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Manufacturing consent: Money politics and the Johor polls

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During the 2011 Sarawak state election campaign, I recall watching the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng spice up his speech in Kuching with the altered lyrics of a Wonder Girls hit, Nobody.

Lim said the lyrics of the song should be tailored for a people’s message to Taib Mahmud, the then Sarawak Chief Minister. If the opposition parties won on 16 April, they should sing: “I want no money, no money for you! I want no money, no money for you!” he sang out.

The crowd gamely sang along, clapping merrily as they echoed the altered lyrics of the song.

Manufacturing consent

The fact is, money politics and its use in elections has been endemic for a long time in Malaysia. Many will say it was entrenched in the Mahathir Mohamad years and continued to its peak in the Najib Razak years, capped by the 1MDB mega-scandal.

The discredited banker Tim Leissner, in an ongoing 1MDB-related trial in the US, testified that Jho Low had informed him that the money from the third Goldman Sachs bond, referred to as Project Catalyz, was used for the 2013 general election.

In an article (“The Monetisation of Consent and its Limits: Explaining Political Dominance and Decline in Malaysia”, JCA 2019), I argued that Najib was a masterclass executor of “manufacturing consent” through the use of money.

Plainly put, voters were simply bribed with money in multiple ways to give consent to the ruling party and its candidates. Consent was ‘manufactured’ because voters may not have actually wanted to support that party if their vote had not been ‘bought’ and they were given a genuine choice.

After the landmark 2008 general election, when Barisan Nasional lost its supermajority in Parliament, Najib went to great lengths to dole out money to the electorate in multiple ways to gain their consent. The 1MDB funds were mobilised in 2013 in a personalised “presidential” (“bossku”) style to make a wide range of payouts to a broad cross section of voters.

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Najib also famously created BRIM (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia or the 1Malaysia People’s Aid) which was a clever stratagem of manufacturing consent targeted at the poor and needy.

Implemented in 2012, the programme first paid out a one-off RM500 payment to 7.3 million recipients by 2017. The disbursements grew from the initial RM1.8bn total to RM6.8bn in 2017.

All households with incomes below RM3,000 – increased to RM4,000 in 2017 – and unmarried adults earning less than RM2,000 were eligible. Eligibility was also extended to low-income senior citizens, single parents with dependents, and married couples living with parents.

Johor polls

Let’s now turn to the Johor state election on 12 March. It appears the “cash-is-king” Najib is still on a roll, campaigning almost daily in Johor.

Fortunately, a recent court action blocked him from accessing 1MDB funds but, amazingly, he is still entitled to withdraw as much as RM100,000 a month!

Let’s look specifically at how the manufacturing of consent with money will affect the upcoming Johor state election.

Umno-BN has put up a soft image of reform politics. Its manifesto, dubbed “Stability for the Future”, is supposedly focused on spurring the economy, the people’s welfare, the youth, governance with integrity and political reforms.

BN chief Hasni Mohammad aims at gaining a two-thirds majority and has promised to maintain the annual allocation of RM200,000 for all state assembly members if BN wins.

Manufacturing consent with money seems measured and is apparently reasonable, including promising a total of RM100m in interest-free loans to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); financial assistance of RM150 to primary and secondary school students from low-income families; and RM500 to students from low-income families.

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New young voters

We turn to the targeting of youth votes. Johor is the first election to see an almost 30% increase or 749,731 new voters, following the implementation of Undi18 (a reduction in the minimum voting age from 21 to 18).

This massive number of new voters will be the key targets for manufacturing consent. It is obvious that recent policies pertaining to the scandalous student debt (through study loans from the National Higher Education Fund Corporation or PTPTN) have been directed at young voters.

By the end of 2021, the PTPTN had disbursed RM64.8bn to over 3.5 million student borrowers. Only about 22% of them have paid up their debt. At present, about 616,000 or 51% have defaulted with a total outstanding debt of RM3.5bn.

Not surprisingly, the government has soft-pedalled its attempts to retrieve the loans, such as giving discounts and not imposing travel bans, seeing that the vast majority of defaulters (some 75%) are bumiputra.

PTPTN chairman Wan Saiful Wan Jan, from Bersatu, has done precious little to tackle the problem and, given his party’s weak position in Johor, he is obviously using this as a ploy to manufacture consent.

Felda vote bank

The crunch in the manufacturing of consent will come in the battle for the Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) seats.

There are 72 Felda settlements in 20 of the 56 state constituencies in Johor. Traditionally, these Felda seats have been a vote bank for Umno, comprising some 53-54 federal seats and the state seats within them.

Money politics, in the guise of manufacturing consent, has been at the heart of the vote bank phenomenon. Settlers are regularly doled out subsidies and cash, especially when an election is pending. Like the PTPTN study loans, the settlers owe the government a massive amount in debt.

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In the 2018 general election, an unusually large number of seats (27 out of 53) fell to the opposition. Analysts, including me, noted that the Pakatan Harapan coalition parties were successful in penetrating Felda areas, as Najib’s kleptocracy provided an excellent foil to win their votes.

A prominent Perikatan Nasional poster for the Johor polls states that it will forgive all the RM8.3bn debt of the Felda settlers if it is returned to power.

For articles relating to the Felda vote bank, see the following:

It’s the people’s money

Malaysians, like most voters elsewhere, are bound to be enticed by the monetisation of consent, which is the ploy ruling elites regularly deploy to cloud voters’ judgement.

Voters should not be fooled that these elites are ‘giving’ them money. The money or funds are ultimately from state coffers and thus belong to the people. They should instead ensure that ruling governments disburse these funds fairly for the benefit of all the people.

As many enlightened civil society voices have argued, money should not be used to buy votes.

Instead, all elections must be subject to laws and regulations which restrain candidates from using monetary enticements unfairly.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
8 March 2022
The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran member, is emeritus professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, adjunct professor at the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya and adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He believes in politics as a vocation but is frustrated that it is often the refuge of opportunists and the morally depraved
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