Malaysian Elections Demonstrate Growing Support for Reforms

The issue of discrimination lies at the heart of Malay politics.

malaysia protest 88 (photo credit: AP)
malaysia protest 88
(photo credit: AP)
Malaysia's ruling coalition, the Barisan National (National Front (BN)) lost substantial ground in elections held on Sunday, March 8, winning only 140 seats in comparison to 198 in the 2004 elections. The opposition parties succeeded to win a majority vote in 5 out of 13 states, leading to claims of a "political tsunami" in Malay politics. The opposition focused on corruption, discrimination towards Malaysia's ethnic Indian and Chinese population (comprising 1/3 of the population of almost 25 million) and mismanagement of the economy. The second impact of the result is that it raised serious doubts on the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The opposition won an unprecedented 82 seats from Parliament's 222 in total, with the leading opposition party, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party (PKR)) taking 31 seats. The other two key opposition parties, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) won 28 and 23 seats respectively. The PKR's significant gains in comparison to the 2004 elections (it gained 30 seats in the recent election) emphasize Malaysia's growing desire for political change, with the PKR a strong advocator of racial equality, transparency of government, and combating election fraud. The issue of discrimination lies at the heart of Malay politics as, since independence in 1957, ethnic (indigenous) Malays were safeguarded by the state in the form of affirmative actions programs. The programs were justified due to the fact that the minority Chinese population dominated the business sector to the disadvantage of the indigenous population. Bumiputra (Sons of the Soil) was the term used to distinguish ethnic Malays, with policies introduced which favored them. The position in 2008 is that protection of the Bumiputra is discriminatory and no longer necessary, especially now that ethnic Malays are the most dominate and profiteering segment of the population. Despite the introduction of the New Economic Policy in the late 1970s (currently termed the National Vision Policy), which intended to create conditions for national unity by reducing interethnic disparities, in practice it granted ethnic Malays preferential treatment in terms of education, employment and housing. Ethnic Chinese and Indians, and the opposition parties which represent their interests, oppose the government's continued policies to protect ethnic Malays, claiming them to be discriminatory in nature and encouraging disunity. After resigning as Prime Minister in late 2003, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's longest serving Prime Minister instated Badawi as his successor. In the 2004 elections, Badawi led the BN to a sound victory, winning support from not only ethnic Malays (they were benefiting from affirmative action policies) but also the Chinese and Indian minority to whom he promised to grant greater equality. He appealed to voters with a slogan of "trust me" (as opposed to his government), raising hopes of political progression, greater unity, and a move away from the repressive governance of predecessor Mahathir. As the husband of the PKR's current leader, Anwar Ibrahim is viewed as an icon for political progress due to the fact that in the 1990s he challenged then Prime Minister (and oppressive leader) Mahathir in relation to corruption and nepotism. This led to criminal charges and imprisonment. Since his release from prison Ibrahim has sought to revitalize his political campaign by challenging the government on a host of issues, leading some to see him as a potential Prime Minister. Shani Ross is the Coordinator for the Executive Programs & Conferences at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, Israel.