Corrected at 2.59pm, 16 April 2010
WHILE by-elections can hardly be considered referendums, they are nevertheless mid-term elections and often have far-reaching implications.
The triple by-elections of April 2009
Remember the triple by-elections of April 2009? What if newly-minted premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak‘s Barisan Nasional (BN) had won all three handsomely? Would he then have been forced to repackage his party and government through the 1Malaysia campaign and management of ministerial key performance indicators? It was the BN’s defeat in two out of the three by-elections that probably pushed Najib to woo back voters so aggressively.
Similarly, the upcoming Hulu Selangor and Sibu by-elections will likely shape Malaysian politics in more ways than can be expected from the two constituencies’ nominal weight —1.8% of Parliament. In fact, I believe they will determine the future of bumiputeraism, and the debate about this within Umno.
It is thus important to first look at the ethnic composition of the two seats, since they are quite different.
Hulu Selangor has a bare majority of Malay Malaysians. Chinese and Indian Malaysians make up most of the remainder and are almost equally split in number. Except for the over-representation of Indian Malaysians, Hulu Selangor is almost a demographic microcosm of West Malaysia. While the parliamentary seat was won by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in 2008, its three state seats went to the BN. This suggests that it might have remained a BN stronghold had it not been for candidacy and ethnic factors.
Sibu, on the other hand, is an urban East Malaysian seat with about 60% Chinese Malaysians. The remainder are Christian and Muslim bumiputera in roughly equal numbers. The late Datuk Robert Lau‘s comfortable 3,235-vote margin in March 2008 indicates that Sibu is supposed to be one of the BN’s “fixed deposits”.
Two ground rules
Ground rules established in Malaysian politics (corrected)
I am not suggesting that heavy state support for the bulk of Malay/bumiputera Malaysians might end on the grounds of economic backwardness. That is the first ground rule of Malayan/Malaysian politics that not even the March 2008 elections could sweep away. If you like, this is the 1957 legacy that was reinforced after the racial riots of 13 May 1969.
What the 2008 political tsunami did was lay down the second ground rule of Malaysian politics: the end of systematic discrimination against non-bumiputera Malaysians.
But how could these two ground rules be reconciled to form a middle ground position in Malaysian politics?
The answer can be framed by conceptually dividing Malaysians into four groups: better-off bumiputera; poor bumiputera; better-off non-bumiputera; and poor non-bumiputera.
Equal treatment across
ethnic lines?The first ground rule merely requires the emphasis on poor bumiputera. Bumiputeraism, however, goes beyond that ground rule and wants special treatment for both rich and poor bumiputera. In other words, bumiputeraism is really about the triumph of ethnic solidarity over class, and heredity over individual effort.
The second ground rule — on ending systematic discrimination against non-bumiputera — demands equal treatment across ethnic lines. This could mean a complete meritocracy where individual endowment and initiative are paramount. It could also mean equal treatment of bumiputera and non-bumiputera within some categories such as socio-economic class. The logic is that if poor bumiputera deserve state assistance, then so do poor non-bumiputera.
Which middle, Umno?
The meeting point between the 1957 and 2008 legacies can therefore be easily found in “need-based affirmative action” or “market-friendly affirmative action“. The two are not really identical but share one similarity — rich bumiputera would have to bid farewell to state support and embrace competition.
For competitive, middle-to-upper class bumiputera, competition means opportunity, dignity and justice. For others, such as the rent-seekers amongst rich bumiputera, competition translates as the unforgiveable sin of assaulting their “race” and challenging the “social contract“.
The middle ground position is unchallengeably held by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) but within Umno, the debate remains open: how far should the party move to the middle ground to remain in power?
The resistance is almost self-explanatory — Umno is actually home to rent-seekers in the name of bumiputeraism.
So, at the heart of the movement to the centre is a trade off between the party’s collective interest to stay in power and the party warlords’ personal interests to continue benefiting from rent-seeking.
But the trade-off mark varies depending on the degree of a stakeholder’s dominance within the system. If a stakeholder sits on top of the food chain, his or her economic interest lies more in his or her position in government rather than the perpetuation of bumiputeraism per se. He or she would be willing to do away with bumiputeraism if that’s what it takes to stay in power.
However, if he or she is just a small fry, he or she would benefit more from bumiputeraism than personal connections. He or she may thus want to keep bumiputeraism at all costs even if it could hurt Umno’s chances of staying in power.
To further problematise the situation, because there is a natural anti-reform constituency in the party, even top leaders will be tempted to play to the gallery at the expense of the party.
Put simply, Umno deputy president and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin‘s “Malay first, Malaysian second” announcement cannot be explained purely based on outlook or upbringing. In fact, there are built-in incentives for some ambitious leaders in Umno to court and back groups such as Perkasa.
And so, how should the pan-Umno camp— the party itself, rent-seeking business interests, Malay-Muslim nationalist groups and the Umno-linked media — decide how far the party should move towards the centre?
The crucial determinant would eventually be the change in support for Umno/BN amongst Malay and non-Malay Malaysian voters.
If tacit support for Perkasa could substantially raise Malay Malaysian support for Umno/BN at the expense of PAS and PKR, then Umno can be assured of power even if its non-Malay Malaysian support were depleted. But this is highly unlikely as the PR should be able to count on at least 40% of Malay Malaysian support. For the BN, this means that its non-Malay Malaysian support must not be hurt by the doublespeak in the 1Malaysia and ketuanan Melayu “chorus”.
Whither Vision 2020?
This is why the outcomes of Hulu Selangor and Sibu may shape the nation’s political economy over the next 10 years.
Let’s say the BN loses Sibu because of the desertion of Chinese Malaysian and non-Muslim bumiputera voters. The coalition should then worry about potentially losing 36 East Malaysian parliamentary constituencies where these two groups constitute the electorate’s majority in the next elections.
For similar reasons, the BN must not only win Hulu Selangor but increase its non-Malay Malaysian support there. There are currently some 93 West Malaysian parliamentary constituencies where non-Malay Malaysians form at least a third of the electorate.
Defeats in both by-elections will send shockwaves to Umno. It could mean that Najib’s 68% approval rating will not translate into votes come the next elections. It would mean that the electorate want real reform.
A double defeat would be an ultimatum: end bumiputeraism, enhance national competitiveness, and ensure the well-being of all the poor including East Malaysian natives, or just bow out.
However, if the BN wins both by-elections with substantial non-Malay Malaysian support, then Umno would not need to end bumiputeraism. A double victory would indicate to Umno that it merely needs to tone down, not end, bumiputeraist rhetoric in order to woo back non-bumiputera voters.
If that happens, the bumiputera/non-bumiputera divide will most likely accompany us in the New Economic Model until 2020. Therefore, let’s see what kinds of Vision 2020 Hulu Selangor and Sibu have in store.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat looks forward to the 12th, 13th and nth by-elections before Malaysia’s next general election.
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