The black swans in Malaysian politics

By Liew Chin Tong

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Hishammuddin, the next black swan figure to hit the Malaysian political scene?

I would like to thank Mr Tan Chin Tiong, Director of Yusof Ishak – Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, for the invitation to speak at this excellent institution, of which I was a visiting research fellow in 2006.

I would also like to express my appreciation to my friends Dr. Lee Hock Guan for arranging this visit and Dr. Ooi Kee Beng for chairing the session.

I last spoke here almost nine years ago on 23rd April 2008, a month or so after the great Black Swan back then – the political tsunami on 8th March 2008.

Since then, there has never been a dull moment in Malaysian politics. We have experienced a Black Swan after a Black Swan.

For instance, just a year ago, who would have expected Dr. Mahathir Mohammad to become among Opposition leaders working hard to push UMNO to become the Opposition.

Just as I was giving the final touch for this speech yesterday, there was the news that Prime Minister Najib Razak had appointed his cousin who is also Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein to be the Minister with Special Functions in the Prime Minister’s Department.

This gives rise to a new Black Swan question: does this mean Najib will step down as Prime Minister before the next general election?

Should that happen, we will have to grapple with a new set of conditions and scenarios. If he doesn’t, there is already a new power equation in which Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi is being sidelined, but Zahid may not take it lying down.

To put things in context, let me bring you to late November 2007.

As someone born and bred in Kuala Lumpur, I was offered, and reluctantly accepted a challenge to contest a parliamentary seat in the unfamiliar ground of Penang.

The two seats available to me to choose from, namely Bukit Bendera and Jelutong, were both Barisan Nasional incumbent seats, which DAP stalwarts Lim Kit Siang and the late Karpal Singh lost in the 1999 general election.

No one expected me to win. Even fewer thought the change of government in Penang was possible. At best, some observers noted that there was a possibility of denying Barisan Nasional’s two thirds majority in Penang.

Only during the campaign period that we noticed some signs pointing to the possibility of winning Penang.

What we didn’t expect was that the Opposition parties had enough numbers to form state government in Selangor, Kedah and Perak late in the night of 8th March 2008.

I was probably one of the very few who somehow had some inklings of what were to come. Apart from the surveys and polls I came across, I recalled a conversation at a private lunch meeting involving 10 core leaders of Penang DAP on 10th February 2008, three days before the dissolution of Parliament.

Lim Kit Siang asked us “to prepare for the unthinkable”; partly due to the fact that he noticed ethnic Indian voters were in such restless and discontented state – a situation that had never happened before.

Fast forward to 2017. While many pundits would like to think that Prime Minister Najib Razak is in a strong and unassailable position, they may have chosen to ignore the fact that there has never been such restlessness and discontents among Malay voters recently. Herein lies the contradictions and the possibility of Black Swan events.

Let me be clear here. I am not suggesting that a change of government will be a walk in the park. Far from it. However, the stake is very high for Najib and UMNO, and they will do whatever it takes to keep UMNO in power. That will mean some very intense months ahead until the next general election.

My point is that Najib and UMNO are vulnerable, and therefore susceptible to Black Swan events.

The largest Malay swing in favour of the Opposition thus far happened in the 1999 general election as a result of Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in September 1998, which sparked the reformasi movement. An irony indeed.

As a comparison, the 1999 wave was mostly urban, when the rural sector was still fairly large; and UMNO machinery was largely intact, albeit losing some UMNO Youth leaders to Anwar’s side.

Then, the civil service was in support of UMNO. Even then, UMNO suffered significant loses and was largely saved by overwhelming support of non-Malay voters.

In both the 2008 and 2013 general elections, Malays who voted for the Opposition were mostly urban voters. But today, discontents among Malays can be felt among UMNO’s vote banks such as civil servants, Malay women, and even FELDA settlers.

The Quiet Front

How to describe the mood among Malay voters today?

I recalled during the 2008 campaign, the Sun newspaper front-paged an interview with my opponent Mr. Chia Kwang Chye, who was then the powerful Secretary-General of Gerakan, a Federal Deputy Minister, and the incumbent for three terms.

“The Quiet Front” was the headline in which Chia told the newspaper he sensed troubles, as voters and traders he met a particular local market were very quiet and passive.

I went to the same market with Lim Guan Eng around the same time with a hugely different reception: the traders carried Guan Eng on their shoulders as if he had won the election, and the entire market welcomed us with overwhelming enthusiasm.

I also remember reading about the 1996 Australian election when, it was said, voters “were waiting for Paul Keating with their baseball bats”, just to finish him off politically.

Such is the mood I detect today. Many Malays whom I came across told me that they and their friends were just waiting for the election to teach Najib a lesson, “kita tunggu sahaja pilihanraya datang”.

My view is that the sentiment against Najib in the Malay ground is beyond repair. What you see in the mainstream media, be it a newspaper or TV news, does not tell the whole story on the ground.

The challenge for UMNO is how to deal with Najib, and whether the antipathy is just against Najib the person or UMNO the party. Recent allegations of corruption in “guardian” institutions for the Malays, such as FELDA and MARA, will certainly aggravate the situation.

Take my constituency as an example. I commissioned Merdeka Centre, an independent polling firm, for polls survey in February 2013, a month before the last General Election, when I was deciding whether to contest in Kluang, and once again in August 2016.

In February 2013, the satisfaction of Malay voters in Kluang with the Federal Government was at 72%; and satisfaction of the same group with the performance of Prime Minister Najib was at 78%.

In August 2016, only 39% of Malay voters in Kluang were satisfied with the Federal Government while those who were not satisfied were at 56%. And only 42% of the same group was satisfied with Najib as Prime Minister while 50% was not.

The situation in Kluang is widespread in other similar constituencies in Johor, and elsewhere, among Malay voters. An important point to note, this was before Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia was officially formed in September 2016.

How did we get here?

The question is, how did we get here?

Najib and Barisan Nasional received only 47% of votes in the 2013 general election, but continued to rule thanks to the process of gerrymandering of constituencies, heavy use of money, and abuse of government machineries for campaign purposes, and by “planting” multi-cornered battles in Sabah and Sarawak to split votes.

Despite such abuse of power and blatant disregard for the law, of the 133 parliamentary seats Barisan Nasional won in the 13th general election, 60 were garnered with a vote share of between 40.6% (in Mas Gading in Sarawak) and 55.8% (in Johor Bahru).

A further 33 seats were won with a vote share of between 56% (Batu Sapi in Sabah) and 60.9% (Parit Sulong in Johor).

I admit that not all Opposition seats are safe. Thirty-eight opposition seats were won with a vote share of between 47.4% (Alor Setar in Kedah) and 55.8% (Pasir Mas in Kelantan), of which 5 were with less than 50% votes. A further 18 seats were won with a vote share of between 56% and 60%.

However, if there is a net swing of 10%, it means that BN would lose 93 of its 133 seats. This is not impossible in a “gelombang” or a wave of voters’ swing, a scenario such as the one we witnessed in the 2008 general election.

Of course, based on the last election results, 56 of Opposition’s 89 seats could also be lost, if there is a net swing of 10% to go the other way.

As I mentioned earlier, many pundits and some politicians have argued that Najib would still win, because they think the rural voters will still be with him. It’s not really true. Let me explain this.

There are actually very few rural seats left in the Peninsula, if we go by the idea of rural areas as we usually imagine – that is a far-flung place, cut off from communications with the wider world.

Sorry to disappoint you, but those are the images you are likely see in some nostalgic-style TV advertisements during Hari Raya, Chinese New Year or Deepavali celebrations.

The reality is this: UMNO won 88 seats in the 2013 general election, of which 14 were from Sabah, and one from Labuan, which a Federal Territory seat. Of the 73 seats on the Peninsula, 30 or so are seats which are “built and designed” for UMNO. The remaining 40 seats are up for grab.

Most of UMNO/BN marginal seats are in the following clusters:
• Southern Kedah/Northern Perak/Mainland Penang;
• Southern Perak/Northern Selangor
• The Karak Highway Belt
• Melaka/Northern Johor
• Southern Johor

What are these seats, then? Most of these seats are semi-urban areas which have a town and surrounded by some villages with less than half an hour’s drive to the towns.

In these semi-urban constituencies, most of the youth and adults are working outstation, residing in larger cities in the Klang Valley, and Singapore.

Often these are seats with Malay majority voters but with a sizable number of non-Malays.

In fact, according to the Statistics Department, 65% percent Malays live in urban areas, while slightly more than 70% of the national population live in urban areas.

The semi-urban areas in West Coast Peninsula are likely to determine the outcome of the election. They are far from “rural” as most observers and politicians would like to think of them.

Also, the current Malay discontents are even enveloping FELDA areas which are deemed fixed deposits and rural, a stronghold for UMNO.

In short, much as the Opposition is vulnerable, Najib is walking on thin ice, too.

What are Najib’s strategies to survive?

It is not that Najib doesn’t understand the precarious position he is in. I supposed he has resigned to the fact that UMNO would not be able to win an outright mandate in the coming election.

Hence, he had been trying to break up the Opposition, as soon as the 2013 general election concluded.

There were even attempts by Indonesian Vice President Yusof Kala to broker deals between Najib and Anwar Ibrahim, between June and August 2013 which Anwar rejected.

And, since then, Najib’s strategies included:
• Putting Anwar Ibrahim behind bars, hence depriving the Opposition its Prime Ministerial candidate and unifying figure;
• Luring PAS into forming a de facto alliance with UMNO on the pretext of promoting hudud legislations; and
• Portraying the Opposition as a DAP/Chinese dominated alliance.

However, in his grand scheme to win by default, Najib did not anticipate that:
• The Opposition survives despite Anwar’s imprisonment;
• A sizable number of PAS leaders had formed Parti Amanah Negara in September 2015 to continue the struggle, and many in PAS still disagree with their top leaders’ collusion with UMNO; and
• UMNO would split in 2016, and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia would be formed to join Pakatan Harapan.

Broadly, even without Najib at helm, UMNO is weaker than in the 2013 election for the following reasons:

First, since independence till the 2004 general election, UMNO ruled through an extended coalition of Alliance/Barisan Nasional, and governed with a substantial support from the non-Malays.

But the comfort of buffers formed by BN component parties in Peninsula eclipsed since UMNO made a right turn – becoming more visible in its claim of Malay supremacy – in July 2005 with Hishamuddin waving the kris at UMNO General Assembly.

This caused massive defeats of MCA, MIC and Gerakan in both the 2008 and 2013 general elections. UMNO dug further in since 2008 to push the racial line in the hope to expand Malay support but achieved very little.

Second, as UMNO is incapable of expanding its support base since 2013, collaborating with PAS becomes an attractive option.

UMNO hopes that by colluding with PAS to divide the society into a battle between Muslims and non-Muslims, the UMNO-PAS de facto alliance would win enough seats between them to form the next government.

However, as an unintended consequence, such a move further alienates non-Malay voters in the Peninsula, as well as majority of voters in Sabah and Sarawak.

Third, while Najib the man managed to command more support among Malay voters compared to UMNO the party in the 2013 election, the situation has changed.

Najib is now a burden to UMNO due to the 1MDB mega scandal, and unpopular economic policies such as GST, fuel hike and cuts to basic amenities like health and education.

Angry UMNO leaders and members have formed Bersatu and this new Malay party is making inroads to areas previously inaccessible to the Opposition.

In short, UMNO under Najib is on a narrowing path with a much smaller base than ever. If Najib is still perceived as strong, it is because the Opposition is seen as weak and disunited. Najib is not strong on his own merits but only survives in a vacuum.

What’s ahead?

The known knowns are that Najib is not popular, and there are serious discontents among the Malays.

But there are certainly challenges for the Opposition to overcome in order to precipitate change.

First, while there are serious discontents among the Malays, the Opposition must stand for something inspiring and visionary, and not depends solely on the anger against Najib as forward strategy.

The Opposition must stand for more than just removing Najib. The economy and the well-being of the people should be the number one priority.

Second, the coming together of Bersatu and the Pakatan Harapan parties, namely Parti KeADILan Rakyat, Parti Amanah Negara, and Democratic Action Party, is a reconciliation of unlikely former foes.

Who would imagine Dr. Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim forming an alliance nearly 20 years after their very bitter fallout in 1998.

But the coming together of the once political father-and-son can unleash huge energy if handled properly.

After all, both Mahathir and Anwar are positive leadership figures compared to Najib, and they each appeal to some segments of the Malay electorate.

Third, to present a common agenda for Mahathir’s audience and DAP’s supporters is another challenge.

If Mahathir and Bersatu go on a racial campaign, it will depress the support of non-Malay voters, which in turn creates a lose-lose situation for the entire Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Likewise, the regime’s attack on Mahathir and Bersatu is that they are associated with the DAP.

The presence of DAP can also depress the support for Bersatu and other Malay-based parties like PKR and Amanah if the Opposition is unable to break out of UMNO’s racial playbook, and articulate new narratives that can bridge all groups in a larger vision.

Fourth, PAS as UMNO’s “new friend”, as Zahid Hamidi calls them, is a reality, and the sooner a clear line is drawn between the genuine/official Opposition, Pakatan Harapan, and the pseudo “third force” of PAS, the better it is to condition the voters to vote along the line of those “for Najib”, and those “against Najib”.

Fifth, the ultimate challenge for the newly re-aligned Pakatan Harapan that included Bersatu, is that Najib could just exit the scene and take out the raison d’être of the Opposition and the anger in the community.

If this is to happen, can the Opposition survive this unlikely but not impossible Black Swan?

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