International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Malaysia's political poverty
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

HONG KONG: Malaysia's many middle-of-the-road critics of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi are in a quandary as the March 8 election looms. Do they deliver the governing coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization, the drubbing that it richly deserves for its money politics and abuses of power? Or do they vote for the coalition out of concern that a poor electoral performance would undermine the well-meaning if weak Abdullah and enhance the positions of those politicians more closely associated with sleaze, religious intolerance and racial preferences?

The election cannot change the government. Malaysian politics is trapped in an institutionalized racial ghetto. The coalition is sure to win, as it has for 50 years. Abdullah himself acknowledges that it will not do as well as in 2004, when he was enjoying a honeymoon after 22 years of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But most likely, the governing coalition of race-based parties will retain a two-thirds majority in Parliament - failure to do so would be a humiliation for Abdullah.

Nevertheless, the election results will indicate important trends. The vote comes at a time when economic and political issues point in different directions. The economy is growing at 6 percent, underpinned by strong commodity export prices. Added to this has been a pre-election surge in government spending and massive subsidies for fuel and food that otherwise would have pushed consumer price inflation to double its official 2.3 percent rate. The assumed peak of the economic cycle explains why the election is being held now when Abdullah could have waited a year. Judging by history, a vote now should ensure few discomforts for the governing party.

But the election also comes in the wake of a host of scandals and disputes, some attributable to the current government, some the belated uncovering of corruption under Mahathir's watch. Issues include well-founded reports of high-level judicial corruption and influence peddling, and the bizarre conduct of the trial of Razak Baginda, an arms-dealing associate of the deputy prime minister and defense minister, Najib Abdul Razak, for the murder of his mistress.

While Abdullah has removed a few of those who prospered under Mahathir, there has been widespread disappointment at his failure to make more reforms.

It remains to be seen whether these issues resonate with the Malay majority, which has two alternatives - to vote for the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, commonly known as PAS, or support the multi-ethnic Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People's Justice Party, led by a former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. PAS has yet to prove that it can escape its mix of modern fundamentalism and rural conservatism and broaden its appeal among increasingly urbanized Malays. Anwar has yet to prove that his stature and Islamic past can translate into Malay votes for a multi-ethnic party, or that he can shake off the suspicions that many non-Malays have about his commitment to secular and multiracial principles.

The governing coalition will almost certainly suffer from the increased disaffection of non-Malays. Indians who traditionally support it have been upset by discrimination. Many may defect to the predominantly Chinese opposition Democratic Action Party or the People's Justice Party.

The Chinese are increasingly frustrated by the continuation of racial preferences that enrich the Malay elite at their expense, and by the low standing of the faction-riddled Malaysian Chinese Association in the government. Non-Malays are fed up with discrimination against non-Muslims.

Yet the influences that drive non-Malays into the arms of the opposition may help United Malays National Organization retain the loyalty of Malays who see it as the most effective guardian of their privileges and status of their religion. Thus they will overlook its many sins, just as many non-Malays will, however reluctantly, vote for an UMNO-led coalition, which they see as the best safeguard against Malay and Muslim extremism.

There is not much sign that Abdullah will use the election to bring change; radical moves are not his style. Yet if he does want to leave a legacy of doing more than keeping the leader's seat warm he will need to start soon after the election. Will the election make him see the necessity of change? Or leave him without the authority to achieve it?