BY YIT XIANG WONG
Since 2018, Malaysia has gone through 4 different prime ministers, and the country’s political parties are already gearing up for the 2023 elections.
Ever since Malaysia’s independence, political power has been concentrated in the hands of Barisan Nasional (BN). However, in 2015, Malaysia’s sixth prime minister, Najib Razak, was accused of being involved in the infamous 1MDB scandal - in which has the United States Department of Justice declared as the “largest kleptocracy case to date”. This dealt a fatal blow towards the voter base of Barisan Nasional, leading to a shift in power in the 2018 election that led to the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) winning by a slight margin, ending BN’s 62 year rule.
Fast forward four years, Johor Bahru, a key PH state in the 2018 elections, held their state elections. And yet, we saw a landslide victory for BN, winning 40 out of the 57 available seats. Some political commentators have attributed BN’s success in Johor to Najib, who has managed to reconsolidate his voter base despite the charges he faces for corruption. However, as for all political news, the story is not as clear cut as it always is.
On the Johor campaign trails, it seems confusing for a former Prime Minister to be the largest campaigner for BN, sometimes even being more influential than the state candidates themselves. But Najib Razak was seen attracting crowds wherever he went, with chants of “Bossku!” (my boss), his nickname from his supporters, despite the charges he is currently facing for the 1MDB corruption.
The question then comes: do Malaysians not care about his corruption? Probably not.
Bridget Welsh, a political analyst from the University of Nottingham has coined Najib as the country’s “biggest patron”. The general Malaysian sentiment has always been that politicians are inherently corrupt, but under Najib’s rule, he utilised tactics such as rewarding supporters with large cash handouts and aid. Under Najib’s rule, his supporters enjoyed significant welfare benefits that did not exist in any other prime minister’s tenure.
Additionally, Najib’s tenure as a prime minister ended two years before the pandemic hit. When Malaysians reflect upon the economic and political stability of the past few years, it is not unusual for them to be nostalgic of the more relatively stable times during Najib’s rule. Given the constant political turmoil ever since PH got power, coupled with the economic decline due to the pandemic, Najib has been able to utilise the economic grievances by the Malaysians as political ammunition. This would be in line with the voter turnout statistics, which only saw a mere 55% turnout, suggesting a dangerous trend of voter apathy.
But even for those who were aware of the corruption, many of them would echo the sentiments of a 33-year-old doctor in Johor who voted for BN in this week’s election, Mansur Sapari, in which he argued that “nobody is perfect”. Many of the voter base seems to be inclined to forgive him, and this can be associated with the populist rhetoric Najib uses. In hopes of preserving Malay tradition, he does not shy away from exemplifying Malay grievances against other ethnic minorities. So long as Najib claims that he is the only one that can protect the interests of Malays, it is unlikely that his scandal will ever be a concern for his supporter base.
But I believe that the credit the media is giving Najib for the Johor election is just slightly exaggerated. Although Barisan Nasional was exceptionally successful in the recent elections, there are other factors than Najib that led to their success.
First, the opposition coalition is deeply fragmented. In the weeks leading up to the election, internal feuds plagued PH’s war room when MUDA, a new youth-led party, was given more seats than other parties in the coalition would have liked. Many of the campaigns by PH that were held in Johor were also done under the party’s own logo and flag, rather than having a unifying coalition identity. This feeds into the voter sentiment that PH has been an unstable ruling party that fosters nostalgia for BN.
The second is that BN has been exceptionally successful in reforming and rebuilding their party ever since their loss in the 2018 elections. This hasn’t been the first time BN won a state election post-2018, as they saw equal levels of success in the 2021 Melaka state elections and Sarawak state elections. BN has already been following a growing trend of electoral success, and Najib can only be seen as a catalyst to its growth.
Going forward, Malaysia faces their general elections in 2023. Having been through 3 different prime ministers since the last election, and only a few more months for PH to rebuild their coalition, BN’s chances of winning the 2023 election seems inevitable, given their ability to regain their support in regions they lost during the 2018 elections. However, regardless of the influence of the court of public opinion, Najib’s fate still lies in the hands of the justice system itself.
Image source: Flickr / Dennis Sylvester Hurd