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Democratic malaise

It’s time to address our relationship with Malaysia

28 April 2012

12:00 PM

28 April 2012

12:00 PM

It’s time to address our relationship with Malaysia

In 1971, Australia and the recently decolonised Malaysian government enjoyed, as Peter Boyce observed ,‘something akin to a special relationship’. That relationship deteriorated rapidly after 1973, however, as the Whitlam and subsequent Labor governments preferred ties with non-Commonwealth Asia, notably Suharto’s New Order Indonesia and even Mao’s China.

During the Hawke and Keating era, engaging Asia meant ignoring Malaysia. Paul Keating dismissed long-serving Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammad as ‘recalcitrant’ for failing to attend the 1992 APEC meeting. Mahathir, by contrast, favoured a ‘Look East’ policy and assiduously promoted an East Asian caucus without Caucasians.

Neither the Howard nor subsequent Rudd and Gillard governments have done much to repair bilateral ties. The Australian media and academe have also neglected political and economic developments in the resource-rich state which, under current Prime Minister Najib Razak, intends to achieve developed status by 2020.

On a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, David Cameron declared Malaysia an ‘economic heavyweight’ and pledged to double bilateral trade by 2016. By contrast, Malaysian politicians consider their Australian relationship one of benign neglect. Given that Australia is Malaysia’s fifth largest trading partner, and we share both a long-standing defence agreement as well as membership of the Commonwealth, such neglect is curious. Moreover, recent political changes in Malaysia would repay careful scrutiny.


Malaysia stands on the brink of a historic democratic transition when it holds its thirteenth general election since independence later this year. The potential for an opposition victory, after more than four decades of uninterrupted United Malay National Organization (UMNO) rule, may be traced to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which caused a profound rift within the Malay political elite. Mahathir and his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, acrimoniously fell out over the causes of the crisis. For his temerity in calling for reformasi of Malaysia’s ‘cronyist’ state-led economic and political model, Anwar served six years in prison. ‘Politics’ Malaysian style, as his daughter and federal MP, Nurul Izzah, observes,‘is a dirty business’.

When Mahathir eventually stood down as Prime Minister in 2003, his successor, Abdullah Badawi, struggled to retain UMNO’s support in its Malay heartland. Cracks appeared in the UMNO dominated National Front coalition when the minority Indian community organised mass public demonstrations calling for Hindu rights (Hindraf) in 2007. At the 2008 general election, the opposition, Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), a multiracial party, achieved sweeping gains – falling short of a parliamentary majority by only sixteen seats, with government in five states of the ethnically and religiously mixed federation. This was unprecedented. Prior to 2008, the opposition had often been smaller than the current Queensland state opposition, and UMNO had altered the federal constitution at will.

After the election, a traumatised UMNO elite replaced Badawi with the more dynamic Najib, son of a former Prime Minister. In 2009, Najib embarked on a ‘One Malaysia’ campaign and a three-year programme of  government transformation that set benchmarks for growth and transparency in key economic areas. He also employed American and British consultancies to rebrand UMNO. Paul Stadlen, Najib’s British spin doctor, facilitated the spending of $19 million on UK media consultant FBC. New Labour consultants, like Alastair Campbell, allegedly advise, at vast expense, on how to craft a politically ‘cool Najib’. In 2011, Najib condemned Iran’s nuclear programme, promoted a moderate Islam abroad and, in April, announced plans to reform the ‘draconic’ internal security act dating from Communist insurgency, which allows indefinite detention without trial for those, like Anwar or Hindraf supporters, that questioned UMNO’s authoritarian grip.

However, despite these cosmetic changes, the new accountability is more rhetorical than real. The UMNO elite has a long history of corrupt business deals and political repression that dates from interracial riots in 1969. Its control of the judiciary, the media and the electoral process constrains open politics.

Peaceful, opposition-led demonstrations in July 2011 for Bersih (clean) politics and  free and fair elections ended in tear gas and 1,600 arrests. The subsequent appointment of a parliamentary committee, dominated by UMNO members, to examine electoral reform, resulted in a 2012 report recommending merely anodyne changes.

Meanwhile, the government refused the opposition’s right to table a minority report calling for more effective scrutiny of the electoral roll. As the impressive, media-savvy PKR vice president, Nurul Izzah Anwar,  observes, in her marginal Kuala Lumpur seat, close to 11,000 voters have been added to her electorate in the past year. She doubts whether many of these will support her.

Despite such questionable tactics, the PKR claims that a younger generation of  Malaysians no longer buy the racially divisive rhetoric of UMNO or its intransigent policy of asserting Malay rights favoured by the Perkasa (strong or hard line) wing of the party. UMNO, in other words, is fragmenting, caught between the rock of reform and the hard place of its traditional, authoritarian racial politics. A fair election would see the opposition not only consolidate gains in the peninsular Malay states, but also extend them to the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Here, Melbourne-trained indigenous human rights lawyer and Sarawak opposition leader, Baru Bian, observes that UMNO’s abuse of native-title rights will see a swing to the opposition, ensuring an opposition majority in parliament. It is, Bian asserts, ‘the only chance’ the Dayak people have to protect their lands from further UMNO-sponsored depredation.

The opposition thus anticipates a bitter election campaign. As Nurul Izzah observes, Malaysia has ‘a mudslinging political culture’. Much will be made by UMNO’s Blairite advisers of Anwar’s alleged homosexuality, while the opposition will draw attention to Najib’s alleged involvement in the murder case of Mongolian translator, Ms. Altantuya Shaarriibuu, the former lover of a Najib staffer. Electoral politics Malay style makes Canberra look positively decorous.

Despite Najib’s deliberate cultivation of a moderate image, the opposition fears that UMNO will not respect an unfavourable election result. As the election will be close, it is important that the west generally, and Australia in particular, observes its conduct. As Tian Chua (another PKR vice president) observes, the transformation of Malaysia into a functioning representative democracy is in Australia’s interests. It would reinforce the transformation of the ASEAN way of authoritarian rulers into a more salubrious club of South East Asian democracies committed to the rule of law, regional growth and prosperity. With Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines all moving towards accountable representative institutions, Malaysia’s shift in this direction could only facilitate Australia’s more effective engagement with a region so crucial to future security.

Unfortunately, the Gillard government seemed to lose interest as soon as its Malaysian solution to the problem of illegal migrants collapsed. Such political shortsightedness in these interesting Malaysian times is inexcusable.

David Martin Jones is associate professor of political science at the University of Queensland.


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