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Malaysia Finds a Polarized Place in the Trump-Brexit World

Daniel Moss

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It's time to stop seeing the rising geographic, cultural and economic divisions within democracies as a uniquely American or Western European phenomenon. Malaysia is giving them a run for their money. 

An urban-rural divide, the politics of faith, perceptions of identity and degrees of comfort with the globalized economy don't explain just Donald Trump's presidential victory in 2016 and the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union. The same forces bedevil this strategically important Asian nation, making it hard to govern no matter how long the new prime minister remains in power. Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in Sunday by the country’s monarch, despite his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, claiming he has majority support in parliament. Mahathir wants the legislature to decide. Malaysia’s challenges will clearly persist well into the future.

Long seen as one of Southeast Asia’s most stable countries, without the revolutions, bloody upheavals and coups that characterized many of its neighbors, Malaysia’s politics and economics tend to cleave along deeply visceral racial/sectarian lines. The Malay Muslim majority benefits from affirmative action, especially in government jobs and university access, to counter the control that citizens of Chinese descent traditionally had over the bulk of private-sector wealth.But there isn’t a monolithic Malay vote. Often overlooked is that the portion of the Malay electorate up for grabs is relatively small and can be fluid in allegiance. The struggle for that slice effectively brought down the government and roiled the search for a successor. The tussle resembles the battle for a handful of swing states in a couple of regions in America. 

Mahathir once reigned supreme over Barisan Nasional, which ruled for decades and established Malay rights as government policy. He only joined what was then the opposition a few years ago, bringing a symbolic legitimacy that pulled in just enough swing Malay voters to get the Pakatan Harapan coalition over the line in a historic election upset in 2018. It was never an easy fit. Mahathir’s party pulled out last week, along with a few lawmakers from the party led by Anwar Ibrahim, a man who has alternately been his protege, rival and tactical ally. Mahathir served as interim premier and looked poised to return to the post full-time until Muhyiddin  — backed by a party at the core of the former Barisan bloc — beat him to it.  The other remnants of Mahathir’s coalition are concentrated in multi-racial and prosperous urban areas of the country's west coast. One of the biggest, the Democratic Action Party, finds core support in the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.The suspicion among many Malays that Mahathir’s coalition would somehow trade away their affirmative action privileges has driven a lot of the residual support that former premier Najib Razak enjoys. His electoral humiliation in 2018 was fed by disaffection over the multi-billion-dollar scandal around 1 Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB, a state investment company. Najib is on trial for corruption and maintains he’s innocent. He hasn’t cowered in a corner and and was in the front row at by-election comeback celebrations for Barisan Nasional last year. 

As ludicrous as it sounds, the privileged Najib, whose father was a prime minister, is portrayed in some quarters as a poor Malay victim of urban west-coast, multi-ethnic politics. He may be toxic in the broader electorate, but the idea of what he symbolizes is potent in pivotal corners. The sense of grievance isn't unlike the sentiment sometimes attributed to the white working class in northern England or parts of the U.S. It’s that same chip on the shoulder, and fear of Malay rights being usurped, that drove support for the weekend formation of a new coalition under Muhyiddin.     

One of the country’s many mottos is “One Malaysia.” That partly reflects the need to build a nation from a collection of disparate groups brought under the same rule by chance during the British Empire. Kai Ostwald of the University of British Columbia and Steven Oliver of Yale-NUS College in Singapore described four distinct arenas in a January paper reviewing the 2018 general election.They divide the country roughly into a deeply conservative northeast, where the Islamist PAS party dominates, and diverse areas of the peninsula centered on cities, including the most important, Kuala Lumpur. Few votes in either place are likely to change hands. Then there are the Borneo states, Sabah and Sarawak, which tend to give considerable weight to local and tribal issues and where there’s a rising desire for greater autonomy.The final, electorally vital part that can make or break a government is the chunk that Ostwald and Oliver call “peninsular Malay.” Electors here likely were repelled by Najib’s perceived failures yet unenthusiastic about the idea of leveling the racial playing field, which is popular among parties ascendant in west coast cities. Pakatan Harapan had a mediocre record of attracting these key voters in prior elections. In 2018, Mahathir made inroads by emphasizing Najib and barely referencing the progressive policies of his new coalition partners.  In that election, Muhyiddin was an ally of Mahathir. “Mahathir arguably offered conservative — and perhaps nostalgic — Malay voters who were concerned with the erosion of Malay primacy a `return' to a more confident era’’ when he presided over glory days and Malays’ place in the economic and social order was barely questioned, Ostwald and Oliver wrote. “One based on the same principle, but with different and less tarnished faces.”

There’s little appetite among ethnic Malay voters for a serious dismantling of the preferences and benefits they enjoy. They are easy prey for politicians who would claim that people who look or worship differently from them are out to do just that. 

Only by understand the trends that feed such schisms is there a shot at defusing them, in Malaysia and elsewhere in the world.

To contact the author of this story: Daniel Moss at dmoss@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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