What a Najib win could mean for Malaysia

umno-pas-rakyat-malaysia-1KUALA LUMPUR: The rule of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional looks set to be extended for many years to come if the Umno-PAS alignment works, according to an editorial in the East Asia Forum.

However, this portends ill for the non-Malay minorities and liberal Muslims, as Umno, increasingly dependent on PAS, dances to the latter’s tunes, it says.

The editorial of the East Asia Forum, which is based in the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, says Najib Razak will almost certainly survive the 1MDB scandal unscathed if Umno’s understanding with PAS holds and its manoeuvring to drive a wedge between the opposition parties continues to succeed.

“Decades of institutional degeneration under Umno rule, and the concentration of power in the office of the prime minister, has seen Najib able to swat away any domestic attempts to hold him to account for his role in the 1MDB affair. The unfortunate importance of identity politics in shaping voter behaviour also helps insulate him from much of the electoral backlash.”

The editorial says a win for Umno, would mean the acceleration of Malaysia’s march towards a greater role for Islam in the law and in society.

“In the coming years, Malaysia’s minorities will be increasingly left in little doubt as to their status as second class citizens, with diminishing political clout as the gerrymander, and the increasing interdependence of Umno and PAS, render their votes less important.

“Liberal Muslims will likely see their personal freedoms further eroded as the government enforces puritanical interpretations of Islamic law with greater vigour.”

The editorial added that if Umno continued down its current path under Najib, the losers would be the people of Malaysia, as the post-independence dream of a secular, pluralist and democratic nation would drift further out of sight.

It notes how affirmative action policies favouring the majority Malays boosted the economic role of Malays while also bringing political and economic stability to the nation.

It says under the long rule of Dr Mahathir Mohamad the Umno-led effort to build a Malay capitalist class helped sanctify and institutionalise a system of cronyism.

However, Malaysians paid a heavy price in terms of their political freedoms.

“Behind the economic growth and political stability that Umno could advertise to the world was a marked decay in the quality and independence of the country’s political institutions – particularly the judiciary and civil service – censorship of the media, and pervasive corruption.

“Yet judged in pragmatic terms, the formula worked. Most notably under the rule of Mahathir Mohamad from 1981 to 2003, rapid growth – with the dice loaded in favour of Malays – succeeded in both creating a large Malay middle class and generating performance legitimacy among minorities, who also felt the benefits of the economic boom and accompanying political and social stability.”

It says Najib’s strategy to secure his hold on power may be steering Malaysia towards a significant political realignment between his party and PAS.

It notes that the longest standing sources of political opposition to Umno-led rule have been the secularist, Chinese-dominated DAP and the Islamist PAS, and unless there is a united coalition, none of the opposition parties can hope to overcome the “parliamentary gerrymander which helps keep Umno in power”.

Najib, it says, has been able to drive a wedge between the Islamist and secularist blocs of the opposition, using Islam and the role Islamic law should play in Malaysia’s legal system.

“Umno has always understood the versatility of Islam as a wedge issue; posing as the defender of pluralism in elections past to win votes for the BN coalition from non-Malays spooked by the opposition’s accommodation of PAS, while at other times peeling away Malay votes from PAS by portraying the opposition coalitions as hostile to Malay economic interests and, increasingly, Malay and Islamic cultural dominance.

“But in the aftermath of the near-abandonment of the BN coalition by non-Malay voters in the 2013 general election, Umno sees increasing monopoly over Malay votes – potentially, in coalition with PAS, its long time rival for Malay support – as the path to continuing political preeminence.”

The result of this electoral strategy, the editorial says, is Umno’s increasingly strident Malay supremacism, accompanied by concessions to PAS’s agenda of enshrining shariah law federally.

“PAS understands the opportunity, knowing well how it can make Umno its hostage and ensure it would forever find itself pressured to adopt PAS-congenial and Islam-promoting policies.”