Malaysia’s new Pakatan Harapan government rode to power on a pledge to clean up Malaysia’s foul politics. It was wise to focus on the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional’s transgressions: Pakatan’s appeal lay less in its own glowing imagery and manifesto than in the electorate’s widespread contempt for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which leads the now opposition Barisan Nasional coalition.
Pakatan’s manifesto, while helping bring it to power, now poses a dilemma. To firm its support, Pakatan must make good on its promise to cleanse political life, pressing down hard on the reformist pedal. It must show that the arrest of former prime minister Najib Razak was not sordid revenge but was instead the start of a renewal. As Pakatan does this, its purges and policy changes will affect the fortunes of those who, over a half-century of operation, have grown deeply entrenched. How likely now are these forces to make trouble?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of the democratic transition that Malaysia is undergoing. Analysts will debate at length how to characterise this process. But for now, in its abrupt and mass-based dynamic, it can be treated as a case of bottom-up transition (where citizens overthrow an authoritarian regime to install democracy), even if conducted peacefully within the electoral parameters of a competitive authoritarian regime.
In such conditions, while the once-dominant party remains stunned, the new government will grow tempted to drive swift and far-reaching reforms. Against this, the interests of the bourgeoisie and the military are ‘inviolable’ if stability is to be preserved, and hence restraint is needed. In ‘founding elections’ typically held at the end of a transition, the parties representing these the military and bourgeoisie must be ‘helped to do well’, lest the old elites regroup, reactivate their constituencies and through military force mount an ‘authoritarian backlash’.
In Malaysia, ‘founding elections’ coincided with the transition, yielding a process that some analysts are already depicting as a spontaneous ‘democratisation-by-election’. In this situation, there was hardly time on Pakatan’s part — let alone the political wisdom and will — to ponder any need to cushion the blow dealt to UMNO. Nor in the flush of victory did Pakatan contemplate restraint in its pursuit of reforms. Rather, as headlines blared that ‘heads will roll’, the new government moved to flush out UMNO’s allies.
To this end, the new Pakatan government targeted top officials in the Attorney-General’s Chamber and the courts, in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, in the civil service and diplomatic corps, and perhaps most signally, in the sinecures that encrust the boards and management of Malaysia’s hulking government-linked corporations. At the same time, the new government has struck at the mass level, at least in the civil service, by terminating thousands of contract workers who were deployed under UMNO’s old spoils system.
As UMNO endures rivalries and ruckuses in the wake of defeat, it may be regrouping. In recent internal elections, the party rejected the more reform-minded and tolerant leadership of Khairy Jamaluddin. It has instead installed a ‘right-wing’ president, Zahid Hamidi, recalling the old order with its high-level privileging and ethnoreligious prioritising.
In making full use of Malaysia’s expanded political space, UMNO is working in concert with the Islamic Party of Malaysia to stir the nativist grievances of dispossessed party elites and the anxieties of the wider Malay-Muslim community by criticising Pakatan’s new appointments. And at the same time, UMNO’s print media mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, is growing ever more shrill, insisting indignantly on Malay dominance while condemning what it casts as the Democratic Action Party’s ‘racist’ hold over Pakatan.
The resonance of these appeals among ordinary Malays is demonstrated by the vigorous emotive support that the fallen Najib now attracts. These supporters contribute to a legal defence fund on his behalf even as the shrink-wrapped fashion accessories and cash seized from his Kuala Lumpur properties are paraded publicly by police in order to discredit him.
This is bolstering Najib’s position. He has been welcomed back to UMNO’s delegation in the Parliament. He sits alongside Zahid in the opposition’s front rank, and on the parliamentary session’s first day he wore all black as he helped to orchestrate a walk-out. At this point, if not yet a violent authoritarian backlash, we are likely to see a groundswell of Malay-Muslim grievance to the point that Najib’s transgressions will be forgotten. Meanwhile, Najib’s expert legal team will run circles around the government’s newly instituted and untested prosecutors.
Malaysia’s new Pakatan government confronts an excruciating dilemma. To maintain support, it must rapidly undertake far-reaching reforms. But as Pakatan proceeds, old elites, with their prerogatives at risk, will reenergise nativist grievances that may cumulate in backlash. A cruel irony is unfolding. As Pakatan now checks the pace of reforms, UMNO leaders taunt it over broken campaign promises.
This article was published by the East Asia Forum on the 16th of August 2018.
William Case is Professor and Head of the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.