Malaysia will go to its 14th General Election (GE14) on the 9th May 2018 in what caretaker prime minister Najib Razak has dubbed as “the Mother of All Elections”.

This election and its subplots have certainly captured the public’s eye, rendering it as one of the most exciting elections to watch in Southeast Asia. It comprises an ensemble cast of political actors from three major coalitions: the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), the main opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH), and Gagasan Sejahtera (GS) led by the Islamist party PAS.

The headline act features the gargantuan battle between Najib Razak and his former mentor and the country’s longest-serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Tensions are running high, as this political duel has become personal to both of them with much at stake not least the future of the country.

Embattled Prime Minister

Picture credit: The Malaysian Insight

Najib Razak is the President of the ruling coalition’s biggest party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The party has held onto power since the country gained independence from the British in 1957. It is also the world’s longest-ruling coalition, utilising pro-Malay policies to secure its main voter base, the Malays which comprise of roughly 60% of the population.

When he first stepped into power in 2009, Najib promoted progressive policies including the 1Malaysia concept and the liberalisation of the economy – music to foreign investors’ ears. Despite high approval ratings prior to the 2013 General Election, BN did not regain its supermajority in Parliament and lost the popular vote for the first time as many voters particularly the Chinese gravitated towards the opposition.

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The incumbent prime minister changed tack, introducing unpopular reforms like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and more policies that favoured the Malays, majority of whom had helped UMNO win 87 out of 222 seats in 2013. He has since been associated with various scandals, most notably regarding 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) where the caretaker prime minister is alleged to have diverted US$ 681 million from the government-run strategic development company into his own personal account.

Although many called for him to resign including Mahathir, he has persevered against his critics from within and outside his own party. He was even slated to win with a better electoral performance in the run-up to the upcoming election. That was the case until the BN-controlled Parliament passed two hugely unpopular laws, namely the Anti-Fake News Act and a redelineation proposal that gerrymandered electoral boundaries in favour of rural Malay folks, who are expected to vote in favour of BN. The setting of Wednesday for polling day did not endear the caretaker government to the public, though the decision was made by the independent Election Commission, which falls under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s Department.

The Pensioner’s Return

Photo credit: Bloomberg

Formerly part of UMNO, Mahathir Mohamad had been the nation’s prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. “The Father of Modern Malaysia” ushered in great economic development to the Malay community and Malaysia which was considered an Asian tiger cub economy. His grand ideal of Vision 2020 – whereby Malaysia achieves the developed country status by 2020 – has stuck with Malaysians though many are convinced that the country will not achieve it by the said timeframe.

But Mahathir is no angel. Far from it, he was labelled as a dictator who wielded archaic laws to jail dissidents and masterminded the collapse of the judiciary’s independence. Much of what Najib’s administration inherited and have continued to implement are attributable to Mahathir’s time as prime minister.

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Post-retirement Mahathir continued to influence the nation’s politics in one way or another. It was his frequent criticisms that led to the resignation of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009, which brought Najib to Malaysia’s highest public office. Mahathir was brought out of retirement again after the 1MDB scandal broke out. Its aftermath led to the sacking of the deputy prime minister, the attorney general and the rural and regional development minister.

Mahathir now leads a new Malay party of mostly ex-UMNO leaders and grassroots supporters who have become fed up with Najib’s antics. He has also ironically joined forces with his former enemies in PH; leading the opposition coalition as its prime minister candidate – which is another story to be told entirely on its own.

Playing The Malay Narrative

Mahathir Mohamad Najib Razak
Picture credit: The Malaysian Insight

History has proven that Malaysian politics have always been dominated by those associated with UMNO. Past opposition leaders who came close to challenging the ruling party’s status quo were often former UMNO leaders like Anwar Ibrahim, Tengku Razaleigh and now Mahathir. The former two lost in their attempts to change the government and if you follow most polls and news reports, chances are the nonagenarian will fail too.

However, this election, especially at this late stage, feels different. Both Najib and Mahathir will tell you that they are confident they will win this election hands-down to appeal to their own support base. On the ground, different tunes are being sung every day.

Both BN and PH have produced comprehensive manifestos to win over the general populace. But as with previous elections, it has never been about the manifestos – unfortunately, mature intellectual discourse on public policy is hard to come by unless you happen to be part of a privileged, educated class of the top 20 percent of Malaysia. It is always about the soundbites and most importantly, the Malay votes.

Mahathir is well-aware of this, having spent the best part of his 22-year tenure of prime minister winning five general elections with supermajorities under BN. Hence, the key message he has pushed out is fairly simple, if you ignore the complexities of the 1MDB scandal. Najib stole the people’s money for his own benefit. He introduced the GST to compensate for that, hence burdening the people with higher cost of living and debts to carry.

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From conversations with the general public, although there is general anger over the 1MDB scandal, it is not what motivates people to vote en-masse against BN. Instead, it is the very real incidence of shrinking real household income and higher price inflation that has kept urban vote, and a number of rural folks, away from the ruling coalition.

Thanks to this widespread effect and the people’s nostalgia of better times under his administration, Mahathir has almost single-handedly helped PH to penetrate into the rural Malay heartlands that the opposition could only have dreamt of doing five years ago. The implementation of GST and higher cost of living nationwide have also worked in his favour, though the national economy is improving.

Najib, however, is no novice at this. Backed by his army of advisors and a large amount of resources, he has used every avenue possible to denounce Mahathir’s legacy while carving out his own. The Najib Razak and BN narrative is one that looks to the future, claiming to be the party that will deliver better transportation and infrastructure while taking care of people’s welfare through people-centric initiatives such as the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) which provides cash-handouts to more than 7 million low-income earners.

PAS: Three-Way Contests

Two major factors currently prevent Mahathir from fully-exploiting the people’s anger towards the present administration, which are gerrymandering and PAS.

PAS had previously been part of the main opposition coalition but left in mid-2015 following disagreements with its partners – which was speculated to be the work of BN strategists behind closed doors. Many hardcore PH supporters and urbanites are writing off PAS’ chances in this election. But that could be a big mistake to make.

Apart from keeping the governance of the Kelantan state and possibly winning Terengganu, PAS’ role since 2015 has been to spoil the votes in three-way contests, which is advantageous for BN in most cases. The Islamist party may not rule the federal government in the near future but it holds the key to Putrajaya thanks to its loyal, conservative Malay base who, like many older and rural UMNO supporters, will continue to vote for their respective parties no matter the circumstances. Even if rural Malays don’t vote for UMNO or BN, pollsters have repeatedly stated that they are likely to turn to PAS instead of PH immediately – further enhancing PAS’ kingmaker credentials in this election.

Will It Be Status Quo?

The odds are still stacked in favour of Najib but as the clock ticks down, the election results are becoming less predictable. While cash-rich BN has dominated the airwaves with advertisements on every social platform, PH has been more selective in pushing their online messaging to voters in marginal seats.

Many contend that this election will be won on the social media. Indeed, Malaysia has a high level of Internet penetration at 85.7 percent and more than 24.5 million Internet users. However, many rural Malay folks still rely on BN-controlled traditional media and word of mouth for information. Vote-buying is also a common practice due to lower household incomes in these areas. Hence, door-to-door canvassing and more localised initiatives up until the last day of campaigning could play a decisive factor in winning crucial seats.

Who will win this election? Die-hard BN and PH supporters have already absorbed their respective coalition’s narrative and will not tell you otherwise. Thanks to the various electoral dynamics involved, there is no clear-cut answer. It will go down to the wire on polling day, though the relatively safe bet remains with BN. The bigger challenge will be this: whoever who wins it is likely to receive a historically smaller simple majority – making party and coalition unity very important factors to consider for a newly-minted government in the next five years.


Ryan Chua is a Director at the Institute for the Future Economy.

Picture credit: Syariman | Malaysiakini

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.