- The political dynamics that had kept Malaysian politics stable since the 1970s have been unravelling gradually over the past decade.
- The return of a United Malays National Organization (UMNO) politician to the prime ministership is not an automatic signal that the trend is reversing.
- Politics is searching for a new equilibrium, with potential consequences for governmental stability and economic policy.
The selection of Ismail Sabri Yaakob last Saturday has drawn headlines because of the return of an UMNO politician to the prime ministership, three years after the party’s National Front (BN) coalition lost the 14th general elections since independence. He presides over a slim and fractured majority (114 out of 222 seats) that includes two contending UMNO factions, the Bersatu party composed of former UMNO members, the conservative and nationalist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and the regionally-focused Sarawak Parties’ Alliance (GPS).
For now, Ismail is in a slightly better position than his predecessor because the urgency of the pandemic makes an immediate challenge to his position politically untenable for the opposition. There may be some show of cooperation, as no party wants to be seen as uncooperative on matters related to the pandemic, especially after a bitter political battle spanning months. On the other hand, his ability to build coalition unity will be constrained by the distrust between UMNO, Bersatu and PAS regarding each other’s electoral ambitions (as they may contest some overlapping constituencies being Malay- centric parties) and the conflicting demands for cabinet seat allocations. Furthermore, the pressure for him to call early elections will intensify once the public health emergency eases, which is a key unknown.
The rise and undoing of UMNO
But beyond the near-term maneuverings is the more fundamental question of whether Malaysia can return to the political equilibrium of the 1970s to mid 2000s, when BN presided over a relatively durable period of political and social stability. It achieved this after the 1969 race riots by consolidating its image as the champion of the majority Malays, and in doing so ensured that ethnic tensions generated popular support for it all the way down to the grassroots.
But to ensure long-term control, UMNO did not rely on its ethnic and political primacy alone. It also effectively fused the party with the bureaucracy, and in the process recruited the political elites from across the spectrum towards its goals of generating the economic growth that would not only support the implementation of the pro-Malay affirmative action policies upon which its popular legitimacy rested but also sustain the patronage-linked wealth and cash flows that helped maintain elite cohesion and reduce short-term infighting for spoils. Loyalty to UMNO therefore carried long-term economic and social benefits, whether for the heartland Malay voter or the ascendant politicians who had to toe the line to gain access to political and social resources.
UMNO even took this a step further over time, using its accumulated political and social clout to bring independent governmental institutions under its control, as it did with the sacking of three high court judges during 1988 constitutional crisis, and to prevent electoral threats from emerging through its gerrymandering of election districts. And while it allowed the opposition, dissidents, and NGOs to exist, it also limited the space in which they could operate through its control of the political system.
The trigger for the unraveling of this UMNO-centric system may have been the 1990s Asian financial crisis, when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s fight with his erstwhile protege Anwar Ibrahim created visible cracks within the elite. By the mid 2000s, its rhetoric became increasingly race-based and inflammatory, with overtones of violence, possibly driven by its competition with the more conservative Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS, now the Malaysian Islamic Party). This eventually scared off the ethnic Chinese and Indians and heightened the distrust of reform-oriented Malays aligned with Anwar. BN lost its supermajority in the 2008 elections (GE 12) for the first time since 1969.
After the 2008 debacle, the party elected Najib Razak, who at first tried to promise a wide range of institutional and social reforms. However, to protect himself against the party’s more conservative wing, Najib eventually had to resort to patronage and revert to its Malay-centric messaging. This allowed UMNO to recover some parliamentary ground in 2013 (GE 13), even though it lost the popular vote. But the subsequent discovery of the 1MDB fraud and its links to Najib made corruption (never UMNO’s strongest suit) the emergent issue of the mid-2010s and led to the defection of Mahathir and his allies under the newly formed Bersatu party in 2016. Mahathir claimed the corruption had become too blatant, threatening the equilibrium between self-interest and legitimacy that had been entrenched in previous decades. The political split in the party finally delivered an electoral defeat for UMNO.
Will Malaysia find a new political equilibrium?
Ismail is a compromise prime minister, agreed upon by UMNO politicians to prevent the party from openly fracturing. He leads both a party and coalition driven by short-term ambitions, whether in terms of cabinet seats or electoral outcomes – the antithesis of UMNO’s political and governance model of the past decades. Given these circumstances, Ismail managing a reversion to the long- term equilibrium will be difficult, because it requires a relatively cohesive party core; for now, it is mainly the pandemic response that constrains politics. He is currently allied with Najib, who is out on appeal after an April conviction that sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment. A reversal of the former prime minister’s conviction would likely inflame public anti-UMNO sentiments and worsen internal divisions — but it is likely part of Najib’s agenda in bringing down Yassin to secure his acquittal.
In the meantime, given the prospective competition with PAS and Bersatu for some seats in the next election, UMNO is unlikely to stray from a message that appeals to its base. It could initiate a more formal alliance with PAS to strengthen its electoral chances, but this would further alienate ethnic minorities and even moderate Malays in the urban areas. Finding a new equilibrium will take time and its shape is still undetermined; thus, government instability and short-term dealmaking may be more the rule in the near term. UMNO is in uncharted territory and by consequence so are Malaysian politics and long-term outlook for reform.