By William Case*
For nearly half a century, Malaysia’s political dynamics were demarcated by a stable hybrid regime, an amalgam of democratic procedures, electoral manipulations, and repressive controls. This regime was anchored in the single-party dominance of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
UMNO perpetuated its dominance by unifying party elites through lavish, though retractable state patronage. It mobilised mass-level Malay-Muslim voters through modest and conditional state subsidies. The loyalties of the Malay-Muslims were also redoubled by confrontation with residual ‘non-Malay’ categories — mainly local Chinese, scorned for their grievances over Malay political and cultural ‘supremacy’ and redistributive entitlement.
But in 2018, after a ‘stunning’ electoral turnover to which hybrid regimes are occasionally susceptible, these systems were weakened. UMNO and its subordinate partners were dislodged by the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition. Yet Malaysia’s hybrid politics were merely destabilised, rather than fully democratised, as Pakatan remained tepid towards enacting institutional reforms. But despite its caution, after barely 22 months, through extra-parliamentary machinations, party defections, royalist interventions, and a renewed mobilisation of Malay-Muslim resentments, Pakatan was ousted. UMNO thus found its way back to power — albeit as part of a quarrelsome coalition, with the leader of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), Muhyiddin Yassin, claiming the prime ministership.
Throughout 2021, Malaysia’s central political dynamic involved a frenzied quest by UMNO to regain its dominance. By instigating a new round of defections in August, UMNO replaced Muhyiddin with one of its own party vice-presidents, Ismail Sabri. Bersatu has since slumped into a redundant splinter vehicle. UMNO also managed to heighten factionalism within Bersatu’s closest ally in the coalition, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). At the same time, Sabri has pacified Pakatan in opposition, forging an unusual ‘MOU’ and securing a Confidence and Supply Agreement by which to pre-empt no-confidence motions and challenges to budget bills.
Sabri next turned his hand to reenergizing Malay-Muslim voters, launching a galvanising, but deceptively labelled campaign of Keluarga Malaysia (‘Malaysian family’). He firmed this shibboleth with new distributions of ethnically defined patronage and subsidies. In late November, UMNO registered its gains through an important election held in the small but indicative Malay heritage state of Malacca. In this contest, waged by UMNO against its nominal partners, Bersatu and PAS, as well as a divided and mismanaged Pakatan in opposition, UMNO swept the field.
Amid UMNO’s revival, the party’s old guard has regained prominence. Indeed, UMNO’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, so overshadowed Sabri in Malacca’s campaigning that speculation has mounted that he is the party’s top candidate for the prime ministership in the next general election. Conversely, calls are widespread for Pakatan’s leader, Anwar Ibrahim, an advocate of pluralist politics, to step down. Anwar’s ally in Pakatan, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), is also beset by doubts, with its once ardent Chinese supporters adjudging the party as spent.
At the end of 2021, what broad trends remain difficult to discern. Democracy’s prospects are constrained by hard structural realities wherein the Malay-Muslim community values democracy less than its own supremacy. Democracy is also weakened by pandemic controls, COVID-19 surveillance, and tight limits on civil liberties.
But even as parties and factions tirelessly skirmish, their hold on state power is still principally ratified by contesting elections and amassing legislative seats. During 2021, a period of emergency rule was imposed, elections were suspended and defections were plotted, enabling the king to emerge as chief arbiter. Yet in Malaysia, manipulated though competitive elections under hybrid conditions remain the only game in town.
Within these parameters, UMNO appears to be reasserting its single-party dominance. Factional battling still smoulders within the party and ruling coalition as Sabri, the fledgling prime minister, struggles to keep his vehicle aligned with Bersatu and PAS. But he is increasingly outweighed by UMNO’s old guard, featuring Najib and his combative ally, the party’s current president, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. But no sooner have Najib’s fortunes perked up than he has been undercut by the corruption cases in which he and Zahid are ensnared.
Accordingly, the record of governance and judicial independence remained mixed in 2021. Elite-level patronage continues to pulse within UMNO. PAS’s long-time president, Haji Hadi Awang, lent sanction, proclaiming in February that corruption was not covered by hudud law. The courts then dropped sundry prominent cases over corrupt payments and tax avoidance, delivering a sheepish judgement of ‘dismissal not amounting to acquittal’.
Though this may signal the weakening of governance in Malaysia, Najib’s conviction on 1MDB corruption charges were upheld in December by the Court of Appeals. The court’s lead judge pronounced that Najib’s conduct as prime minister had done less to advance the national interest than to produce ‘national embarrassment’.
These ambiguities in Malaysian politics rest atop a social structure which, by contrast, has grown in clarity. The Malay-Muslim community is no longer so torn over the 1MDB scandal, instead taking collective fright over the threat to Malay supremacy that it believes Pakatan to have conveyed. Even so, this communal profile grew more nuanced during 2021.
‘Black’ and ‘White Flag’ protest movements erupted across ethnic lines over the government’s perceived neglect of ordinary citizens during the pandemic. Discontents swelled again over the inept responses of emergency services during flooding that displaced some 70,000 people.
Hence, the political picture going into 2022 remains complex. But given the temper of the Malay-Muslim community and the frailty of the opposition Pakatan, as well as the vapidness of Bersatu and rifts in PAS, it would be safest to bet on UMNO.
*About the author: William Case is Professor and Head of the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.