Malaysia is having a general election on Wednesday, her 14th since gaining independence from Britain in 1957. A visit to the country in the midst of the election campaign a couple of weeks ago revealed some similarities with Guyana’s election in 2015 – not the least being the uniting of the opposition forces bidding to defeat the ruling party, support from overseas forces including the diaspora, crossover of government figures to the opposition, and allegations of corruption swirling against the government. All of these could spell trouble for Malaysia’s incumbent as they did for Guyana’s in 2015.
Malaysia has several similarities with Guyana — ethnic diversity, ethnic politics and underused resources. But unlike Guyana, it has made rapid economic progress. For several years from the 1950s through independence, Guyana had an almost equal per capita income with Malaysia. But while Malaysia has boomed over the last fifty years, Guyana has retrogressed experiencing economic decline. Today, Malaysia enjoys a real per capita income of some twenty times that of Guyana. The standard of living is very high in Malaysia with poverty almost eradicated except among the Indian minority. In addition, the country is rapidly being urbanized with skyscrapers springing up almost everywhere even in rural areas. I visited Malaysia several times over the last twenty-five years and in each visit, the country’s sky landscape and road network changes from rural to urban. Even local airports are springing up everywhere like that of a developed nation. It will take a long time for Guyana to catch up with Malaysia economically or in development.
With regards to Wednesday’s election, it is a very close contest between the ruling BN coalition party led by Prime Minister Najib Razak and the united opposition alliance led by challenger Dr Mahathir Mohammed. Mahathir is the former PM and mentor of Najib.
All indications from conversations I had with people, including with opposition politicians, is that Najib is likely to hold on to power although he may lose the popular vote as was the case in the last general elections in 2013. But this election is being seen as a referendum on Najib; it could spell the end of his political career even if he wins a parliamentary majority. If he loses the popular vote, which will be twice in a row, and that seems to be the trend from conversations I had with politically oriented people, the pressure will be on him to resign. Najib is going all out to win the popular vote since he feels a parliamentary majority is a shoo-in given the advantages of incumbency. He is using the power of government to secure a victory.
As was the case in Guyana in 2015, this election is about the perception of corruption and removing the ruling party. The PM (Najib) is accused of massive corruption. Large amounts of money (billions in US dollars) vanished from government’s public projects. Some US$600M appeared in the personal bank account of the PM. He claims it was a gift from a generous donor. The US anti-corruption report stated that some US$30M was spent on lavish jewellery for Najib’s wife.
The allegations of corruption prompted Mahathir to come out of retirement against his protege. He resigned from the ruling party of which he and Najib belonged to challenge him for the post of PM. Najib was a Minister and deputy Prime Minister under Mahathir who endorsed Najib for the post of PM. The 92 year old Mahathir governed Malaysia as a strongman for 22 years retiring in 2003. Mahathir has now allied himself to the opposition, many of who have been his sworn enemies for much of his political life. Mahathir was never kind to opponents. He even jailed several of them who have now forgiven him to build the alliance to oust Najib. Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s deputy Prime Minister was jailed by Mahathir. As the de facto opposition leader from his jail cell, he has given his blessing for Mahathir to stand as the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition, with Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah. as Mahathir’s running mate. Anwar is very charismatic and his coalition was able to get the majority votes against Najib last time around. But the alliance between Anwar and Mahatir may not be enough to defeat Najib. Mahathir, himself, is facing criminal trumped up charges from Najib. They need the Chinese and Indian votes as well as a large crossover of Malays.
As Mahathir did when he was PM, Najib has retained the legal, infrastructural, and material resources historically used to prevail in Malaysia’s controlled elections. Najib has used his parliamentary majority to change all the rules for the election to guarantee himself a victory in parliament by gerrymandering the seats. This will give him a large majority unless Malays decide to come out against him as Indians did in Guyana against the PPP.
The redrawing of boundaries of constituencies has skewed representation away from urban areas and Chinese and Indian communities. The new boundaries favour the ethnic Malays who make up 50% of the population but may end up with 65% of the seats. The Chinese and Indians have largely boycotted the government which has disbursed most resources towards the Malays.
Based on conversations I had with academics and poll watchers, Najib will win re-election with a majority in parliament but smaller share of the vote because of gerrymandering. An opposition victory is not ruled out depending on how Malays vote.