GE13: What happened? And what now? (Part 2) — Clive Kessler
JUNE 13 — The first part of this commentary analysed the paradoxical outcome of GE13. It traced how the election of a reduced Barisan Nasional (BN) presence and increased opposition numbers in Parliament has amplified, not diminished, Umno’s power — here meaning specifically its power within the nation’s government and over the formation of national policy. It then examined the nature of the election campaign that yielded this paradoxical outcome.
A rejection of Perkasa?
GE13 was a less than explicit, and often inchoate, engagement, or contestation, between two rival views of the Malaysian nation, of what it is and where it was, or might be, headed.
On the other side, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition stuck to the terms of the agreement binding together its three partners. In a less than fully worked-out way they insisted that Malaysia was, or must become, a land of and for all Malaysians, and was now ready to do so. Or at least to make a common start on that journey — that quest for a shared future based upon a new national understanding and, under the existing Constitution, a new principled foundation.
That was the choice that was placed on offer to the voters. If it was the campaign that was waged by Umno/BN that won the day, can it be said that the overall election result represented a rejection of Perkasa by the nation, especially the Malay electorate?
Hardly. That is simply not so.
Yes, two Perkasa men who received Umno/BN backing were defeated. But 88 Umno candidates won. And that is more important, that is what matters.
They won on the “Malays in danger, Islam under threat” campaign waged in the Malay media that, as its main election effort, Umno directed at the nation’s Malay voters.
The Perkasa position is in effect, as some put it, “Malays on top, now and forever. That is Malaysia, love it or leave it!”
It is a hard, uncompromising position. But that, too, if in slightly more polite and modulated terms, was the essence of the Umno campaign that was projected daily, with ever increasing determination and with increasingly disquieting effect, by Utusan and its media consociates to the ever more fearful Malay voters in the rural heartlands.
Two outright, upfront card-carrying Perkasa candidates lost, even though they enjoyed Umno support.
But Umno ran, and won handsomely upon, a campaign which can simply be described as “Perkasa Mild”. A Perkasa-type campaign detached from the perhaps dubious or extreme reputation of Perkasa itself. A Perkasa-line not, like the original, angry but one for the somewhat more polite and genteel, and for those gripped by a fearful, and artfully cultivated, collective cultural and political anxiety.
A Perkasa line, it might perhaps be said, for those who might hesitate, not out of fear but even out of basic decency and in good conscience, to be publicly identified with Perkasa.
On the contrary. Perkasa, they might well feel, may be extremists. But Umno is mainstream. And if that is what Umno is saying, if that is the campaign that it is running, well, that line and that campaign, being Umno’s, cannot be extreme. That, for some, was the psychology of supporting “Perkasa Mild”.
It proved a winning campaign.
A winning campaign, certainly, for Umno. And also, though in a different way, a winning campaign for Perkasa as well.
A winning campaign for Perkasa despite the loss of the two high-profile Perkasa members whose candidacy Umno was supporting.
In Umno’s 88 victories, Perkasa and its stance were lent an official respectability and “normalised” — and in that way given a kind of vindication. Or at least political and moral absolution.
That is how what some political scientists used to call “ginger groups” — or radical pressure groups operating from outside a party upon like-minded “true believers” and sympathisers within it — operate and succeed.
In France in the 1950s one such group — the forerunner of the Le Pen movement of recent years and today — for a while rode high. The Poujadist movement influenced and infiltrated the ruling Gaullists. As they did, as they succeeded in doing so, their strength declined. Challenged by a journalist that his movement had failed, one Poujadist leader powerfully responded: “Not so! We have not failed, we have succeeded! We have succeeded in ‘Poujad-ising’ the moderates!”
Perkasa, too, may soon be able to make the same rejoinder, the same boast.
With that tune borrowed from Perkasa but played in a minor key, the Umno in very difficult times did not just hold on to what it had but significantly increased its number of parliamentary seats. The costs of its doing so were paid by the plummeting plausibility of its main long-term non-Malay partner parties in BN. They may never recover.
But for Umno it worked well. Umno’s number of seats is up by nine, a number not far short of what is now the combined MCA, MIC and Gerakan parliamentary presence of 12.
BN representation from the nation’s primary zone in Peninsular Malaysia is overwhelmingly an Umno parliamentary presence: 88 of 100. The old partner parties — the MCA, MIC and Gerakan — are now in no position to restrain Umno or to resist its demands. To have its way, Umno has merely to “square things off” with its Sarawak and Sabah allies, operating not as a solid bloc but as a collection of mutually wary contenders who can, if need be, be played off against one another.
From the viewpoint of the practitioners of Umno Realpolitik it is a very satisfactory outcome — even if the party’s “hard men” did not exactly envisage this outcome and plan it down to the last detail.
It is, for them, a very satisfactory outcome that was delivered by the success of their “Perkasa Mild” strategy.
A “Chinese tsunami”?
Recourse to that strategy came, as indicated, with a cost.
It entailed a substantial “writing off in advance” of much of “the Chinese vote” — of the votes of the vast majority of Malaysian citizens of Chinese origins and cultural background. It deprived the leaders of the Chinese partner parties MCA and Gerakan of “face” and credibility and stripped their parties of what was left of their political plausibility.
Yet the movement of voters away from Umno/BN was not, as some have suggested, simply a “Chinese phenomenon”.
The same trend seems to have been characteristic, in greater or lesser degree, of a significant number of Malaysians of all backgrounds who reside in and around the main cities, and in their adjoining semi-urban zones.
It was displayed, that is, by most of those whose lives are grounded outside of the electorally “over-represented” rural Malay heartlands and whose cultural orientations are focused upon concerns that lie beyond where the Umno and Utusan “Malay anxiety campaign” had great cultural reach and political “traction”.
The results of GE12 in 2008 had come as a great surprise to some. While some people had seen it coming, others, including those who then ran the Umno/BN campaign, did not. And, as if it had come suddenly from nowhere, they dubbed it a “tsunami”.
Things were different this time. The Umno/BN side knew that they were in “the fight of their lives”, a fight for political survival. Anti-Umno/BN currents were running strong in 2013. When they showed up in the election results, it could have been a surprise to nobody.
But in politics there are few things harder to resist than a convenient cliché. When the massive falling away of government support became clear, and BN in the peninsula was left looking very much like a club with only one member attended by a few bemused janitors, the official response, orchestrated by Umno and Utusan, was that what had happened was a “Chinese tsunami”.
The Chinese had defected, it was claimed, they had abandoned Umno/BN. The Chinese were to blame. “What more can the Chinese possibly want [beyond what they already enjoy under Umno/BN]” was Utusan’s furious banner headline.
One thing needs to be made clear here.
The expression “Chinese tsunami” is a polite — meaning inexplicit, since it does not use those words directly — way of saying that kaum Cina kita sudah memberontak dan menderhaka, that our Chinese community has rebelled and committed treason.
That is what people who use the expression “Chinese tsunami” mean.
So the issue to be discussed is not whether this second “tsunami” of 2013 was a “Chinese” or a more general and widespread “storm”.
What is needed is to bring into the clear and explicit light of day the underlying meaning of that coded expression and to call to account — for what they mean to say, and what political objective they intend to accomplish by saying it — those who are trading subliminally in this notion of Chinese treason (derhaka Cina).
To react by shouting in exasperation, “how dare they, how dare the Chinese presume to behave disloyally, to indulge in treason!” ignores the fact that those who voted in ways that Umno and Utusan may not have liked were, as Malaysian citizens, fully entitled to cast their votes as they pleased, and to use their votes to say that they did not like what they were seeing — that they did not like the direction in which Umno now seemed determined to drag the country.
The attitude and response displayed by Umno and Utusan are those of a different situation. They are those of the Ottoman Empire. There, every millet (meaning every “encapsulated” national or cultural or religious minority) had the right to manage its own internal affairs autonomously, free from outside interference — so long as they remained monolithically loyal under their own leaders to the sultan and his government.
But Malaysia in Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s time is not the Ottoman Empire in the age of Suleyman the Magnificent or Abdul Majid I.
The point is obvious, but its implications are difficult for some to grasp.
The expression “Chinese tsunami” may be rhetorically evocative. But it is logically and empirically dubious, and its use is politically and morally inexcusable.
What was GE13 really about?
If, as was plainly the case, the Umno/BN campaign pitched to the key, or core, Malay heartland electorate was the “Perkasa Mild” message, how should the Pakatan opposition have responded? What should its central campaign message have been?
If Umno/BN was content to run in effect on the Perkasa stance of “Malays on top, now and forever. That’s Malaysia, love it or leave it!”, then Pakatan should have offered a clear response, a compelling alternative, and a challenge to the Umno/BN line.
It might have said: “Historically and culturally, Malaysia is and of course remains a Malay-centred society. We do not question that. But at the same time we are all Malaysians, Malaysia is all of us. Malaysia as a nation is the common, shared inheritance of the children of all of its citizens, regardless of the path which they took towards citizenship. Malaysia is a state that is made up of all of its citizens and which belongs alike to all of them.”
That was, in effect, the position taken and promoted by Pakatan when campaigning among voters outside the Malay heartlands. But it had to take that position “across the board”, everywhere, as the central plank of its platform.
Certainly, it would not have been easy. It is a more complex position than the Perkasa mantra. And, in these matters, simplicity is what works, while complexity invites misunderstanding, both unintended and wilful. And it would also have been risky.
Running with this formulation would have required Pakatan, and especially the DAP, to make clear that this position was very different from the old “Malaysian Malaysia” notion — an accusation that Umno/BN strategists would certainly have levelled and tried to pin on it as a damning label.
But, hard as it was, that was what had to be done, what needed to be said. For all the dangers, there was no alternative to that kind of courageous political self-definition and self-affirmation.
Instead, Pakatan seemed to hope that by sticking with its familiar themes, it might somehow just get enough votes in the right places and so “fall over the line” to victory. That was unlikely, and even if it had succeeded in getting the basic numbers, it would not have been a convincing victory. Not a basis for assuming authoritatively the reins of national power.
Pakatan needed to put this clear challenge to Umno/BN — on well-prepared ground, as a prospective so-called “game-changer” — in the last week of the campaign. It should have tried in that way to put Umno/BN on the back foot, presented it with a challenge that its people would have had to scramble to address.
Doing that would not have been easy. How might Umno/BN have responded to that challenge?
Either they would have had to say, “yes, we agree with you, that it our position too” — in which case they would have had to distance themselves from Perkasa and dissociate themselves from their own and Utusan’s “Perkasa Mild” line. But if that is now your claim, it might then have been put, why are you not acting consistent with your principled position? Why have you so long failed to do so? Either you have been sincere but have failed, or else you have never meant it, then or now.
Or else they would have had to say, “No, we do not accept that view” and then they would have been forced to live with the consequences. Many Malays, urban and rural, might have been happy to see them do exactly that. But, equally, and most awkwardly for Umno, many of them along with many non-Malays would not have been. These people would have considered it the last straw, if Umno had pulled back from the formulation offered by Pakatan or tried to fudge and bluff their way around it.
Doing so would perhaps have cut their core Malay base off, and even morally isolated the Umno itself, from the rest of the country. That was not a price that Umno would have been wise to risk having to pay.
A courageous opposition that was ready to present a clear alternative and which, by offering it, was able to show that it was ready to govern would have put that clear challenge to Umno/BN.
At GE13 in 2013 the Pakatan opposition did not.
It did not even try. Which was strange.
After all, the entire Pakatan campaign embodied and implicitly sent that message anyway.
Their rallies not only said that, in principle, another Malaysia was possible. They were in effect saying in action, by how they chose to campaign, that Pakatan itself was the proof that that other Malaysia was now coming into being; that they themselves and their campaign were tangible evidence that its time had come.
Yet they did not dare say it directly, clearly, explicitly, in plain words. A strange choice.
In the final analysis, the Umno/BN side, despite the stupendous expense of its campaign and all its related activities, failed to present any clear argument why it deserved to be re-elected, nor any new vision of common national purpose and direction.
It did everything but that. For some it must have been great fun. For some it must have been very rewarding and profitable. But, even though the election was in the end won, the staggeringly expensive campaign simply did not do the job.
Meanwhile, for its part, the Pakatan opposition gave no sign that it was yet ready to govern: that it was sufficiently cohesive and was of a sufficiently clear and coherent common mind to lead the nation.
The outcome of GE13 sent a clear message to both sides. To Umno/BN, the message was that it will have to do better next time, possibly with far less money and spectacle but far more thought and insight, as well as a deeper appreciation of the good sense of the voters and increased respect for their judgment.
And the Pakatan opposition, or whatever opposition may next take up the baton, will have to demonstrate that it is capable not simply of cobbling together an improvised “no contests, no enemies, amongst ourselves on polling day” agreement that in many ways is no better than the long-tested Alliance/Barisan Nasional model, but of doing more and better.
Which means: generating a new kind of inclusive, democratic Malaysian politics, creating an effective political vehicle to promote it, and devising new policies (and approaches to policy-making) that might give some plausible and substantive reality, were they ever to be elected, to that “new Malaysian politics”.
That is the challenge to the Malaysian opposition. Will it be addressed? Will it ever be mastered? And under whose aegis? Under the leadership of Lim Kit Siang and Anwar Ibrahim? Or under new leaders, some whose faces are already familiar and some who are yet to emerge between now and the next great Malaysian contest for government?
Meanwhile, as after past elections, Umno will just get back to the business of governing, in its own distinctive and (so some would say) increasingly anachronistic way. But, this time after GE13, it is now placed to do so freshly unleashed from some old constraints and able — whether for good or ill remains to be seen — to do far more readily what and as it pleases.
How will Umno use its latest and ambiguous victory? How will it use its suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, augmented domination of the nation’s political life?
There are grounds for both fear and hope. As always, the challenge will be to resist opting for the easy thing in order, on principled grounds, to choose to do the right thing.
That is not something that Umno has always found it easy to do. That way of acting has often not seemed to come naturally to its tough-minded strategists. Whatever chances may offer themselves, the hard-headed pragmatists in Umno do not often refuse the dubious ones when they are attractive, seem capable of realisation, and look likely to prove politically rewarding.
In the final analysis, if something appealing can be done, they usually say, let us do it! The ability to get it done itself provides — nothing more! — all the legitimation and justification that may be needed in order to go ahead and do it.
When the opportunities that may present themselves are likely to involve some long-standing objectives and aspirations grounded in the mindset of the exclusionary early and mid-twentieth Malay nationalism, the case for prudent reflection, rather than the hurried seizing of the moment and of whatever easy prizes it may have to offer, will not be easy to make.
Let us hope that it will be made and also heard. — New Mandala
Some readers have already asked why I have not mentioned alleged “vote rigging”, manipulation of the election process and the like in my discussion. They add that the analysis that I have provided will be incomplete, defective and misleading if it fails to address those questions.
My account given here of GE13 does not go into those matters.
It does not because so much of the immediate post-election analysis has been about, and indeed has been largely pre-occupied with, precisely those questions.
I saw no need, and see no reason, to go over all that same ground once again here.
More, I chose to omit any discussion of that aspect because, after the continuing focus upon those issues in so much of the post-election commentary and analysis so far, it is now important, in my view, to shift attention to some other matters and some more deeply-seated dimensions of the complex GE13 experience.
But I am not insensitive to the importance of those matters.
For the record, I therefore append here to this discussion two paragraphs from the brief commentary on GE13 (“Malaysia’s election result — no surprise to the knowledgeable”) that I wrote for “Asian Currents”:
“ .. .. .. International press comment often seeks to highlight instances of government skulduggery on election day. Sharp practice clearly occurs, far too often. But Malaysian elections have never been a ‘level-playing field’. And, despite the growth of ‘new media’ that mitigate the government’s long-standing domination of the official media, in other ways things are now less level than ever.
“Yet attention needs to focus not on election-day malpractice but on the nature of the electoral system itself: on the delineation of boundaries and the distortions entailed by the ‘first past the post system’. More, it is not what the Election Commission may or may not do during the course of the election, whether it acts impartially or in a partisan fashion, that is of concern. Before it even begins to swing into action to arrange the polls, the EC is an inherently compromised and flawed body. It is a contradictory beast with a dual nature. It is the statutory body appointed to stage elections with due propriety; but it also operates — by requiring citizens to vote in specific ‘streams’ by age and ethnicity within every polling station — as the producer of a massive ‘national political demography’ database whose findings are not made available to the public or other political parties but which is developed as the primary strategic instrument of the ruling Umno party and its partners. So long as this remains the case, the EC will never be universally seen as impartial and will never enjoy sufficient public trust. It needs not simply to be reformed but replaced, root and branch.”
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
Emphasis by Alhaj
JUNE 12 ― In a brief commentary elsewhere (“Malaysia’s election result — no surprise to the knowledgeable,” Asian Currents, June 2013), I have noted one paradoxical but hugely important consequence of Malaysia’s recent national elections held on 5 May.
A paradox: anomalous domination
The remarkable, perhaps “counter-intuitive”, fact is that, while the election result itself ― namely, a fairly close but nonetheless comfortable victory of the Umno-centred Barisan Nasional side over the Pakatan Rakyat opposition ― came as no great surprise, that unremarkable result nonetheless had one quite surprising, even paradoxical, consequence.
From GE13 an electorally weakened Umno emerged politically even more dominant than it had been before. While still embattled in the broader political arena, Umno was delivered a dominant position within the parliament, ruling coalition and government.
By bestowing it with that now dominant parliamentary position, GE13 had delivered into Umno’s hands an ascendancy over the governing BN coalition, government policy, Parliament’s agenda and parliamentary process, and thereby over national political life ― over the nation’s affairs and direction ― of a quite unprecedented and perhaps irresistible kind.
What are the relevant facts here?
The immediate challenge facing Najib Razak, it had been said in the run-up to GE13, was at best to win back the two-thirds majority (or 148 of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat), or at least to improve on the 2008 yield of 140.
More modest and realistic than demanding recovery of the two-thirds majority, some suggested that even 145 would have been a “good result”, good enough to ensure his immediate political survival against critics, adversaries and doubters in his own camp.
In the event, worse even than at GE12 in 2008, Umno/BN won only 133 seats. For those who might be satisfied with nothing less than assured domination ― a constitutionally unassailable and impregnable position ― a shortfall of eight seats had now almost doubled to 15.
Yet ― as I noted in my summary review ― behind all its archaizing ceremonialism and cultural nostalgia, politics and political thinking within Umno is nothing other than Realpolitik of the most ruthlessly pragmatic kind. And realistically, Umno (if its interests, and nothing else, are to be the focus of analysis, as the party “hard men” insist) did not do at all badly.
Because, paradoxically, its political domination was enhanced, not diminished, by the election result ― despite the further decline in the government’s parliamentary numbers and the opposition’s advances.
Drawing a contrast between the post-election situation of Umno/BN and its Pakatan Rakyat (PKR) adversary is instructive here.
The PKR coalition won a total of 89 seats. The opposition coalition’s parliamentary numbers are reasonably balanced. All three of its constituent parties have a sizeable and, if not an equal then a comparable, presence in the Dewan Rakyat (DAP holds 38 seats, PKR 30, PAS 21). The smallest of the three, PAS, contributes about a quarter of the opposition’s parliamentary numbers, while the largest, DAP, more than two-fifths but less than a half.
Contrast that with the situation on the government side.
Of BN’s 133 seats, Umno now holds 88 (up from 79 in 2008). Its MPs amount to two-thirds of the total BN parliamentary representation.
Umno alone has a parliamentary presence that is virtually the same as that of the combined opposition. Its shortfall of a single seat, if that troubles anybody who matters, is one that might be readily reversed through a by-election victory, the timely defection of an “unhappy” opposition MP, or even a successful appeal against the result in, say, Bachok or some other constituency where the Umno candidate had fallen narrowly short of victory in the election night count.
Now compare Umno’s situation among its governing BN partners with the more balanced situation in the opposition coalition’s parliamentary numbers.
After Umno, the next largest party on that side of the house holds only 14 seats. The Umno’s customary “primary partners” going back to Alliance Party times even preceding independence, the Chinese MCA and the Indian MIC, now together hold only 11 (7 and 4 respectively) and its newer ally Gerakan, 1 ― the decline in their public plausibility and electoral viability coming as the result of, and signifying, the increasing Umno dominance over its old BN partners in deciding national policy over the last decade.
After GE13, more even than before, the Umno’s ability to head a government, and rule over the nation’s core in peninsular Malaysia, now rests disproportionately upon the seats that its fractious East Malaysian partners hold in Sarawak and Sabah (34 seats, together held by 8 different parties, many of them loose, unstable personal alliances of mercurial, opportunistic and “gymnastic” leaders.)
Umno’s task will be to satisfy, appease and manage its increasingly assertive, and at times even restive, East Malaysian partners who now so heavily underwrite BN’s, and hence Umno’s, ability to rule.
But provided it can do that, in numerical and political terms Umno now dominates ― perhaps as never before ― the national government.
Provided it can decide without internal strife what it wants to do, provided it “knows its own mind”, it will be in a powerful position in the years ahead to have its way on all significant political and policy issues, so long as its Sabah and Sarawak allies can be kept “in line”.
In national government, an era of unprecedented Umno domination may now be in the offing.
Umno’s oddly empowering victory
Some indication of the nature and sources of the Umno’s success ― of how it stands to grow greatly in effective power from its diminished parliamentary base ― is suggested by the relative size of the three components within the opposition’s parliamentary delegation.
The Pakatan delegation is reasonably balanced, but not entirely so. It displays one anomalous feature. What is in many ways the most substantial member of the opposition coalition, the Islamic Party PAS, has the smallest parliamentary representation.
This is because, in Malaysia’s imbalanced and “malapportioned” electoral system, PAS unlike its coalition partners competes directly against Umno for “bulk” Malay votes: that is, for support from the core, more traditionally-minded and less cosmopolitan Malay voters in the rural Malay heartlands. They are direct rivals for the support of the core part of the nation’s Malay political core component, the core of the core.
Those rural Malay areas are hugely favoured in the drawing of electoral boundaries ― which is to say in their size, meaning the smaller number of votes that is necessary for them to elect an MP. It is in those parts of the country, in those electorates, that Malay domination of national political life is grounded.
And, of the opposition parties, only PAS competes directly against Umno for those votes.
Their struggle is a “zero-sum game”. It is an “up and down” thing, a constant long-term oscillation. When Umno does badly, PAS numbers increase and PAS political influence grows (and vice versa).
That has always been the basis of PAS’s political strength and long-term strategy. By its ability to win popular Malay support, and so to deprive Umno of the credibility and legitimacy that substantial Malay support ensures, PAS can at times exercise enormous influence over Umno, over its policies and direction, from outside.
But when Umno does well, PAS numbers and its immediate influence upon Umno thinking are diminished. When Umno does well electorally, it denies PAS this important leverage. PAS’s ability to force itself upon its rival’s thinking in the setting of national priorities and direction ― even to set terms that Umno cannot resist ― declines.
When it succeeds in this way in freeing itself to some degree from the constraints imposed by PAS ― from the strategic stranglehold that in its “good years” results from PAS’s political success and ensuing Malay “moral credibility” ― Umno wins for itself some significantly increased political “room for manoeuvre”.
That is what happened at the recent GE13. The question to ask is why? How was it done?
The winning campaign
The key to the election result, and to Umno’s improbable feat of drawing increased political strength from reduced parliamentary numbers and a weakened parliamentary position, was Umno’s success in its head-on clash with PAS for Malay votes in the Malay heartlands ― for the “core Malay vote”.
Much has been made of the fact that the two members of the Malay ethno-supremacist pressure group Perkasa whom Umno directly or indirectly endorsed ― Zulkifli Noordin in the Klang Valley “beltway” seat of Sham Alam and Ibrahim Ali in PAS “crown jewels” seat of Pasir Mas ― lost to their adversaries. There was no comfort for Umno in those two results.
This has prompted some commentators to suggest that the GE13 results signal a clear repudiation by the national electorate as a whole, Malay as well as non-Malay, of Perkasa, its approach and what it stands for.
But the matter is not so simple or clear.
The nature of the winning campaign has to be more closely considered.
(i) The international level
The government’s GE13 campaign operated at several levels. For international consumption, notably the foreign investment and diplomatic communities, one story was developed.
This was the beguiling story of Prime Minister Najib as the heroic but still shackled economic reformer, the eager and available driver of administrative transformation ― and also of taxation reform, in the form of reduced corporate and personal taxation, all to be made good by the reasonably prompt post-election introduction of a goods and services tax (GST).
Glued onto this portrait was another. This was the picture of Najib as the self-proclaimed, and internationally acclaimed, “global moderate”, the champion of interfaith conciliation and the determined enemy of all forms of political extremism, but especially that driven by religious militants and fanatics.
This “international campaign” projecting Najib as a soon to be unbound economic Prometheus and also a fastidious moderate who would “have no truck” with any crude, populist extremism was offered with a clear objective.
Its purpose was to win for the prime minister and his party a sympathetic hearing overseas and, with it, the indulgence of a free hand at home to wage the other parts of their multilevel campaign.
Overseas, that portrait of Najib was reassuring, and people there would be satisfied with it. Nothing more to be asked for. Its plausibility had simply to be upheld. For example, against the free-lance meddling of a rogue Australian senator.
(ii) The domestic pantomime
While this “image campaign” was offered internationally, the Najib who was seen for months on the campaign trail at home was something different. At home the prime minister cut a benign and ever-avuncular figure as he campaigned up and down the country by recourse to a kind of “Santa Claus politics” (as some called it). Its simplicity was that of a holiday pantomime. Or perhaps a travelling circus: “Every few minutes something new, something different, something dramatic! Something for everybody!”
There was something, something new, for somebody every day, a new inducement or “softener” for yet another interest group or finely drawn demographic category.
This was a campaign to the nation’s socially disaggregated parts, to its separate disarticulated elements, not to the nation as a whole.
It was not a campaign that projected any distinctive concept that the prime minister may have had, and wished to promote, of the Malaysian nation and its evolving destiny.
It was instead a campaign directed to every individual voter and every special interest-group or social element. It was one that encouraged them all to ask “What is in this for me? For us?” ― and which then provided an answer. Concretely and immediately, tangibly. An answer not in words or ideas but in palpable material benefits and ― “just for you and people like you, in your same situation or predicament” ― specified provisions.
Prime Minister Najib offered vast menu of hand-outs and rewards ― at prospectively huge cost to public expenditure, to the national accounts and the government’s coffers ― in the hope of attaching ever more securely to himself his own side’s loyal political followers, and of attracting the undecided to join them in supporting him and his cause.
This was hardly the kind of campaign that international investors, eager to see clear evidence of some sort of advance pre-election commitment to fiscal austerity and economic responsibility, can have been hoping to see Umno run. Not what they had in mind!
But, though it involved huge public expenditures and costly promises, those promises had been accompanied by assurances of reduced corporate tax levels. So, overall, it may have pleased those foreign bystanders anyway: as a strategy that would make prompt Malaysian adoption of a GST to pay for it all inevitable.
It may have appealed to them as a neat way to make the fickle, imprudent and gullible people pay for all the offered benefits and promises that they had so unwisely and unaffordably chosen to accept. (Significantly, mention of the impending introduction of a GST was no part of the election campaign, neither Umno/BN’s nor the opposition’s.)
So allied to Najib “the great transformer in waiting” and Najib the global moderate was Najib “the great dispenser of treats and inducements” ― who was also, or so it was hoped by some, “the canny, crafty promoter of a GST”, the masterful maker of traps and ambushes who was making the GST’s introduction necessary and laying the grounds for its general acceptance.
“Of course we may all have these benefits. We Malaysians are entitled to nothing less. But we Malaysians too ― who else? ― must pay for them. In doing so we will not only reward ourselves and ensure our government’s fiscal viability from which every citizen benefits. We can make Malaysia, more even than before, the up-to-date model of a developing nation and the envy of the entire postcolonial world”. It is not hard to script the arguments that will need to be made and invoked.
(iii) The real campaign
Umno/BN’s was a multi-level campaign.
The first level projected Najib’s image internationally as an economic reformer and religious moderate. Here he was portrayed as an intelligent and polished progressive in a land where progressives were not conspicuously plentiful in official circles.
The second was a campaign that kept Najib ― not so much Najib himself as his “simulacrum”, his carefully constructed image ― prominent in the public eye. But only through very controlled and tightly managed situations. It projected him as a man less with a mission than with a wonderful “magic pudding” that might continually, without ever becoming exhausted, be parcelled out and distributed to the people for their enjoyable and cost-free consumption.
This second campaign, in many ways a media construct or artefact, was largely a diversion and a distraction. It was devised to create a plausible appearance of dynamism and momentum to what had become, among the world’s notable political parties, an ungainly, lumbering and sclerotic dinosaur. It was staged to divert unwelcome attention from the real campaign.
It was, of course, those two “show campaigns” that occupied and entirely seized the attention of the international media. Meanwhile, the real campaign was conducted with unremitting determination, even ruthlessness, beneath the “foreign radar”, out of view of most overseas reporters and commentators.
What was the “real” campaign?
The nature of Umno/BN election strategy was clear. Like all intelligent political analysts, those in the party’s “brains trust” and campaign “engine room” could see that the vast bulk of Chinese voters were lost to BN and were unlikely to be won back, no matter what the old ruling party bloc did or promised.
Much of the Indian vote too was lost, but not all of it was entirely beyond recall. Part of it might be won back with some dramatic gestures (most remarkable of which was the Hindraf rapprochement). But while winning back that partial Indian support might do Umno/BN’s political image some much needed good by providing some symbolic rehabilitation for its claims of intercultural accommodation, those Indian votes that might be won over would never be enough to secure an Umno/BN victory.
So the strategy of the real campaign was focused elsewhere.
It was a battle for Malay votes.
Umno/BN saw, as some who were not part of its campaign also understood, that the key to the election was Malay votes. In comparison, nothing else really mattered much at all.
The key question was whether Umno/BN, and especially Umno itself, could win enough peninsular Malay votes, and enough of them in the right places ― meaning in the right local constituencies ― for Umno, in association with its Sarawak and Sabah allies, to secure a clear parliamentary majority.
So the campaign was focused and conducted where it mattered.
It was conducted in Malay terms and directed to a Malay audience. Meaning, the campaign was projected above all in the daily Malay-language press, notably the Umno’s own Utusan Malaysia, and via the Malay-language programming of the television channels with the greatest Malay reach, principally TV3 and RTM.
It was a campaign conducted for the votes of Malays, mainly for those of the great bulk of the more “traditionally-minded” Malays, in the Malay rural heartland areas.
The Umno campaign was simple: “all is at risk!” There is no protection, it kept hammering away, for you and your family, for all Malays, for the Malay stake in the country, for Islam or for the Malay rulers who are the ultimate bastion of our Malay-Islamic identity and national primacy ― other than us here in Umno.
It was a campaign that appealed to their sense of themselves ― to their sense of Malay identity and of Malay centrality to national life. It was a campaign that sought to suggest how tenuous the basis of Malay identity had now become in national life, how insecure the Malay grip upon the Malay stake in the nation had become. Everything that was distinctively Malay about Malaysia, it was suggested, was now under threat.
It was a campaign that both cultivated and then also appealed to a Malay sense of political and cultural peril, even crisis. It was a campaign that consisted of a managed panic: that the Malays were now beleaguered in their own land, the Tanah Melayu. Their historic stake in the nation was being whittled away and was now in jeopardy.
It was a campaign that sought to suggest that, as political currents were now running, it was not fanciful but realistic to imagine that Malays might one day soon “hilang di dunia” (in the words of the classical formulation), that they might disappear from the face of the earth.
It was a campaign of controlled communal panic. Malays and their way of life are beleaguered, and, central to their way of life, Islam was in jeopardy. Malay historical primacy and political leadership, the religious ascendancy of Islam, and the constitutional position of the Malay state rulers as their “untrumpable” guarantors had become the sacred trinity of the Umno campaign.
Everything that mattered to the Malay majority and its conventional loyalties was now at risk, it was suggested. It was threatened by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition ― of which of course, the Islamic Party PAS was a key component. In the division of political labour between the Pakatan partners, it fell to PAS to wage the direct contest against Umno for votes in the nation’s Malay heartlands core.
So, above all else, the national election ― an election that would decide the prime minister’s and his party’s future ― turned upon a contest for “the national Malay soul” between Umno and PAS.
That was the real campaign.
It was the campaign that won the election for Umno/BN.
And it was a campaign that the many overseas reporters and commentators who flocked to Kuala Lumpur for a week or two simply did not see or “read” or understand.
It went beneath their radar, it was beyond their social, professional and imaginative reach. It was outside their range of cultural accessibility ― and also that, to be fair to them, of the vast majority of “like-minded” and “sympathetic” young urban Malaysians whom they were delighted to meet: who captured their attention, won their sympathy, and shaped their view of Malaysian society and politics.
For many of those intelligent, persuasive and globally-networked young Kuala Lumpur cosmopolitans, the Malay heartlands and those who live there are just as foreign and remote a world as they certainly were to the visiting journalists. The young sophisticates with their congenial “discourse” and “narratives” were nice people, but a very poor guide to what the election was really about ― how it was being conducted where it really mattered.
But, to those who were running the “real” campaign, that inattention was no problem. On the contrary. Let the foreign press write the stories that might please them, that seemed to centre upon the overseas journalists’ own effete concerns, not those of the rural Malay voters. Let them chase after stories that led them away from the real story, the main action.
After all, the “real campaign” for Malay votes in the heartlands ― for a firm place within and a hold upon the Malay soul ― would prosper best if it went unrecognized and unreported by the meddling and opinionated visitors of the international press. Let them meddle instead where their own interests and sympathies were engaged, not where their intruding curiosity might prove inconvenient, even embarrassing.
(To be continued in Part 2). — New Mandala
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.