Centre for Strategic Knowledge
The 2008 General Election saw the most crushing blow for the Barisan Nasional coalition since independence in 1957. The opposition managed to garner 82 seats in parliament and capture the states of Selangor, Penang, Perak, Kedah and retain the seat of Kelantan. The Barisan Nasional now has lost their two-thirds majority in Parliament and with that losing their power to amend the constitution.
Why did the Barisan Nasional suffer this unexpected 'loss'? Several factors can be attributed to this historic event.
The opposition managed to run an effective campaign during the campaigning period which did a more striking job in winning the hearts and minds of the people. The use of the internet, sms and projectors by the opposition in a more effective manner than the Barisan Nasional coalition played a crucial role in the outcome of the election. A lot of political commentators had made the point that the Barisan Nasional was running a cosmetic and pretentious campaign based on empty slogans and had failed to touch the nerve of the public. This has future implications for the electoral process in the country. Political parties have to be savvier in the use of mass communications media especially the 'new' media, namely the internet and mobile phone technology.
The economic factor played an important role in the results of the General Elections. First of all, it is important to note that the General Election of 2008 took place shortly after the worst world stock market crash since September 11. Since we are living in a globalise economy, Malaysia has been heavily affected by trends in international stock markets. Furthermore, since the banking industry in Malaysia is reliant on the international banking system, the economics of the country have been heavily tied to the problems of the Central Banks in the developed nations.
Another economic factor in this General Election result was the rising price of goods or more commonly known as inflation. It is worthy to note that the price of cooking oil went up a few weeks before the General Election. Consumers were given a limit on how much cooking oil they could buy even though Malaysia was the biggest exporter of palm oil. This has definitely angered a lot of voters. The rising price of goods is related to the rising price of petrol and gold as the cost of transportation of goods is increased. Since oil has reached 100US dollars per barrel, the Malaysian economy has seen a downward trend. Also poor economic policies like the consistent increase in the price of cigarettes in successive budgets have raised the displeasure among the population.
The decreasing value of the US dollar has played a significant role in the slowdown of the Malaysian economy as Malaysia continuously informally pegs its value against the US dollar, the value of the ringgit has decreased as the price of gold has increased. The decreasing value of the US dollar means less money for exporters as trading is done in US dollars.
Here it is interesting to note that a lot of political observers believe that the Mahathir Administration is more superior to the Badawi Administration in terms of economic policies. A lot of political commentators believe that the Mahathir Administration saved the country from economic bankruptcy during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 -1998 and thus, political and economic dependence on the IMF and the World Bank and hence the Western governments. As can be seen from recently concluded conference on Islamic finance, Mahathir's understanding of the Federal Reserve System, the international banking industry and the use of gold in financial systems is far more superior to his successor, Abdullah Badawi. It could be said that the country could have weathered the storm of the recent financial crisis in the banking industry and the stock markets under the leadership of Mahathir. Badawi's failure in his economic policies played a decisive role in influencing the voters in this General Election.
The release of Anwar Ibrahim had strengthened the political power of the opposition. Anwar Ibrahim, being a charismatic leader with good oratory skills had managed to attack the Badawi administration effectively and managed to arouse the crowd during the ceramahs in the campaign of the General Election. He also managed to reconcile the differences of PAS and DAP to form an effective coalition for the opposition during the General Election. Some political observers had made the point that Anwar Ibrahim had been campaigning since his release. A lot of scandals of the Badawi Administration, for example the Lingam tape issue were exposed by Anwar Ibrahim. He had also made a global impact through his interviews in BBC and Al Jazeera. This factor is one of the most important of the outcome of the General Election.
The Bersih rally, which occurred in the months before the General Election, had a massive impact on the result of the General Election. This rally for electoral reform was the first huge rally since the Reformasi movement and managed to show the strength on the opposition and influence the people about the weakness of the Badawi administration. The rally was very well attended with estimates ranging from 40,000 – 100,000 people. The heavy handed approach of police of using tear gas and chemically laced water cannons had aroused the people's anger. The incidents of the rally were covered by the three major international news networks, BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. The rally had also raised the issue of electoral fraud which many suspect had occurred in previous General Elections. Many political observers have made the comment that fraudulent practices in the electoral process have been reduced because of this rally.
The strong showing for PAS has shown that Islamism (which is different from Islamisation) is on the rise. The ideology of PAS which is based on Islam compared to the ideology of UMNO which is based on Malay nationalism with the influence of Islam had made a stronger appeal particularly among the Malay voters who had voted for the opposition. Here, we can parallel the rise of Islamism in Malaysia with the rise of Islamism globally. Such factors like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority elections, the Prophet Muhammad cartoon issue, the issue of the Islamic veil, the so called “War on Terror”, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the rise of Al Qaeda, the effective propaganda of the Islamist on the internet and other issues pertaining to Islam had managed to shift the Malay Muslim mind to a more Islamic stance which was taken up by PAS.
Also Mahathir's had organised several conferences which were very anti-Western in nature. These conferences were well attended by PAS supporters and had managed to galvanise support for PAS. Mahathir also made several political meetings with PAS leaders like Nik Aziz who had praised Mahathir for attacking the Zionist regime. This had influenced a lot of Malay voters who admired Mahathir to vote for PAS.
Another factor which contributed to the outcome of the General Election was the confrontation between Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. This confrontation began with the Singapore bridge issue when the Badawi Administration decided to scrap a mega project which was previously planned by the Mahathir Administration which involved building a bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore. Mahathir had criticised Badawi for his subservience to Singapore which he claimed had asked Badawi to scrap the project. The issue had erupted to a point that state television had to come up with an explanation giving the Badawi spin on the issue. Also Badawi's foreign policy stance had angered Mahathir for his lack of anti-western zeal. Badawi's approach to Islam was consistently attacked by Mahathir. Even opposition websites like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today had highlighted and used Mahathir's remarks for the benefit of the opposition.
The confrontation reached a critical point when Mahathir decided to run as a delegate to the General Assembly. Many claim that Badawi had used money politics to deny Mahathir the election as a delegate. Mahathir had claimed that Badawi had used the police to prevent the functions where Mahathir was supposed to speak to take place. All this factors had managed to influence public opinion that had a negative impact on Badawi. Also Badawi's outstanding success in the previous 2004 General Election was attributed by many political commentators to previous Mahathir's Administration policies. This factor and the UMNO delegate election fiasco influenced a lot of Malaysian minds to the ungratefulness of Badawi to Mahathir and had influenced them to vote for the opposition.
The Badawi administration approach to Islam which is the official religion of Malaysia as stated in the constitution of Malaysia and is the religion of the Malays contributed to the major setback of the Barisan Nasional coalition in the General Election. When Abdullah Badawi came into power, the Administration introduced the concept of Islam Hadhari or Civilisational Islam. Many opposition figures and even Tun Dr. Mahathir himself had said there was no need to add the word Hadhari as the word Islam was sufficient to express the religion. It even became a source of ridicule in the internet when there was harsh criticism of it in a blog which created a major uproar and became a police case. Also, to say there is a civilisational Islam implies that there is a barbaric side to Islam, noted one Islamic preacher.
Many people were also dissatisfied with Islam being compartmentalised into ten points and it could be argued by them that Islam is a more comprehensive religion. Badawi's failure on many policies like anti-corruption, foreign policy, the economy, and other issues as one non-Muslim lawyer pointed out, there was a lack of implementation of the principles that were preached in Islam Hadhari. Also, as one blog had stated Islam Hadhari was introduced to appease the West and to counter the growing tide of Islamism globally that was affecting Islam in Malaysia. This had angered many Muslims who were dissatisfied with Western foreign policy. Because of this many voters resorted to vote for the opposition.
When the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came into power, one of his major policies was to fight corruption. However as the years progressed there were many scandals which exposed rampant corruption among the Badawi administration. For instance, the Approved Permits scandal which involved Rafidah Aziz came into the spotlight of the mainstream media when the Internet exposed this scandal. This scandal involved the awarding of Approved Permits to import cars to a few elitist billionaires. Another major scandal involved the Terengganu state government and an individual named Patrick Lim who is close to the Prime Minister. This individual was said to be allowed to attend official State Exco meetings and held enormous influence over the Prime Minister.
This practice of nepotism and corruption had showed a high level of hypocrisy among the public especially among the Chinese voters who were fed up with the corrupt practices of the Malay controlled public service and government. Besides this two scandals, Malaysiakini which is opposition oriented and Malaysia Today which is spearheaded by Raja Petra Kamaruddin brought into light many corruption scandals on a weekly basis that had informed the educated public and hence trickled down to the masses. All this scandals had tarnished Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's image as Mr. Clean as he was previously known. This had played a significant role in the election result.
One reason for the BN success in previous General Elections was the dynamic role of the Mahathir Administration in foreign policy issues. The attack on Western foreign policy and policies like the Look East policy gave the public in Malaysia direction in connection to global matters. This was lacking in the Badawi Administration which some observers said was very stale in terms of foreign policy at a time of rising globalisation of issues. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also had made good relations with leaders such as George W. Bush and John Howard which is perceived as being too anti-Islamic among the Muslim masses. Also, the Badawi Administration had criticised fundamentalism many times as opposed to Mahathir Mohamad which called himself fundamentalist. His lack of clarity on the Hamas election victory and his soft stance on the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon had angered a lot of Muslim voters who had shifted their support to PAS.
One important point to take into account in the results of this General Election is the involvement of the Prime Minister's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin in the political scene of Malaysia. Ever since Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came into power, Khairy Jamaluddin played an influential role in politics and business. He had become UMNO deputy youth chief on grounds many say, was on the virtue of his father-in-law being the prime minister. He also got involved in many scandals namely the ECM Libra scandal which involved trading of shares in this investment bank which became very prosperous under the Badawi administration. He had also made racial remarks about the Chinese race which angered a lot of Chinese voters.
A lot of media spotlight had been focussed on him and this had exposed the blatant nepotism as many political observers put it which shifted the voter's minds against Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. For example, there was a series of articles called the 'Khairy Chronicles” in Malaysia Today. Numerous books had been written by prominent political observers claiming the nepotism and corruption involving Khairy. In the just concluded General Election, Khairy ran for the Rembau parliamentary seat. All this factors had transformed a lot of voter's minds to the blatant hypocrisy of the Badawi administration to fight corruption and nepotism.
The issue of the marginalisation of the Indian community came into the forefront in this General Election. When Abdullah Ahmad Badawi formed a new government in 2004, he was asked by a BBC reporter about the state of the Indian community. His reaction was there was as though there was nothing wrong with the Indian community and he had said that the problems would be handled by the MIC, the Indian component party in the Barisan Nasional. The Indian community had been migrants to British colonial Malaya mainly as indentured labour. Ever since independence, the Indian community among the three major races in Malaysia had suffered the most politically, economically and socially. Poverty levels among the Indian community are very high. They have the highest suicide rate, highest crime rate, and highest alcoholism rate. The Indian race is mostly Hindu and they were also angered several temple demolitions. All this came to a peak in a rally organised weeks before the General Election by Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force). The rally was organised to submit a memorandum to the British High Commission. It was meant to be a peaceful demonstration.
However, the police under executive orders tried to stop the roadblocks and detained Indians along the highways leading to Kuala Lumpur. Somehow, the rally took place in KLCC and the police used heavy handed tactics such as using tear gas and chemically laced water cannons to break up the rally. All this was perceived to be blatant racism by many in the Indian community. The rally also grabbed international headlines in the three international networks, namely CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. Even the US and Indian governments made comments to the Malaysian Government. This brought into the limelight the plight of the Indians globally and had tarnished the image of the Badawi administration. It is estimated that 89- 90% of Indians voted for the opposition. This is may explain why the MIC faired poorly in this General Election. Even the MIC President, Samy Vellu had lost his parliamentary seat which had been a 'safe' seat in previous General Elections. One of the Hindraf 5 leaders detained under the Internal Security Act had won the seats he was contesting in.
The Ketuanan Melayu concept also had a big impact on the outcome of this General Election. This concept which expounded on the special privileges of the Malays as everlasting heirs to the land of Malaysia was heavily publicised during the Badawi Administration. The keris (traditional Malay dagger) wielding by Hishamuddin Tun Hussein the UMNO Youth Chief during UMNO General Assembly had touched on the sentiments of the public and made a lot of non-Malays feel very uneasy. This concept is heavily linked to the New Economic Policy. The New Economic Policy (NEP) had noble goals of eradicating poverty and abolishing the identification of race with occupation. However, the NEP as many political observers say has been used as a tool to enrich the Malay elite. These Malay elite which represent the status quo of UMNO used the Ketuanan Melayu concept to justify the false and hypocritical practices of their modified NEP. The DAP and the PKR which ran on a manifesto of replacing the NEP with a more equitable policy had managed to swing a lot of voters to the opposition, especially the non-Malay block.
Another factor that contributed to the 'victory' of the opposition particularly the DAP and PAS was a creation of a new dimension in Malaysian politics. During the Badawi Administration there were numerous cases of tension between the Malay Muslims and the non-Muslim non-Malays, namely the Moorthy case and the Revathy case. This tension had led to the polarisation of non-Malay voters to the DAP stance of a secular state and the Malay voters to a more Islamic ideology of PAS. The PKR under Anwar Ibrahim was a bridge between these two parties. This coalition appealed to many as it was a coalition of understanding of ideologies rather than a coalition based on race relations of the Barisan Nasional.
The track record of the mainstream media during the Badawi Administration was as one of The Sun's (a local English daily) editor put it was a miserable failure. Many had reached this conclusion because of the pretentious reporting compared to the reporting of the new media. The NSTP editor was sacked under the Badawi administration over his comments of the Saudi Royal Family. As Tun Dr. Mahathir had pointed out Badawi had appointed Kalimullah as the editor of the NSTP and this individual according to Mahathir had been a spin doctor who had supported Badawi's cause. Mainstream media, both electronic and print had failed to give a clear picture on what was actually going on. This was evident in the Bersih and Hindraf rallies. Also, many headlines were brought into the mainstream media after it was highlighted in the new media. The mainstream media also failed to do a good job during the campaigning period offering cosmetic propaganda and not addressing the real issues which concerned the voters. Many voters were also fed up with this constant barrage of propaganda and decided to vote for the opposition.
The new media particularly the internet played an important role in the outcome of the General Election. Two websites namely Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today disseminated more information so that voters could make a more informed judgement in the polls. Also publicity was given to the websites when police action was taken against these two websites. Besides these two websites, there are numerous other blogs, websites and interactive services in the internet that managed to shift the hearts and minds of many Malaysians to the opposition. The Barisan Nasional coalition underestimated the power of the internet and failed miserably in using it as a tool to reach out to the public. Even though internet penetration is low in Malaysia, the outcome of this General Election showed that information managed to pass through internet users to non-internet users effectively. As the saying goes “Gossip spreads like wildfire.”
In a recent speech months before the General Election, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had explained that the police wielded enormous power and influence within the Barisan Nasional status quo. The Badawi Administration had even used the slogan of a safer Malaysia under the police. The rampant corruption of the police force and its misguided policies such as the handling of the Bersih and Hindraf rallies played a crucial role in the support for the opposition. Besides this a bill for an independent commission overseeing the practices of the police was blocked in Parliament.
Implications for the future
The first major implication is the high possibility of the resignation of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi before the next General Election is held. This is because the Barisan Nasional had suffered its worst lost in its history and the Prime Minister had even lost his own state increasing the pressure on him to resign. Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had written a letter calling for the resignation of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi just two weeks shortly after the General Election. Badawi's resignation would mean pro-Mahathir forces would have a stronger influence on UMNO and hence the Barisan Nasional as Mahathir's attacks before the General Election played a crucial role in poor showing of the Barisan Nasional under the Badawi Administration. One important point is that if pro-Mahathir forces take over, it would mean a stronger and more firm stance on foreign policy issues. Also, the resignation of Badawi would mean the weakening or some would even say the destruction of political power of the Prime Minister's allies particularly Khairy Jamaluddin.
Secondly, it appears that Malaysia is heading to a two-party system with the Barisan Nasional on one hand and the Barisan Rakyat (DAP, PKR and PAS) on the other. Before this General Election, the Barisan Nasional had an overwhelming majority in Parliament and had only lost at the most two states. This meant that the opposition had little voice in publicising their views and also highlighting their political aims. Now since the Barisan Rakyat has won 82 parliamentary seats and is in power in 5 states, the ability to push their political agendas such as the abolition of the ISA and the reforming of the NEP is stronger. The situation now reflects two major political blocks and mirrors a two party system. Furthermore, previously because of the overwhelming majority of the Barisan Nasional, attendance levels at Parliament and State level legislatures were low and debate in Parliament was treated insignificantly. This situation has changed dramatically. As one lawyer put it, if this goes on now the Barisan Rakyat will have the opportunity to enact legislation in Parliament. Also, since the Barisan Rakyat has access to more resources, it will be able to strengthen its political base.
One characteristic of the DAP, PKR and even PAS is that they are multi-racial parties as opposed to the race based politics of the Barisan Nasional. This has brought a new dimension to Malaysian politics. Voters are not voting by racial lines anymore, instead they are voting on the strength of political ideologies. The weakening of race based politics means that the Barisan Nasional has to take a more universal approach in its decision making instead of relying on consensus among its race-based parties.
Another implication of this General Election is the significant weakening of component political parties in the Barisan Nasional coalition. Many political commentators have even reached the conclusion that the MIC and Gerakan are politically 'dead'. Some have said that Gerakan has lost Penang forever. It is interesting to note that Barisan Nasional component parties that did very badly in this General Election were non-Malay parties. Therefore you could safely say that the non-Malay mind has shifted to the political ideology of the opposition.
Since the result of this General Election has shocked many it has gained a lot of attention and publicity among the public. This has raised the political awareness of the public in Malaysia. More people will register to vote and become more active in politics. Also, the political ideas of the Barisan Nasional and the Barisan Rakyat will come under closer scrutiny by the public. More people will be interested in the issues being debated both in the mainstream media and the 'new' media.
A further implication of the result of this General Election is that the mainstream media will be forced to become less cosmetic and more balanced in terms of its reporting of the issues that concern the voters. This is because people read between the lines of the pretentious reporting and portrayal of the image of the Barisan Nasional coalition. The Barisan Nasional coalition will have to realise it is in its own interest to make the mainstream media more balanced as this would give voters the impression that issues are being debated.
The 'new' media particularly the internet played a massive role in the outcome of this General Election. This has definitely been the conclusion of many political commentators who have said that internet usage will be on the rise because people have realised that it has appeared to be a more credible and more concrete source of information. Websites like Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today will become more mainstream and hence information in this websites will be disseminated more widely. More people will use the power of the internet through blogs and websites to express their political views and hence a more open debate about political issues will take place.
As economic factors played an influential role in the General Election result, new approaches to economic policies will have to be formulated by both the Barisan Nasional and the Barisan Rakyat. This is because the poor handling of the economy will have negative consequences for the public particularly the business community. The global economic banking crisis will have a major impact on the Malaysian economy and hence politicians will have to formulate wise economic strategies to counter this problem. The stock market will also have to be stable as a crash in the stock market will give an opportunity to the opposition and anti-Badawi forces within the Barisan Nasional an opportunity to undermine the government. Many economists have said that changes of the capitalistic model of Malaysia will have to be made. Drastic measures like a minimum wage and reforms in social welfare will be more heavily demanded if the economy slows down. Another economic policy, the scrapping of the fuel subsidy will not be implemented as this would anger the public further and shift their minds to the opposition.
Since the corruption factor played a major role in the outcome of the General Election, the phenomenon of corruption and nepotism will decrease. This is because politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have realised that corruption and nepotism has angered the public to such an extent that there was a political 'tsunami' in this General Election. Scandals exposed by the 'new' media and also the control of five states by the opposition would mean a further weakening of the Barisan Nasional coalitions practice of fraudulent activities such as corruption and nepotism.
Another implication of this General Election result is more attention will be paid to the needs of minorities particularly the Indian community. The Barisan Nasional will now have to reformulate its policies concerning minorities as many parties such as the MIC and the PPP have been severely weakened. The Barisan Nasional will also have to find more credible leaders among the minorities to portray a serious determination to overcome the problems of minorities. As the minority vote played a significant role in the results of the General Election, more publicity and attention will be given to the issues concerning their plight.
The shock election result and the strong showing by the Barisan Rakyat have shown that Anwar Ibrahim has played a significant role in the outcome of the General Elections. This has meant the revival and the increase of status of Anwar Ibrahim as a political leader. Many political observers believe that once Anwar Ibrahim is legally able to stand for a Parliamentary seat and if he wins, he will become the Parliamentary Opposition Leader. This means that political debate in Parliament will be taken more seriously by the Barisan Nasional coalition as Anwar Ibrahim oratory skills can make a significant impact on the debate in the Parliament.
With the strong showing of PAS in this General Election, a further implication of this is of the rise of Islamism in Malaysia particularly among the Malay Muslims community. This trend is parallel to global trends of the rise of Islamism especially since the post-September 11 period. Furthermore international issues that concern the Islamic community especially the occupation of Palestine, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Islamaphobia will be more heavily espoused by certain quarters of the political spectrum.
The 'victory' of DAP and PKR which ran on a platform of reviewing and reforming the NEP will bring this issue to the forefront of Malaysian politics. Already, one of the first moves of the DAP-led Penang state government was to make a public statement of the abolishment of the NEP. There was also a special programme on the Al Jazeera network regarding this issue. The debate on the NEP would mark a significant change in the dimension of Malaysian politics as it was previously regarded as a taboo subject and tantamount to sacredness by certain Malay quarters. Many say the NEP has deviated from its original aims of eradicating poverty by benefiting a Malay elite and ignoring the needs of the poor regardless of race.
Conclusion The results of the 2008 General Election has created a new dimension in Malaysian politics. New issues and ideologies have come into play into the dynamics of the political system. For the first time in Malaysian political history, there is a strong and viable opposition to the once powerful Barisan Nasional coalition. The public because of the information revolution have made a significant shift in their mindset. Multiracial politics has become an important force as opposed to the race-based politics which was practised by the Barisan Nasional coalition. The outcome of the General Election will also mean that there can be more open debate on race, religion and policies like the NEP.
Globalisation has also played a crucial role as Malaysians are exposed to political systems and ideologies elsewhere around the world. The globalisation factor has also meant that world economies are interconnected and hence can influence the dynamics of the political system in Malaysia. The future of Malaysian politics will be shaped by political forces that understand the roots and causes of the outcome of this General Election. This will allow them to tackle issues that will arise from the implications of the General Election result.