in the next two weeks.

 So not only does this influence the upcoming election, but mathematically, with the new redistricting, all the Barisan Nasional needs to do is win 16.5% of the vote to win a certain constituency. What makes this a problem for the public is that it shows a disregard for the popular vote. For example, in the United States you can have a president who won the electoral collage, but lost the popular vote, and that’s certainly possible in Malaysia in this election. So this time, the redelineation will probably be effective for this election period, but we’re going to have to wait and see the public blowback.

 Mathahir is a 92-year-old former strongman premier and Prime Minister. Why is Mathahir jumping in now, and do you expect Mathahir’s and Anwar’s unified political front against Najib to be successful, and well-received by the public? How would you predict the outcomes of the general election?

At one point when Mathahir was prime minister, Anwar was deputy prime minister and represented a new wing the UMNO, the Malay-based party, but we also have to remember that it was Mathahir who first put Anwar in jail as well. They disagreed over politics in the late 1990s, particularly over the Asian economic crisis, and that’s when they fell apart.

Why is Mathahir doing this? Because Anwar’s in jail again. And he reentered to basically keep the Anwar candidacy and the opposition party alive. Then the question is, ‘what happens?’ Anwar may or may not be released in June. Mathahir said that if he wins, he may or may not give Anwar pardon and release him. I don’t think Mathahir’s going to win, but what should happen if he wins, and who’s going to be the true driving force in the opposition? Is Mathahir just going to do what Anwar wants? I doubt it. It raises a lot of questions: who would be in charge of that party, what role would Anwar play, can a 92-year-old prime minister really govern. Mathahir had a very checkered path, he’s been a legendary prime minister, but he himself has demonstrated many abuses of power, particular in the use of the judiciary. But again, I don’t think he’s necessary going to prevail in this election. 

Barisan Nasional draws its support from the majority ethnic-Malays, whom Najib has been supporting via affirmative action policies that gives these Malays government contracts, cheap housing, guaranteed university admissions and preferential stock shares. When there is such preferential treatment to the majority ethnic population, how would you explain the general political apathy in Malaysia, especially within the younger population?

The policy you’re talking about has been around since the 1980s. It was designed in part to raise the economic levels of the Malay to reduce the ethnic resentment against the Chinese that led to the 13 May Incident in 1969.  Twenty-three percent of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Chinese and they are the financial engine of Malaysia, so Malaysia has a very strong interest in keeping them in Malaysia. And yes, it has helped to raise the economic status of the Malay population since historically, the Chinese have been the bankers and the Malays have the control of the agricultural center.

Does that raise the resentment of the Chinese and the Indians? Yes, but at their peril. Everyone remembers the ethnic violence, of has heard of the ethnic violence. I think that the Chinese and the Indians across the Straits have been treated even worse in Indonesia at times of the conflict. They see including the Malays in the financial sector more as an investment because it creates a greater stability and therefore less ethnic violence in Malaysia, so it creates a greater stability for them as well.

The Barisan Nasional is a coalition of not only UMNO, but also the Chinese-Indian party as well, and what we have seen in recent years is that the Chinese and the Indians are more restive politically, possibly because there are more ethnic tensions in Malaysia and as you see, Islamist fundamentalism is on the rise with the return of ISIS fighters. I’m not sure if the Malay population is politically apathetic. They have tended to be more quiet, in part because Mathahir’s policies were taking care of their needs, so that may be a thing of the past.

The interesting question to ask here is ‘what’s going to happen with the old-fashioned opposition party, which is Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the fundamentalist Islamist party?’ If PAS gets 40% of the votes, it will certainly not have power, but it will have the ability to be a king-maker in forming a coalition, which it can give to Najib or Mathahir. One of the things that PAS wants is a more Islamist approach to policy. It pushes the Sharia law, among other things. Right now, the opposition against UMNO is not very organized or strong. And that gives an opening for a fundamentalist party to be more influential politically than it has been before. There are many things that are affecting the Malays’ view of politics in Malaysia and rising fundamentalism is one of them.  The interesting question is whether the Barisan Nasional going to be able to hang together, and I’m not sure it is.

As for the rising fundamentalist movements, what has been Malaysia’s approach to controlling the situation?

This is a global and a regional phenomenon. Some the Malaysians, Indonesians, and Pilipino have fought in Syria with ISIS, and some of these fighters are now coming back. The more that ISIS is pushed out of Syria the more of these fighters are going back to their home country, so there’s like a second-generation ISIS.  Southeast Asia as a whole is alarmed about this. Malaysia tends to take a strict approach to this. Parts of its security still function so that it’s able to clamp down on this problem effectively compared to Indonesia, but again, it’s a region-wide problem as well. PAS has been fairly astute. It’s a very old opposition party, starting from around the independence. It’s been astute about not aligning itself with specific groups, so it basically wants to be a Malaysian party, not a global Islamist party. For example, in the late 1990s, it became stronger with the Asian financial crisis, so it’s always there, always a part of the political equation. Now, because it’s Malay-based, it’s pushing Malays into answering what kind of politics they want to have. Do they want the old politics like UMNO, do they want the new and untested politics of the Malay opposition? Or what role is PAS going to play? That’s the challenge. PAS is a greater challenge to Barisan Nasional in its own way than Mathahir or Anwar’s party is, albeit indirectly.

How would the growing strength of PAS aggravate the religious divide in Malaysia, and what implications does it have politically?

Malaysia has a 60% Muslim population, in contrast to Indonesia which is 90% Muslim. So the Malay Muslims are what we would called the beleaguered majority, in Malaysia. There’s been a rise of religious tensions in Southeast Asia, and we have seen this in Indonesia in particular, and some of it is directed against religions of the other ethnic groups, such as some anti-Hindu resentment, some anti-Christian sentiment, anti-Chinese resentment, which is always there in South East Asia below the surface. So yes I think it’s possible to see that with an increase in its influence you would see a spike in religious and ethnic tension in Malaysia as well. Malaysia is not an Islamic state. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia but it is not an Islamic state. In the late 1990s, when PAS was in local control of the northern two states, they attempted to declare Sharia law for both of those two states on everybody. I don’t see any large-scale movements like that to change the constitution, so Najib doesn’t need to do anything, because there isn’t a major challenge that Malays faces at this time. I think the broad consensus is that you have a major religion, but not a theocracy and an Islamic state is not going to hold.

I don’t think there is any chance that PAS is going to become a ruling party in Malaysia. It is too radical a party. It has been rejected continually since independence as unable to govern Malaysia. I don’t see that changing. What has changed is that there are more moving parts politically in Malaysia now. PAS used to be pretty much the only opposition party, but there are now other opposition parties that are Malay-based and have a better chance of gaining control of the governments and vanquishing UMNO for the first time politically. There is a possible play for leverage role, depending on how many seats PAS gets, so it can influence which moderate Malay party is in control. But it’s not going to get in control itself, and it knows that it’s going to be a minor player.

Gayle Lee CMC '20Student Journalist
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