Opposition leaders rely on Ambiga Bersih 3.0 to exert meaningful political change in Malaysia.
Tomorrow Bersih 3.0 lead by Ambiga and the opposition leaders will be international headlines with rallly for clean and fair elections.
This rally will challenge DS Najib PM in winning his first mandate at the polls. Can Najib remains at best ambivalent to substantive political reform?
The contest for political power will intensify with the issue of political reform squarely at the core until at the next GE.
WZWH is pessimist that Ambiga Bersih 3.0 can influence for a meaningful political change in Malaysia with the desire among many Malaysians for a new, post-“ethnicity-and-class” politics. How, if cleavage structures are so entrenched, can activists further political reform?
Bersih 3.0 provides the template for advocacy for political liberalization, not because it represents a diverse community of regime critics but because its target is not the cleavage structure itself and the mechanisms through which it is reproduced, but rather institutional rules of Malaysian politics. Rather than falling into the old pattern of competing over appeals to particular constituencies where they are bound to fail as an anti-incumbent strategy.
Democracy advocates must shift focus to democratic processes and procedures. This is not a new narrative, but it is one that truly supersedes Malaysia’s cleavage politics.
Malaysia’s cleavage structure centers on ethnicity and the economy. Nearly every political issue that has animated political oppositions and motivated incumbent elites over the past sixty years can be reduced to one of these two issues. They are linked in obvious ways.
But nevertheless, the deep structure Malaysian politics has not changed in any fundamental way. Instead, Malaysian political elites continue to fight battles which are similar to those that their parents (and, now, grandparents) fought, even as they use new tactics and respond to new kinds of social actors.
Modernization, globalization, and technological change mean that Malaysia’s opposition is not the same as it once was. While middle class Malays have not turned against the BN as a class, the opposition now contains an urban middle class Malay element, and much of this opposition constituency has found a political voice through PAS, something almost unthinkable almost thirty years ago.
Opposition movements and NGOs since the mid-1990s are based around new issues, have made use of new technologies, and rely on new repertoires of contention. Still, the fundamental terms of political debate—which reflect, in turn, the essential logic of Malaysian politics and the ethnicity and class cleavages that animate it—have not changed.
Much as in 1971, politics centers around an ethnically-based incumbent regime that uses economic policy to reward supporters and punish opponents. Opposition politics centers around political parties that oppose the regime’s ethnic particularism, the articulation of this particularism through social and economic policy, or both.
In fact, the real story of Malaysian political development is that the existing political order has proven so accommodating to socioeconomic changes.
UMNO has remained primus inter pares among Malaysian political parties, despite periodic leadership tussles, two party splits (Semangat ’46 and PKR), the rise of the internet as a tool for opposition mobilization, two substantial economic crises (the mid-1980s crisis and the Asian Financial Crisis), state-led industrialization, crony-driven privatization, and endless petty scandals implicating high and low politicians alike.
All of these reflect the political challenges introduced by modernization, globalization, and technological change. Fifteen years ago, remarked on the surprising durability of UMNO’s dominance as a party, and the strategies through which party leaders adapted to changing political circumstances in order to protect its position.
BN has accomplished this by forcing its opponents to react to its own political message and rhetoric, creating selective alliances with various oppositions (real and potential), and incentivizing a sufficient fraction of the Malaysian mass public to vote for it.
Today one can tell a similar story. Malaysian opposition politics is electoral, in the sense that all credible opposition movements believe that the way to unseat the BN is to defeat it at the polls.
UMNO and the BN respond accordingly—money politics and intimidation through the state’s security apparatus are ultimately tools that BN elites deployed to ensure that elections go their way. Elections are normally not blatantly fraudulent, although irregularities are not uncommon.
Rather, the BN’s advantages in funding and media access make electoral contestation so unequal as to prevent elections from approximating fair referenda among candidates.
Given its advantages in funding and media presence, the BN consistently relies on a single multifaceted rhetorical strategy with five components:
- First, it promotes a Malay-based nationalism that equates opposition to Malay special privileges with sedition.
- Second, it reminds the public that the BN is multiethnic and nationalist—despite its domination by UMNO—and claims that no opposition party can play such a role in constructing a similarly representative multiethnic coalition.
- Third, it highlights the differences among the country’s opposition parties, painting PAS and DAP as having nothing in common aside from a quest for power, and each as being too radical although in different ways for a moderate country like Malaysia anyway.
- Fourth, it champions the country’s order and economic progress and argues that voting for the opposition would sacrifice both.
- Fifth, it characterizes individual politicians in the opposition as being in various combinations power-hungry, immoral, naïve, and insane.
Rhetoric such as this offends many Malaysians and foreign observers alike, but it reflects so transparently the essence of Malaysian politics: reifying the dominant narratives of ethnic conflict and class antagonism.
For its part, the opposition has historically found it difficult to transcend these cleavages because its two most popular parties connect with voters in ways that capture only one cleavage (ethnicity or the economy) and not both.
As a social democratic party, the DAP offers a platform that may appeal to a large bloc of Malaysians on economic grounds, but it does so by threatening the primacy afforded to Malays in the economy.
As an Islamist party, PAS can in principle appeal to all Malays on religious grounds, but it distinguishes itself from UMNO by opposing Malay special privileges, which hinders its broader appeal, particularly among the most powerful Malay capitalists.
BN elites have an easy time telling Malays that the DAP will threaten the economic progress that they have made, and they have an easy time telling non-Malays that Islam is a greater threat to their physical security than ethnicity is to their economic position.
Over the past decade, the PKR has been the best hope for transcending these cleavages, but until now it has not been able to escape the personal politics of its founder, Anwar Ibrahim.
Critically, the problem that the opposition faces is not its inability to make its ideas known to Malaysians—Malaysia’s new media allow the opposition to do just that.
The problem is that the existing cleavage structure means that the opposition’s ideas only resonate with a fraction of the constituency that the opposition needs to defeat the BN.
This argument does not mean that all Malaysians are satisfied with a political system dominated by UMNO that directs economic largesse to a favored ethnic constituency in order to maintain political stability.
It is also not that these cleavages explain all political outcomes in Malaysia, nor that there are no competing visions for a post-ethnic, post-class Malaysian political system.
Indeed, the 2008 elections suggested to some that the old cleavages of ethnicity and class were finally eroding, and illustrated very clearly the frustration and disgust of many Malaysians with the BN and the system that it has created.
Malaysia’s political elites certainly do not take the existing cleavage structure for granted. Still, events immediately prior to the 2008 political tsunami, and those that have followed, indicate that Malaysia’s cleavage structure remains unchanged.