The general election of March 8, 2008, was indeed a Black Swan event for Malaysia. And since then, it would seem that a row of black swans has been swimming by, one behind another. Malaysian politics is not known for its dull moments.
For instance, who would have expected former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad just a year ago to join the ranks of the opposition leaders working diligently to turn the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition into the opposition instead in the next general election.
Just earlier this month (April), we were told the news that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had appointed his cousin Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also Defence Minister, to be the Minister with Special Functions in the Prime Minister’s Department. This gives rise to a Black Swan question: Is Najib planning to step down as prime minister before the next general election?
Should that happen, then an interesting new set of conditions and scenarios present themselves. Even if Najib does not leave the stage, we are already presented with a new power equation in which Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi appears suddenly sidelined. In either case, Zahid may not accept his new situation passively.
To put things in proper context and to understand what is bringing about this change, we need to go back to late November 2007. Allow me here to use myself as a humble example. I am someone born and bred in Kuala Lumpur, but was offered back then, and I reluctantly accepted, a challenge to contest a parliamentary seat in the unfamiliar ground of Penang state.
The two available to me to choose from, namely Bukit Bendera and Jelutong, were both Barisan Nasional (BN) incumbent seats, which DAP stalwarts Lim Kit Siang and the late Karpal Singh, respectively, had surprisingly lost to the BN in the 1999 general election.
Literally no one expected me to win, and even fewer thought that a change of government in Penang was possible. At best, some observers noted that there was a possibility of denying the BN a two-third majority in that state.
It was only during the campaign period that we began to notice some signs pointing to the possibility of Penang falling to the opposition. What we could not have expected was to see the opposition parties gain enough seats to form the state governments in Selangor, Kedah and Perak late in the night of March 8, 2008.
I was probably one of very few who had access to information and who had some inkling of what was about to come. Apart from the surveys and polls I came across then, I recalled a conversation at a private lunch meeting involving 10 core leaders of Penang DAP on Feb 10, 2008, three days before the dissolution of Parliament. Lim Kit Siang asked us “to prepare for the unthinkable” partly because he had noticed the Malaysian Indian community to be in an unprecedentedly restless and discontented state.
A restless Malay community
Fast forward to 2017. While many pundits would like to think that Prime Minister Najib is in a strong and unassailable position, they fail to notice how restless and discontented the Malays now are. Here lies the contradictions - and the possibility of a Black Swan event.
Let me be clear here. I am not suggesting that a change of government will be a walk in the park. Far from it. The stakes are very high for Najib and Umno, and they will do whatever it takes to keep Umno in power. That will mean some very intense months ahead until the next general election.
My point is that Najib and Umno are vulnerable, and therefore susceptible to Black Swan events.
The largest Malay swing in favour of the opposition thus far happened in the 1999 general election, after Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking by Mahathir in September 1998, which sparked the Reformasi movement. An irony indeed.
Now, the 1999 wave was mostly an urban one, and the rural population was still fairly large. The Umno machinery was largely intact, albeit it had suffered the loss of some Umno Youth leaders to Anwar’s side. The civil service then was in support of Umno.
But despite all that, Umno suffered significant losses and was largely saved by overwhelming support from non-Malay voters.
In both the 2008 and 2013 general elections, Malays who voted for the opposition were mostly urban voters. But today, discontent among Malays can be felt within Umno’s vote banks, such as the civil servants, Malay women and even Felda settlers.
The quiet front
How should one describe the mood among Malay voters today?
I recall that during the 2008 election campaign, theSun newspaper frontpaged an interview with my opponent Chia Kwang Chye, who was then the powerful secretary-general of the ruling Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, a federal deputy minister and the incumbent for three terms.
‘The Quiet Front’ was the headline of the news report in which Chia told the newspaper that he sensed trouble, since voters and traders whom he had met at a particular local market were very quiet and passive.
I went to the same market with Lim Guan Eng around the same time, and the reception was hugely different: the traders carried Guan Eng on their shoulders as if he had already won the election, and the entire market welcomed us with overwhelming enthusiasm.
I also remember reading about the 1996 Australian election when it was said that voters “were waiting for Paul Keating with their baseball bats”, just to finish him off politically.
I detect a similar mood today. Many Malays whom I come across tell me that they and their friends are just waiting for the election to teach Najib a lesson: “Kita tunggu sahaja pilihanraya datang.”
My view is that the sentiment against Najib in the Malay ground is beyond repair. What you see in the mainstream media, be it in the newspapers or on TV, does not tell the whole story on the ground.
The challenge for Umno now is to work out how it is to deal with Najib, and whether the antipathy is just against Najib the person or Umno the party. Recent allegations of corruption within ‘guardian’ institutions for the Malays, such as Felda and Mara, will certainly aggravate the situation.
Take my constituency of Kluang as an example. I commissioned Merdeka Center, an independent polling firm, to do a polls survey in February 2013, a month before the last general election, and once again in August 2016.
In February 2013, the satisfaction of Malay voters in Kluang with the federal government was measured at 72 percent; and satisfaction of the same group with the performance of Prime Minister Najib was at 78 percent.
In August 2016, only 39 percent of Malay respondents in Kluang were satisfied with the federal government while those who were not satisfied were at 56 percent. And only 42 percent of the same group was satisfied with Najib as prime minister while 50 percent were not.
The situation in Kluang is repeated in other similar constituencies in Johor and elsewhere, among Malay voters. An important point to note here is that the survey was done before Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia was officially formed in September 2016 to challenge Najib and Umno.
The question is, how did we get here?
Najib and Barisan Nasional received only 47 percent of the votes in the 2013 general election, but continued to rule thanks to the gerrymandered nature of Malaysian constituencies, heavy use of money, the misuse of government machineries for campaign purposes, and by the ‘planting’ of multi-cornered battles in Sabah and Sarawak to split opposition votes.
Despite such abuse of power and blatant disregard of the law, of the 133 parliamentary seats that BN won in the 13th general election, 60 were garnered with a vote share of between 40.6 percent (in Mas Gading in Sarawak) and 55.8 percent (in Johor Baru). A further 33 seats were won with a vote share of between 56 percent (Batu Sapi in Sabah) and 60.9 percent (Parit Sulong in Johor).
Of course, not all opposition seats are safe today either. Thirty-eight opposition seats were in fact won with a vote share of between 47.4 percent (Alor Setar in Kedah) and 55.8 percent (Pasir Mas in Kelantan), of which five were with less than 50 percent votes. A further 18 seats were won with a vote share of between 56 percent and 60 percent.
Be that as it may, a net swing of 10 percent in the next general election will mean that the BN will lose 93 of its 133 seats. This is not impossible if a ‘gelombang’ takes place, a ‘tsunami’ scenario like the one we witnessed in the 2008 general election. If a net swing of 10 percent goes the other way, based on the last election results, 56 of the opposition’s 89 seats could be lost.
As mentioned earlier, many pundits have argued that Najib would still win, because they think the rural voters are still with him. This assumption is faulty. Let me explain why.
For starters, there are actually very few rural seats left in the peninsula, if we go by the idea of rural areas as we usually imagine them - far-flung places cut off from communication with the wider world. Those are the images you will likely see in nostalgia-stirring advertisements shown on national TV during Hari Raya, Chinese New Year or Deepavali celebrations.
The reality is this - Umno won 88 seats in the 2013 general election, of which 14 were from Sabah, and one from Labuan, which is a Federal Territory seat. Of the 73 seats on the peninsula, 30 or so are seats which are ‘built and designed’ for Umno.
The remaining 40 seats are insecure seats and are up for grabs. Take for example the states of Johor and Kedah.
There are at least 11 BN parliamentary seats in Johor that would fall if there is a swing in favour of the opposition. These include: (in Southern Johor) Pasir Gudang (BN’s vote share at 49.6 percent), Pulai (51 percent), Tebrau (51 percent), Tanjong Piai (55 percent) and Johor Baru (55.7 percent); and (in Northern Johor) Labis (49.5 percent), Segamat (50.3 percent), Ledang (50.7 percent), Muar (51 percent), Sekijang (53.2 percent), and Pagoh.
In the state of Kedah, the eight BN marginal seats include Jerai (50.2 percent), Kulim-Bandar Baru (51 percent), Pendang (51.5 percent), Merbok (51.9 percent), Baling (52.5 percent), Sik (52.6 percent), Jerlun (52.8 percent) and Padang Terap (54.6 percent).
According to ground reports, the opposition (especially with the entry of Bersatu) has made an impact in the seats of Langkawi and Kubang Pasu as well, making Kedah a major battleground state, which can tilt the balance of 10 federal seats if a swing is in favour of the opposition.
Most of Umno/BN marginal seats are in the following clusters:
- Northern Kedah
- Southern Kedah/Northern Perak/Mainland Penang;
- Southern Perak/Northern Selangor
- The Karak Highway Belt
- Malacca/Northern Johor
- Southern Johor
Most of these seats are semi-urban areas, which have a town surrounded by villages less than half an hour’s drive away. Southern Johor differs from this pattern as a metropolitan, and fully non-rural seat. Furthermore, in these semi-urban constituencies, most of the young adults are working outstation, residing in larger cities in the Klang Valley and in Singapore.
I often joke that the average age of people in my constituency of Kluang, a semi-urban area, is 55 years old on weekdays and 25 years old on weekends. And on the eve of the last general election, upon being told by my local campaign staff that the traffic congestion was the worst that they had ever seen (due to returning voters), I quietly told them that I could now be confident of winning.
Often, these semi-urban seats have a Malay majority but they also have a sizeable number of non-Malays. In fact, according to the Statistics Department, 65 percent Malays live in urban areas, not far behind the national average of urban dwellers, which is at just slightly more than 70 percent.
My point then is that the semi-urban areas in the West Coast of the peninsula are likely to determine the outcome of the election. They are far from ‘rural’ as most observers and politicians would like to think of them. Also, the current Malay discontentment is even enveloping Felda areas, which are deemed fixed deposits and rural strongholds for Umno.
In short, as much as the opposition is vulnerable, Najib too is walking on thin ice.
This perspective is based on a public seminar given by LIEW CHIN TONG at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies (Iseas)-Yusof Ishak Institute on April 13, 2017. Liew was formerly a visiting fellow at the institute. He is the Member of Parliament for Kluang, and a member of the central executive committee of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). - Mkini