The elections are around the corner! Francis Loh paints a realistic picture of what’s in store for the various political parties and assesses their chances in the various types of seats. Election fever may be infectious – but realistically, on the morning after the election, what really will have changed? This is why, he says, it is important to link the electoral process to the larger struggle for broader participatory democracy. It is also important to understand the election process and be forewarned of the media’s role and hype.
Malaysia will be holding its 12th general election on 8 March 2008. The Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition parties are gearing themselves up for the contest.
The BN government has been spreading propaganda among the rakyat about how much development the BN has brought to the country and how much more the rakyat will enjoy as they announce one election promise after another. For their part, the opposition parties have been scrutinising carefully the workings of the Elections Commission (SPR), and negotiating among themselves to put together electoral pacts, state-by-state, so that they focus on challenging the BN, instead of contesting against one another.
There is much hype in the mass media reporting on all of these: The SPR is ready for elections! The electoral rolls are now clean! Will the incumbents, especially those associated with scandals, be put up as candidates again? Will there be more women candidates this time? Where will particular leaders contest? Will the Opposition’s electoral pacts hold? Occasionally, there has been some reporting of the issues being highlighted by the Opposition. But, predictably, there has been little effort to investigate and debate the major issues that ought to be deliberated on by all. And, of course, there has been endless speculation about when the elections will be held.
Indeed, more so than elsewhere in the region, elections are the stuff of politics in Malaysia. As well, democracy, for Malaysians, is narrowly defined in terms of elections and party contests. No wonder the growing excitement.
This article highlights three major points:
• It situates the coming 12th general election in the context of Malaysia’s overall political system and the political culture of the rakyat.
• It seeks to clarify what is at stake in the coming elections. Are we really going for broke? Or is the BN’s victory predictable? Where, really, might the breakthroughs in the BN stranglehold occur?
• It is important to foreshadow how the mainstream media will soon drop all semblance of whatever professionalism they still have and become BN propagandists. Be forewarned!
Framing Malaysia’s elections
In spite of the regular holding of elections and other procedures and institutions of parliamentary democracy in Malaysia, power has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of the Executive at the expense of the Legislative, the Judiciary, the mass media and civil society generally. This has been achieved largely through the promulgation of coercive laws and amendments to the Constitution – rather than via outright repression, military coups or suspension of the Constitution as in some other Asian countries. The Internal Security Act (ISA), just used against the Hindraf Five, allows for detention without trial which, together with other coercive laws, actually curb civil liberties and political rights enshrined in the Constitution. These restrictive Acts include the Official Secrets Act, the Universities and University Colleges Act, the Trade Unions Act, the Societies Act and the Police Act. As a result of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the opposition and critics have found it difficult to publish, while the mainstream mass media have fallen into the hands of the BN coalition government or its parties.
The Executive’s grip over the conduct of elections and their outcomes has also been strengthened through amendments to election laws. Specifically, the SPR, charged with conducting the elections, has lost its original autonomy. It acts, nowadays, at the behest of the Executive (although technically, it is answerable to Parliament rather than to the prime minister). Every eight to ten years, the EC has redrawn the electoral boundaries ostensibly to cater for demographic changes as required constitutionally. According to an important analyst of Malaysia’s electoral system, however, the redrawing of boundaries has benefited the incumbent BN each time. In the 2003 delineation exercise, the EC added 26 new parliamentary seats and 63 state seats especially in the states where the BN had performed very well in the 1999 general election. No additional seats were added to the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah states – where the opposition Parti Islam (Pas) had scored huge successes in 1999. All these new seats, except one (Bukit Gelugor), were won by the BN in the next general election in 2004.
Election-related laws have also been amended systematically to favour the incumbent BN. Following the amendments to the Election Act and the Election Offences Act in April 2002, the list of voters, once gazetted, can no longer be challenged in a court of law – not even when ‘phantom voters’ are found listed in the electoral rolls. The deposit required of parliamentary candidates has been increased significantly – up to a maximum of RM20,000, among the highest in the world. Already finding it difficult to raise funds to conduct their campaigns effectively, the poorer opposition parties will be even more financially burdened by these increased deposits.
Earlier, during the 1980s, the laws had also been amended to disallow open-air public rallies. Instead, only ceramahs (literally ‘dialogues’) conducted indoors are allowed – and that only upon application to the local police authorities. The legal minimum duration of the official campaign period has been reduced to seven days. In 2004, for instance, campaigning was only allowed for eight days, the shortest ever. This short period disadvantaged the opposition again – since the actual date of the election is not fixed by statute as in some countries; instead, snap elections are called at the most opportune time for the government.
Although the SPR determines the election date, it is the incumbent BN that decides when parliament is to be dissolved. Better informed as to when the impending election might occur, the BN parties also have a head start in making the necessary bookings for the use of public facilities to conduct their ceramah and in placing orders for the printing of posters and the preparation of billboards. The Opposition, on the other hand, can only take the cue from their BN adversary. The BN is thus always better prepared than the opposition for the elections.
The coercive laws and other legalistic arrangements discussed above frame the organisation and conduct of general elections. Add to this, the BN’s greater access to the so-called ‘3 M’s’ – media, money and electoral machine – and it is no wonder that elections have become predictable affairs: the BN always wins. Indeed, political scientists writing on Malaysia have described our political system variously: as a ‘semi-democracy’, a ‘repressive-responsive regime’, a ‘statist democracy’, and even a system of ‘rule by [coercive] laws’ rather than ‘the rule of law’.
Political culture of electoralism and strong identification with parties
In a survey of the political culture of Malaysia (and several other Asian countries) conducted in 2000, 70 plus per cent of Malaysian respondents reported that they had voted in all or some of the elections. Some 68.4 per cent strongly agree and another 28.5 per cent agree that citizens have a duty to vote in elections. They further believe that the way people vote decides how the country is run (34.0 percent strongly agree and another 45.6 percent agree). Accordingly, 30.1 per cent strongly disagree and 41.1 per cent disagree when it is stated that ‘it doesn’t matter whether I vote or not’. Put another way, Malaysians take their elections seriously.
The survey further reported that Malaysians also take their political parties seriously. Almost 20 per cent of Malaysians indicated that they have joined political parties, the highest percentage registered among all Asians in the cross-national survey. Another 22.1 per cent also stated that they ‘might’ join political parties. Taken together, Malaysians registered an uncharacteristically high regard for political parties compared to other Asians. Malaysians are also more inclined than most other Asians to help a political party or candidate during election and to contribute financially to a party or candidate (highest among all Asians).
Such positive identification with elections and political parties probably indicates that Malaysian political parties (and elections) are stronger and more enduring institutions than in most parts of Asia, perhaps with the exception of Singapore and Japan. It is also plausible that this positive identification with the parties, especially the BN ones, has a material basis.
But whereas the Japanese, South Koreans and Filipinos who registered positive identification with political parties are also inclined to attend a protest or sign a petition, Malaysians in contrast are disinclined to engage in these extra-electoral political activities. In fact some 36.4 per cent of Malaysian respondents also thought that people should not be allowed to organise public meetings although they might agree that one is entitled to express one’s opinion. This percentage opposing the right to hold public meetings is the highest for all of the Asian countries surveyed. Studies of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the region have also indicated that fewer Malaysians join NGOs compared to most other Asian neighbours.
Yet, Malaysians are also imbued with the notion that their country is very democratic! When asked ‘how proud or not proud are you of the way Malaysia’s democracy works’, 41.6 percent of respondents replied that they were ‘very proud’ (the highest among all Asian countries) while another 35.4 percent replied that they were ‘somewhat proud’. Only 11.2 per cent replied that they were ‘not so proud’ and another 5.2 per cent ‘not proud at all’. The Malaysian scores were also way above the Asian average which was 18.1 per cent very proud and 37.1 per cent somewhat proud. In contrast, only 53.2 per cent of Japanese respondents and 37.2 per cent of South Koreans appeared positive about the way their democracy worked (see Table 1).
1: Pride in the way democracy works in eight Asian countries
Obviously, Malaysians have a definition of democracy which is quite narrowly defined. This definition of democracy privileges electoralism as well as involvement in and support of political parties (which under Malaysian laws must be registered). It also registers high rates of participation in general elections. Apparently, these Malaysians are also wont to reject a more participatory democracy which extends into the extra-electoral realms, as the low rates in support of signing a petition and attending a protest suggest. Put another way, unlike elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia (Singapore excepted), elections and party politics are the stuff of contemporary politics in Malaysia, at least for a majority.
This penchant for electoralism and the high regard for Malaysian democracy, notwithstanding the many restrictions on civil liberties and political rights as clarified in the first section, is on account of two related factors:
• the rapid economic growth which has occurred and which has improved the livelihood of a majority, and
• the cultural corollary to that growth that might be called ‘developmentalism’.
The discourse of developmen-talism emerged in the early 1970s, when the Malaysian state launched its plans to promote economic growth in order to achieve New Economic Policy (NEP) objectives. This discourse came into its own in the midst of rapid economic growth and new opportunities during the 1990s, associated with the neo-liberal policies of economic liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. This new political culture valorises rapid economic growth, the resultant consumerist habits, and the political stability offered by the BN’s rule even when it resorts to authoritarian measures.
Since no other party has ever ruled Malaysia, many ordinary Malaysians including the middle classes cannot imagine that political stability can be maintained in multi-ethnic Malaysia without BN rule. A ‘self-policing’ system in support of BN rule – believed essential for maintaining political stability, which then attracts foreign investments and facilitates economic growth, and which ultimately results in higher standards of living and consumption – has kicked in.
On the other hand, the Opposition has had no previous experience of promoting development at a national level. Instead, Kelantan and Terengganu, which had been ruled by the opposition PAS government during 1999 to 2004, experienced relatively lower rates of growth than the BN-governed states. Sabah, too, experienced an economic lag when the opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah was in power from 1985-1994. No doubt, the stunting of growth was partly due to the federal government’s redirecting of development funds for those states away from the opposition-led state governments to federally controlled agencies.
BN parties – from politics to development
A re-definition of the role of political parties – and even of the meaning of politics – has further accompanied this developmen-talism. During this period of economic progress, the BN component parties not only avoided debate over policies, especially when they involved ‘sensitive’ ethnic issues (such as the status of Chinese and Tamil schools, ethnic quotas for entrance into universities and acquiring business licences and Islamisation). They also de-emphasised the political education and mobilisation of ordinary Malaysians. Instead, developmentalism embedded itself into the everyday lives of local communities through the delivery of public works and services by the BN parties.
Significantly, BN parties transformed themselves into extensions and instruments of the state not merely to assist in the maintenance of the status quo, but also to assist in the delivery of public works and services. The MCA, the MIC and Gerakan each controls a university. The MCA further controls a college (Kolej Tunku Abdul Rahman) with five campuses in different parts of the country. Its Langkawi Project further caters to the educational needs of primary school children while Kojadi, the MCA’s savings co-operative, provides low-interest loans for the children of co-operative members to facilitate their entry into universities and colleges.
The BN political parties also established so-called ‘service centres’ and complaints bureaus throughout the country. These are partially financed by the Constituency Development Funds that are undemocratically allocated by the government only to elected BN politicians. Lower-class Malaysians, in particular, have resorted to these centres and bureaus instead of to the relevant government agencies in order to resolve their everyday problems and needs, whether these are of a personal nature or catering for the local community. Such assistance includes getting their children admitted into a school of the parents’ choice; applying for passports, hawker licences and other official documents; obtaining redress for overcharging for utilities now operated by privatised entities; and even looking for children and other loved ones who have disappeared!
Finally, the BN parties have ventured into business activities and forged close ties with other captains of industry and commerce. Together with them and their associations such as the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and other industry-specific bodies such as the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, the BN parties have initiated various projects in support of the BN government’s post-NEP economic policies, which have been friendlier to the private sector in general. It is significant that the new Corridor development plans were undertaken, not by the government nor by government think-tanks or the universities, but by major corporations.
In summary, therefore, the BN political parties have assumed very different roles from those they performed at the point of Independence whence freedom and justice were clarion calls, and popular mobilisation was their raison d’etre. Ironically, the political parties seem to be encouraging their members to engage in development activities first and foremost and to disengage from political participation, except, perhaps, during elections.
No politics but electoral politics
Consequently, the high point of the political life of the majority of Malaysians is the election, which occurs every four to five years. In the context of developmentalism, rallying behind the BN can benefit one materially in the form of services and goods, if not licences, contracts and projects. Moreover, at a time ‘when the whole world is watching’, the usual curbs and restrictions on civil liberties are also relaxed or held in abeyance during the brief campaign period. And because the tightly controlled electoral system allows for keen competition in some areas, without threatening a surprise defeat of the BN, it encourages the opposition parties to have yet another go at the polls.
On its part, the BN is forced to campaign even more vigorously to deny a breach of its two-thirds majority in Parliament. More than that, the atmosphere of greater freedom encourages groups like the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to seize the opportunity to promote a wider notion of participatory democracy, which extends beyond elections. Some researchers have noted that elections are double-edged weapons in the rise of democracy and in the formation of a dominant, stable and permanent political order. For Ben Anderson, a famous professor of Southeast Asian politics, elections are ‘on the one hand… pacifying instruments…. On the other hand … elections can provide an opportunity for genuinely new groups to enter politics’.
Hence, despite the coercive laws, the electoral laws favouring the incumbent and the predictable BN victory, much anxiety and excitement bubbles to the surface as elections approach. All this excitement and anxiety is borne out by the high voter turnout rates – more than 70 per cent – for each of the five previous elections in Malaysia; in 2004, the turnout was 76.6 per cent.
BN wins in mixed areas, opposition only in Malay-majority and Chinese-majority areas
Although the BN has won every single general election, securing more than two-thirds of all parliamentary seats on each occasion since 1957, its performance in terms of the popular vote has been less impressive. In 2004, the BN polled an impressive 63.8 per cent. But in 1999, it only polled 56 per cent. Thirty years earlier, in the eventful 1969 election, the BN failed to gain a majority of the popular vote.
When one further analyses the electoral results, it appears that the BN victories have been secured in the so-called multi-ethnic constituencies. There are two types of multi-ethnic seats: the mixed constituencies where no ethnic group constitutes a majority of voters and the small Malay majority constituencies where Malays account for 50 to 66.6 per cent of enrolled voters. These seats are also semi-urban in character. Here, it is common for the BN to win 90 to 100 per cent of seats. In 2004, it won all 75 such seats, while in 1999, in the midst of reformasi and an uncharacteristic challenge by a united opposition in the polls, the BN still won 60 of 61 such seats.
The remaining two types of seats – the large Malay majority seats (more than two-thirds Malays), largely rural and concentrated in the northern part of the Peninsula; and in the Chinese majority seats (more than 50 per cent Chinese), which are found in urban areas – are usually keenly contested between the BN and the Opposition. It is as though a two-party system (as in the US and UK where power shifts from party-to-party) prevails in such seats. Although the BN is armed with greater access to the 3-Ms, opposition candidates have won several seats, time and time again. On several occasions, the BN has failed to poll a majority of votes in such areas. In 1999, the BN won only 27 of 59 large Malay-majority seats. But in 2004, the BN regained the initiative by capturing 57 out of 65 such seats. In the Chinese-majority seats, the BN won 15 out of 24 seats in 1999, and 14 out of 25 such seats in 2004.
The federal make-up of Malaysia, and the holding of federal and state-level contests simultaneously, further contributes towards electoral excitement. Technically speaking, it is possible for the Opposition to lose the contest at the parliamentary level, but capture a few state legislative assemblies. This has happened on several occasions in the large Malay-majority areas. Although the total number of Pas members of parliament has been small from 1957 to 2004, Pas has held power in Kelantan state for extended periods (1959-1978, 1990-2008), and in Terengganu periodically (1959-1964,1999-2004). The Opposition has also held power in Sabah from 1985 to 1994.
Although a BN victory in the general election is hence predictable, it is not clear by what margin the BN will win. The BN’s goal is to secure at least two-thirds of the seats in Parliament – which allows it to amend the Constitution at will, something it has done more than 45 times since Independence. Equally unpredictable, are the outcomes in the urban Chinese-majority seats and the rural Malay-majority seats where a two-party system might be said to operate. Finally, at least in Kelantan and Terengganu, and previously Sabah too, the opposition can actually emerge as the state government of the day. Provided that the DAP-PKR electoral pact holds, it is most likely that the opposition will perform better in Penang in 2008. The expected keen contest in such areas lends excitement to the upcoming 2008 general election.
Both the BN and Opposition politicians – along with their party supporters – thus engage in the election with great gusto though for different reasons: the opposition will try to break through the BN’s stranglehold while the BN will try minimally to secure its two-thirds majority. Both sides target those Malaysians who do not yet identify with any particular party.
Mainstream media and hype
Finally, let us investigate the role of the mainstream media which are owned and controlled by either the government or the BN parties. Significantly, the media do not resort to crude pro-BN propaganda, at least not in the early stages. Overplaying the pro-BN card could turn off the large group of undecided voters or, equally fatal for the BN, discourage them from coming out to vote if they think that the BN’s victory was assured and their votes would not matter.
Rather, the mainstream media highlights the keenness of the election by focusing on the contest for parliamentary seats in the large Malay-majority areas (especially in Kelantan and Terengganu) and in urban Chinese-majority areas where it appears that a two-party system is at work.
One of the media’s major tasks, therefore, is to speculate on when the forthcoming general election will be held. They have been scrutinising the prime minister’s calendar to pick up clues about the impending date. So-called pundits have also been interviewed and brought together for ‘café latte sessions’.
In the run up to the 2004 election, speculation about the date occurred later than usual – for Dr Mahathir Mohamad had only stepped down as premier on 31 October 2003. Media attention was focused on what kinds of policy or administrative changes, if any, Abdullah Badawi, the new prime minister, might introduce in his ‘first 100 days’ in office? The political air-waves were also buzzing over who Abdullah would appoint as his deputy.
This time, as on previous occasions, a string of articles has focused on the SPR’s preparedness for the polls. Sometimes, the headlines used are even the same: ‘All Systems Go’, ‘Into the final stages of training’, and always ‘election rolls have been cleaned of phantoms’.
The first round of guessing the election date usually gets linked to some BN meeting. Apparently, a BN leaders’ meeting was held in late January although it was leaked to the press that it was ‘not a meeting about the elections; only routine stuff discussed’. But really, there is nothing routine about BN meetings. For the BN, as a party, is only activated in the run-up to elections.
At any rate, as soon as the election date has been confirmed, attention will next focus on potential candidates. At first glance, this is a non-issue. Nonetheless, the media is quite capable of creating the necessary hype to excite readers. For example: which of the BN component parties might contest a particular parliamentary or state seat? Will there be a trading of seats? Will an incumbent or someone new be selected as a candidate? Who might the opposition candidate be in a specific seat; indeed, where might some opposition leaders like Pas’ Hadi Awang and Mahfuz or the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng and Karpal Singh contest? How many women candidates would Pas field?
Nomination Day marks another turning point in the run-up. The media will prepare ‘pullout specials’ which contain information on the constituencies (the number of registered voters, the ethnic breakdown of these voters, the results of the previous election), the current set of candidates, and their parties. Space will be provided at the end of each entry for the reader to mark in the winning candidates and the votes polled. At the back of the pullout, a ‘score sheet’ to tally the total number of seats won by each party is also provided. Presented in colour, with maps depicting where these constituencies are located and with photographs of most candidates, these pullouts are geared towards getting the voter excited about the forthcoming elections.
A variation of the pullout is again reproduced on the eve of polling day as an invitation to the readers to get involved in the election – by filling in the names of the winning candidates and their winning margins in the same way, presumably, that punters would record particulars on a scorecard at the race course!
Professional journalists or propagandists
Invariably, serious issues will receive little discussion throughout the campaign period. Instead, editors and feature writers will comment that there are ‘no important issues’ worth discussing, because those issues have recently been resolved through a new promise or a recent policy initiative.
Watch out! From this point onwards, the mainstream media will begin to lobby unabashedly for the BN. On Nomination Day and again on the eve of polling, the BN media will carry several pages of advertisements supporting the BN. Sometimes, a few opposition advertisements might appear – but nothing comparable to the space occupied by the former. The media’s biased and unprofessional conduct in the run-up to elections has been well documented by scholars, including in the pages of Aliran Monthly.
Significantly, much of the pro-BN political advertisements will highlight the BN’s development achievements. Page after page of advertisements will recall the major projects the BN has delivered since 1957. Watch out for lots of talk about how the Corridors will usher in a new round of development for Malaysians.
Commonly, there will be headlines such as ‘Business community hopes for big BN win’. Look out also for graphs showing the Composite Index of the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange on the rise. Keep an eye out for remarks about our ‘strong fundamentals’, and, oh, reminders of how supporting the opposition, would only create political uncertainty, and undermine investor confidence and all of this development.
The norm is also to carry front-page pro-BN editorials on the eve of polling day. They can sound quite professional. For instance, in 2004, one such editorial read: ‘To meet global competition and to ensure continued power sharing and balanced development so that no group will feel neglected or alienated…Pak Lah is the right man to lead Malaysia at this juncture of our history’. Add this to page after page of the newspapers extolling the BN’s virtues, reports rubbishing the Opposition for ‘no action, talk only’, then, really, we see that these editorials amount to propaganda by editors and journalists who have thrown their professionalism and ethics to the wind.
Coercive laws and other restrictions frame the organisation and conduct of general elections in Malaysia as they do vis-a-vis many other aspects of our political lives. Add to this the BN’s greater access to the 3-Ms – media, money and machine, elections have become predictable affairs. The BN always win. Despite the predictability of the electoral outcome, nonetheless, Malaysians do get excited about elections
No doubt the mainstream media works us up to a little frenzy by highlighting the contests taking place in the large Malay-majority areas and the Chinese-majority seats. They will also speculate on Kelantan, and perhaps this time Penang too, falling into the hands of the Opposition. Invariably, the mainstream media will show their true colours and rally unabashedly behind the BN ruling coalition a few days before polling. Be forewarned!
Finally, it is important to remember that very little will have changed in Malaysia the morning after the general election. We will still have to get rid of the ISA and the other coercive laws. We will still have to promote inter-faith dialogue and greater acceptance of one another in spite of our different religions and cultures. We will still have to promote sustainable and alternative development which caters for the poor, marginalised and needy, yet preserves our environment and heritage. And in Aliran’s case, we will still have to make people more conscious of their rights and assume responsibilities in the struggle for justice, freedom and solidarity. To realise all this and more, it is necessary to link the formal electoral process to the struggle for a non-formal participatory democracy. It is only when that participatory democracy has been strengthened that significant changes will occur in the formal electoral realm.
Engage, therefore, with as much gusto as possible in the forthcoming 12th general election. And then, engage even more with deepening participatory democracy after the election.
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