In February, a series of sudden political realignments in Malaysia led to the demise of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government just two years after a historic election had brought it to power, marking the first time in history the country’s opposition formed a government. The rise of the new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, has generated a series of broader questions about the evolution of the country’s political and economic trajectory as Malaysia also confronts more immediate challenges, including the global coronavirus pandemic.
The Diplomat’s senior editor Prashanth Parameswaran recently spoke to Kai Ostwald, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, about Malaysia under the new PN government and the opportunities and challenges that confront the country now and in the future.
While there has been a lot of focus on the political maneuvering and alignment right before Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) eventual collapse, there were also a series of more structural factors at play as well, including the fragility of its structural makeup and its difficulties in delivering on some ambitious reform proposals. How would you describe the combination and balance of factors that led to PH’s collapse?
As you suggest, several underlying structural factors set the stage for the political maneuvering that ultimately brought about PH’s collapse. Two stand out. As Steven Oliver and I argued in a recently published article, PH achieved what its predecessors couldn’t – defeating the dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) – in part by incorporating elements of the BN into the coalition. Specifically, PH’s inclusion of the UMNO-clone Bersatu party and East Malaysia-based Warisan allowed it to win seats in BN stronghold areas that had previously been all but impenetrable to the opposition. This got PH the votes it needed to form a government, but also left it ideologically incoherent and unbalanced. That asymmetry was evident in the initial cabinet formation: PKR and the DAP (the two progressive and multiethnic parties at the core of previous Pakatan coalitions) received one cabinet position for approximately every seven parliamentary seats they held, while the ratio was around one to two for Bersatu and Warisan. In short, the UMNO-splinter elements of PH were strongly over-represented, which was reflected in many policy discussions.
PH’s electoral strategy also created a divided and incoherent vote base, which led to bottom-up demands that seemed irreconcilable at times. Many progressive voters expected movement towards a “new” Malaysia that was more inclusive of racial and religious difference. This implied a leveling of the racial hierarchy in which the Malays and other indigenous Bumiputera are granted numerous privileges. For most conservative Malay voters, whose support of Bersatu and Mahathir made PH’s victory possible, anything that hinted at this kind of social transformation was deeply unpopular. UMNO, now in partnership with the Islamist party PAS, leveraged this status loss anxiety among Malays to great effect, regularly accusing PH of trying to upend Malay and Muslim rights.
PH responded by taking extreme caution on anything identity related. This left many in its progressive voter base frustrated by what they interpreted as inaction on core elements of PH’s manifesto, but conservative Malay voters nonetheless retreated back to the perceived safety of UMNO, which together with PAS doubled down on claims of being the true defenders of Malay and Muslim rights. Several poor by-election performances by PH appeared to confirm what many in the coalition suspected: its progressive base was unhappy, while the electorally-pivotal Malay vote was slipping further and further out of reach. That realization drove figures like Muhyiddin and Azmin Ali to scheme a new coalition into being.
PH’s sudden collapse and the formation of Perikatan Nasional (PN) was no doubt a landmark development within the history of Malaysian politics. How would you frame its significance from a longer-term context within the country’s political development?
We can take two perspectives on the  election. On one hand, the BN’s defeat likely would not have occurred without the deep personal unpopularity of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and the unlikely political reincarnation of then-92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad as an opposition leader, inviting questions of whether the outcome was just a one-off, unrepeatable fluke. In any case, most of the key positions within PH were held by UMNO defectors, which made for a greater degree of continuity in the underlying political parameters than we might assume given the unprecedented nature of the outcome. At times, in fact, we might have been excused for mistaking Bersatu as UMNO 3.0, and thus the 21 months of PH rule as simply a momentary reshuffle of personnel within the grander scheme of UMNO’s dominance of Malaysian politics.
On the other hand, the BN’s defeat has clearly and permanently altered Malaysian politics. For one, it demonstrates that even if the underlying parameters of Malaysian politics are highly durable, elections can remove an unpopular leader and shake up the system in ways that amount to a meaningful course correction. There have also been important changes within the state. Several PH ministers and deputy ministers brought refreshingly new approaches to their roles, which showed pockets of Malaysia’s vast civil service that different modes of policy engagement than those they were accustomed to under the BN were possible. Some of the legislation passed by PH – UNDI-18, for example, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and thereby (together with automatic voter registration) expanded the electorate from around 15 million in 2018 to an estimated 23 million by 2023 – also fundamentally alter the dynamic of political competition.
The process of democratization is typically drawn-out and non-linear. It may well have been premature to declare the 2018 election as the start of a new democratic era in Malaysia, but I still see it as a remarkable achievement that brought positive and likely lasting changes to policy making, governance, and political competition in Malaysia, regardless of which coalition holds power.
While PN has taken power, it faces its own political challenges – including those tied to legitimacy and its support base – that still remain. How would you characterize these challenges for PN, and what are some manifestations of how they are playing out or will play out?
Indeed, as I’ve argued before, as much as the new PN government has sought to avoid the label, its essentially mono-ethnic composition is without precedent in multiethnic Malaysia and will create serious legitimacy issues. The challenges of demonstrating inclusivity in policy making will be most pronounced vis-à-vis the country’s minorities, but there will be similarly issues with progressive Malays that have embraced an inclusive Malaysian identity. In Sabah and Sarawak, the inclusion of PAS in PN exacerbates anxieties of creeping Islamization and the ongoing erosion of identities unique to East Malaysia. These challenges will complicate the already difficult task of governing.
More generally, PN’s composition also makes it fundamentally unstable. Part of the BN’s resilience over its six decades in power came from the natural hierarchy within the coalition, in which UMNO was the undisputed hegemon and the non-Malay parties were clearly subordinate, junior partners. No such natural hierarchy exists between the triad of Malay parties leading PN. Such equality can be toxic, as it invites power challenges. Muhyiddin’s massively oversized cabinet – greater than half of PN’s MPs have some a position in cabinet – is an attempt to bring everyone to the table, but also makes clear the fundamentally unwieldy nature of the coalition’s composition. Worse yet, unlike during BN times when UMNO’s internal elections could bring a decisive end to intra-Malay disputes, PN will have to resort to drawn out negotiations that are unlikely to deliver clear resolution when such disputes inevitably arise again. This will come to a head as the next general election draws near, since the significant overlap in the electoral appeal of UMNO, Bersatu, and PAS means that the intra-coalition allocation of seats is likely to determine the relative power balance between the parties. This is a recipe for destructive in-fighting.
PN’s composition does not bode well for its stability, nor for its efficacy as a governing entity during these tumultuous times. That is all the more problematic because UMNO and PAS spent much of the last two years suggesting that a Malay-unity government would address many of the ills that befall that community. Since it cannot count on support from the country’s progressive voters, widespread disappointment among conservative Malays will raise alarms about the coalition’s electability come the next election. It is exactly this kind of concern that triggers defections and fuels leadership challenges. In short, I think chances are high that the PN government will be short lived in the grander scheme of Malaysian politics. Of course it is all speculative at this point, but a merger between UMNO and Bersatu seems a likely outcome, with the coalition gradually moving back towards the proven, albeit problematic in recent elections, BN arrangement.
Malaysia has been consumed by the global coronavirus pandemic thus far, which has complicated the country’s prior challenges and served as an almost immediate test for the PN government. What impact do you think COVID-19 has had on the country’s evolving political dynamics, and how would you assess the government’s handling of the crisis thus far?
In some ways, COVID-19 has given Muhyiddin desperately needed breathing room, as nearly all attention has shifted to limiting the terrible toll the virus is taking on life in Malaysia. That momentary halt to internal wrangling within PN may last through the apex of the crisis, as most potential internal challengers seem content on biding their time for now. Helming a ship during a major health crisis and economic downturn is a personally risky endeavor, after all.
The timing does invite contrasts between the two governments, however, which are certain to be drawn out once politics returns to a more normal state. Malaysia’s initial responses to COVID-19, which arrived in the final weeks of PH’s rule, were widely praised by the international community, with the health minister – Dzulkefly Ahmad – seen as especially competent in leading a coordinated government response. PN’s first few steps in managing the crisis have appeared quite clunky in comparison – widely mocked tips from the Women and Family Ministry, for example, suggested that wives wear make-up, dress sharply, avoid nagging, and speak to their husbands using a cartoonish “Doraemon” voice followed by a coy and feminine laugh in order to keep their households peaceful during the quarantine period. Another directive ambiguously stated that only household heads – which was widely interpreted as the senior male – should make shopping trips, leading to stories of disoriented men wandering grocery store aisles, apparently for the first time, bringing home clusters of lemongrass rather than the green onions they were sent out to fetch. The comparison between the COVID-19 responses of two governments is somewhat unfair, as the full force of the pandemic did not hit until after the transition, when the PN’s ministers were still settling into their new roles. And in the grander scheme of things, Malaysia’s response remains quite competent, especially from a regional comparison. But the contrast will nonetheless remain vivid for many voters and will further hinder the PN’s efforts to win skeptical progressive voters to its side.
By now it is clear that COVID-19 will have a major economic impact, likely greater than that of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. That crisis fundamentally upended politics throughout the region. It led to the downfall of the decades-long, Suharto-led, New Order era in Indonesia. It changed Thai politics in ways that the country has not yet stabilized from more than 20 years later. And in Malaysia, it triggered the Reformasi movement that spawned the various Pakatan coalitions, making it the ultimate origin of the BN’s 2018 defeat. We are still in the early days of the current crisis, so it is too early to speculate on precisely how the COVID-19-induced downturn will affect politics, but it is a reasonable assumption that the impact in Malaysia and throughout the region will again be profound.
Further ahead, what are some key general signposts that you will be looking to in order to assess the government’s performance in the coming months and how politics may evolve up to the next general elections, which will be held before September 2023?
It will be interesting to see how PN functions as its attention turns to recovery once politics-as-usual resumes. There will presumably be added urgency as the corruption trials of Najib, UMNO party leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and others make headlines again. How will Muhyiddin try to secure ongoing unity? Will the leadership challenges be immediate? How will the pressure of the economic crisis be dealt with?
In some ways, Pakatan’s component parties have it easier, as they resume their familiar opposition role. What is left of the coalition nonetheless faces several existential questions. First, who will Pakatan settle on as its leader? At nearly 95, Mahathir is no longer a viable option going into the next election. Anwar may also not be viable: rightly or wrongly, many have lost faith in him and it may well be the case that the coalition is unelectable with him at its head. But there is also no one within the coalition who could immediately step into that role and lead the movement. There are many competent younger figures, but such a generational transition is risky and often bumpy in the short term, which some within the coalition may not have the patience for following their brief taste of power. It is also unclear what state PKR will be in when it emerges from this crisis, as the defection of Azmin and those associated with him have deeply destabilized the party.
Perhaps more fundamentally, it is unclear how Pakatan will react to the defection of Bersatu. On one hand, Pakatan must recognize that it is nearly impossible – at least in the foreseeable future – to win an election without an UMNO-like vehicle to compete directly against UMNO in its strongholds. On the other hand, the betrayal felt by many within the coalition and its support base will make it difficult to bring another UMNO-clone party into the fold. This leaves Malaysia at a deep impasse: Pakatan may be unelectable in its present state, while PN looks dangerously unstable. With the full shock of COVID-19 to unfold over the coming year, the stage looks set for an extended period of tumultuous politics.