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Historic verdict in Malaysian poll

Andrew Sheng |

Most Malaysians like myself went to bed in the early hours of Thursday morning after hearing the news that the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition of four parties had won a simple majority of 113 seats out of the 222 parliamentary seats contested in the Fourteenth General Election. It was earth-shattering news that the Barisan Nasional (National Front) Government that had ruled Malaysia for 61 years is now in opposition.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, 92, has just been sworn in as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia, after having served 22 years as the fourth Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. In 2016, Dr. Mahathir quit the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the leading component of the Barisal Government, and came out with former Deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin to form Parti Pribumi.

The Pakatan coalition comprises Parti Primbumi, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) led by jailed Anwar Ibrahim’s wife Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Amanah Negara or National Trust Party. The last comprises a faction that split from the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)?

Going forth, there will be a period of political cross-overs in which each party tries to bolster its majority at the parliamentary and state levels. The after-shocks of the General Election are not over by any means.

My preliminary analysis of the published and available data on the elections showed that voter turnout declined by 8.84 percentage points from 84.8 in 2013 to 76 per cent this time. Despite this, total votes cast in the Parliamentary election were 11.93 million, or roughly 671,000 more than 2013.

Out of this, Pakatan got 5.24 million or an increase of 1.25 million votes (over the votes cast for PKR and DAP in 2013) to 43.9 per cent of total votes cast. In essence, Barisan had a swing against it of just under 1 million votes to 4.24 million or 35.53 per cent of the total votes cast.

In addition to the rejection of the past government on issues that include the 1MDB scandal, three key trends can be discerned from this year’s General Elections, which was orderly and surprisingly quiet on polling day. The Malaysian electorate has become much more mature, learning to be cautious and yet bold in voting for change.

First, it was clear that the urban voters swung decisively to the Pakatan coalition. This trend was clear for some time, as the urban population increased with the rural-urban drift. UMNO has traditionally depended on the rural vote for its support, but relied on its urban partners, the Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysia Indian Congress (MIC) and Gerakan (People’s Movement Party) to bolster the urban vote.

This time round, the MCA, MIC and Gerakan were almost wiped out at the polls, with the MCA and MIC party leaders losing their seats and Gerakan winning no seats at all.

This meant that decisive gains were achieved in the more densely populated states in the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia, particularly with stronger majorities in Penang and Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Johor. The last was the birthplace and stronghold of UMNO, but this time round, even the highly respected veteran MP for Johor Bahru, Dato Shahrir Samad lost heavily.

What was pivotal was the voting in the two Eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, which together carried 56 Parliamentary seats and were considered safe “deposits” on which Barisan could rely to carry a majority. In the end, Pakatan and its ally, Parti Warsaw took 24 seats.

Secondly, PAS, the Islamic party that focuses largely on religion, dropped three Parliamentary seats, but took back the East Coast state of Trengganu, so that it once again controls two states (Kelantan and Trengganu).

It was clear that the break-away faction Amanah was not able to draw away sufficient hardcore votes to weaken PAS. The PAS support amounted to 2.01 million or 16.88 per cent of total votes cast, an increase compared with 1.63 million votes or 14.78 per cent in 2013.

What the rise of Pakatan means is that urban Malay voters had voted for change of government and improvement in economic livelihood rather than voting along religious affiliations. Non-Malay voters, on the other hand, were put off by PAS’s push for hudud laws and were uncomfortable with UMNO’s flirting with PAS on areas touching on religion.

Third, what this general election has done is to bring more new faces and talent into the political arena. One of the weaknesses of multi-party politics is that under conditions of uncertainty, the tendency is to rely on recycled politicians, rather than experiment with younger professionals.

The new government has the opportunity to engage in generational renewal by bringing in younger leaders from more diverse backgrounds into positions of authority.

Time is of the essence, as Dr. Mahathir has promised to stay on as Prime Minister for two years, before passing the baton to Anwar Ibrahim who will be 73 by then. Nothing would signal more the restoration of the rule of law than the immediate release of Ibrahim from jail.

To safeguard his legacy, Dr. Mahathir has now a unique and historic opportunity to address many issues that festered when he was Prime Minister the first time round. If the rule of law has weakened, it was partly because of the controversial steps he took to intervene in the legal institutions in the 1980s. He needs to strengthen the very institutions that protect the rule of law which he now upholds.

On the economic front, he has inherited an economy that has grown by 5.9 per cent last year, but as the saying goes, the GDP numbers look good, but the people feel bad. With oil prices back up to over US$70 per barrel, and Malaysia as a net energy exporter, the economic winds are favorable for making the necessary tough reforms. Cutting GST may be popular, but one has to look closely at the fiscal situation prudently for the long haul.

On the foreign affairs front, Malaysia will have to navigate between the growing tensions between the US and China. The feisty Dr. Mahathir has not been known to mince his words about how he thinks about the South China Sea or for that matter, where Malaysia stands as a leading voice in the South.

In her unique way, Malaysia has voted for a generational change, but with the oldest extant leader managing that transition. Most new governments find very short political honeymoons, as expectations are high on delivery. It is always easier to oppose than to propose and implement. How smoothly that transition occurs will have huge impact not only on Malaysians, but on the region as a whole.

The writer, a former Central banker, comments on global issues from an Asian perspective.