Hollow victory

Although general elections in Malaysia have returned the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led Barisan National (BN) coalition to power, there is little reason for the victorious coalition to celebrate.

Not only has its tally in the 222-member parliament dropped to 133 from 140 in the 2008 election but also, it received fewer votes (5.24 million) than the opposition three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition (5.62 million). Added to this are strong allegations that the election process was severely flawed. The BN’s victory is therefore a hollow one. Prime minister Najib Razak must draw the right lessons from the verdict. It is a warning.

Malaysia’s voters have put his government on notice. If he does not improve governance in the coming five years, UMNO’s rule, which has been in power since independence in 1957, will come to an end. Like any party that is at the steering wheel for too long, UMNO has degenerated into a patronage machine.

 Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will no doubt be disappointed. A former deputy prime minister and protege of UMNO strongman Mahathir Mohammed, he would have been hoping to win this election as predicted by sections of the media. Still the opposition need not despair. While unseating a party that has been in power for almost six decades is a difficult task, it has been able to bridge the gap with the BN coalition. It is within sniffing distance of power. It will need to extend its support base in the cities into rural Malaysia.
 For over 40 years now, Malaysia has had race-based policies that give preferential treatment to ethnic Malays in education, jobs, housing, loans, etc.

It helped to improve the socio-economic status of the ethnic Malays. However, it is time the Malaysian government began taking steps to end this controversial policy. Many, including ethnic Malays, believe this is necessary to improve Malaysia’s competitiveness. The question is whether Najib, at a time when his party’s popularity is waning, will risk provoking the ire of the ethnic Malays. It might help him, however, win back support of ethnic Chinese and Indians. As for the opposition, its endorsement of greater Islamisation of Malaysia is costing it the support of non-Muslims. More inclusive policies that are not based on preferential treatment of one community or another may enable Malaysia’s politicians to strike a chord with more voters. 

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