Khoo Ying Hooi on Malaysia’s Pivotal General Election

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Khoo Ying Hooi on Malaysia’s Pivotal General Election

The outcome of this month’s election is “far less certain and predictable” than previous ones.

Khoo Ying Hooi on Malaysia’s Pivotal General Election

A customer watches a live broadcast of an announcement by Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob at an electronics store in Kuala Lumpur, October 10, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

On November 19, Malaysians will go to the polls for a general election – the country’s 15th since Malaya’s independence in 1957. GE15, as it is known, will bring to an end the long period of instability that has seen the Pakatan Harapan coalition government elected in 2018 collapse amid political machinations and the defeated United Malays National Organization (UMNO) vault back to power at the head of a rickety coalition government. The election will also see the unprecedented involvement of first-time voters after the Malaysian parliament voted to reduce the minimum voting age from 21 to 18.

In advance of the opening of the official election period next week, The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia Editor Sebastian Strangio spoke to Dr. Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya, about her expectations for GE15, the secret to UMNO’s resilience, and how Malaysia’s youth could impact the upcoming vote.

How do you expect that this election will differ from the last general election in 2018, which saw UMNO go down to a historic defeat to a diverse opposition coalition?

In just four years since 2018, Malaysians have seen three different administrations and three prime ministers, a new record in Malaysian political history. Such a rocky start for a democratization journey affects the confidence of Malaysian voters in the GE15. The addition of new voters, due to the lowering of the voting age to 18 from 21, and automatic voter registration (AVR) add another uncertainty to the GE15 result as these new voters’ inclination remains unpredictable.

In this election, we will witness more than two political coalitions compared to the previous year’s election, where we usually see a strong government vs opposition divide. We have Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Harapan (PH), Perikatan Nasional (PN), and Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), while the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) are political coalitions in East Malaysia. In Peninsular Malaysia, the polls will be a battle between three major political coalitions (BN, PN, and PH). These three major coalitions have all had recent experience in government. Meanwhile, PN and BN, who are in the current caretaker government, will fight against each other in the GE15.

Unlike in 2018, BN now consists only of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the Sabah-based United Sabah People’s Party, which will now face two rival blocs instead of one: the main opposition coalition PH, and its former co-rulers from PN. While former Prime Minister Najib Razak is in jail on corruption charges, UMNO is back in the ruling bloc and seems confident enough to push for an election in the monsoon season, despite facing much resistance and criticism.

The dramatic ousting of the UMNO-led BN coalition in 2018 was supposed and expected to some extent to reduce racial and political tension and end the country’s Malay-driven agenda after six decades. Nevertheless, it did not happen. The opposition remains fragmented, and now we witness newer and smaller parties joining the fray in the GE15.

As widely agreed, no political coalition can claim dominance for now until the GE15 takes place. This scenario is also new to Malaysian voters, who have gotten used mainly to two major political coalitions, as democratization has not played out as expected. With many more players in the GE15 with different varieties being offered to the voters this time, we could also expect the potential for the formation of a new coalition government should the number of seats won by the various coalitions be insufficient to form a government.

Two years after its historic defeat in 2018, UMNO is back in the cockpit of power and seems confident that it will perform well in the upcoming election following a string of state-level electoral victories. How do you account for UMNO’s apparent resurgence from the nadir of 2018? What has enabled its comeback?

UMNO performed well in the state elections in Malacca and Johor. Both states, however, are areas where UMNO has traditionally been strong, so they are not necessarily an accurate reflection of the strength of UMNO at the national level. In addition, the state election results in both states also signify that the votes split between PH and PN.

Has UMNO successfully made a comeback? This is open for debate. To the present day, unfortunately, Malaysian politics is still centered on racial politics with a Malay-driven agenda. Furthermore, Malay politics still revolves around UMNO politics, which ironically, at the same time, is in a mess with many corruption issues involving its leaders. This signals that the leading causes of the fragmentation within UMNO are the personal rivalries among individual leaders. The division, however, does not reflect any significant ideological difference. Their advantage is that they still have access to government machinery that can benefit them.

UMNO continues to use the old way of campaigning to gain voters, that is, by using the political stability approach. Somehow, it has successfully pitched the narrative of stability to voters. It is expected to continue to do the same, depicting PH as an unstable coalition that only survived for a short two-year period in office. As ironic as it might seem, this could appeal to voters who face political fatigue and are not used to this newfound turbulence in Malaysian politics, especially amidst the current economic problems.

This is, somehow, the strange situation that we see now in Malaysian politics, of a potential return of a coalition with the most shameless record of corruption among its leaders.

One notable thing about this election is the recent lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. What impact do you anticipate that this will have on the result? Are there any indications as to whether this will benefit the UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition or its opponents?

We expect about 1.4 million first-time voters in the 18-20 age group. How many will come out and vote or whom they will vote for is difficult to say, as they are an unknown variable. One of the concerns is that we are in a political system traditionally run by the same personalities with strong patronage politics in the system, so the question is, are these young voters convinced enough that GE15 is worth their time? This is unknown. Also, the other common concerns that have been raised many times are political fatigue, dissatisfaction towards all political parties for failing to keep their promises and election manifestos, and gaps in political literacy.

On the other hand, these young people who will be voting for the first time, experienced and witnessed several stages of the political turmoil in Malaysia since 2018. It is hard to say if this will benefit UMNO and BN. More significant is that the number of voters has increased, and any result is possible should we have a high voter turnout. The opposition believes that the percentage of voter turnout will be a determining factor in their chance to defeat UMNO/BN.

At the same time, we are also faced with the Malay-driven agenda, which we see is most apparent in several political coalitions – not only BN but also GTA and PN. Whether young voters are attracted to such an agenda, which could benefit UMNO, is little known. For instance, there is a widely held view that younger voters are typically anti-establishment and more “liberal,” but this was not proven entirely in the Malacca and Johor state polls. The GE15 result is hence far less certain than those of earlier elections have been.

You have studied the Bersih electoral reform movement that played an important role in the outcome of general elections in 2013 and 2018. How has this movement evolved since the last election, and do you think it will play a significant role in GE15?

The Bersih movement has undergone some changes; it is now considered a social movement organization with a structure in place, which functions like any other NGO in Malaysia.

If we reflect on the GE13 in 2013 and GE14 in 2018, we can say that the Bersih movement has some impacts, such as opening a space for civil society to discuss and participate in election matters. The post-GE14 period witnessed some forms of institutionalization of Bersih, in which domestic structural conditions, after the change of government to PH, allowed their demands to be incorporated into substantive policy alternatives and promoted within a political process. This opening of space continues somewhat, but at a minimal rate since the collapse of the PH government in 2020.

While the reforms achieved by Bersih are not substantial, its agenda, driven for over a decade, has produced incentives and pressures for its implementation, with Bersih’s role expanding beyond voter education to lobbying for electoral reform. In particular, its fight against irregularities in the electoral process has helped build a favorable atmosphere for clean elections that, as we can see in the GE15, and despite challenges, has persisted.

Bersih’s goals remain as challenging as ever, given the continued lack of sufficient political will to advance reforms. What it has achieved thus far are more technical and bureaucratic reforms. Many of Bersih’s demands continue to be ignored, for instance, the issue of the potential delay of postal votes. This has led Bersih and other organizations, such as the Global Bersih, to take their own initiatives, such as the mobilization campaign to help transport postal ballots back home. Should such initiatives gain support, just like in 2018, this could indirectly impact the voter turnout rate in GE15.