What you need to know
Malaysia's ethnic, economic and cultural divides are holding back any common vision for the future as the country struggles to bridge gaping inequality.
By Nicholas Chan
Elections are about the future. And Malaysians will get to decide theirs on May 9, 2018. What future are Malaysians are facing and voting for? And what bearing will electoral politics have on it?
For now, many Malaysians are voting for the immediate future, as bread-and-butter issues such as housing, cost of living, and jobs were found to be the major concerns of Malaysians.
The palpable outpouring of anger most visible in social media in the lead-up to this election, including from the Malay-Muslim electorate that has been the bastion of the ruling coalition-Barisan Nasional (BN), suggests that the unrest is driven mainly by concerns of the immediate future.
Both the federal government and an opposition-held state government have been splashing benefits on civil servants who are predominantly ethnic Malays. Even the Islamist party Pas has shelved the "Islamic state" debate to focus on more profane concerns, such as abolishing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to curb inflation.
The impetus for change in this round of elections does not look to be as ideational as the previous two elections, where the incumbent’s ethnocentric conservatism was met with a loose consociationalist alliance between secularists, left-leaning progressives and Islamists of various stripes.
Chances are political fatigue has affected reform-minded Malaysians after two missed opportunities since 2008, which has led to centrifugal politics that generated even more social tensions. Not even Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s surprise (re)emergence can mend those fractures in the short term.
Devoid of a clear-cut ideational divide, the certainty of a graspable, common goal such as "Vision 2020" is long gone now for most Malaysians. Even immediate aspirations vary depending on whom one asks.
This is reflected in both Pakatan Harapan (PH)’s and BN’s manifestos that run hundreds of pages thick. Part of the reason is that Malaysia is a highly centralized federation. Anyone aiming for federal power is expected to deliver a wide spectrum of public goods, including policing, education, and public transport planning that are usually reserved at the level of states and municipalities of other federations.
The certainty of a graspable, common goal such as "Vision 2020" is long gone now for most Malaysians.
But another part of the reason is that the development gap between states and regions remains stark. The GDP per capita in 2016 of Kuala Lumpur (101,420 ringgit, US$25,860), for example, is more than double that of relatively industrialized Penang (47,322 ringgit), not to mention the poorer states such as Terengganu (27,268 ringgit) and Sabah (21,081 ringgit).
According to data from the Brookings Institution, Kuala Lumpur continues to outgrow the country in terms of GDP per capita and employment. Yet, even the Kuala Lumpur-Klang Valley region, which hosts one-fifth of Malaysia’s population, is a hotbed of inequality itself, as a study from UNICEF found.
In other words, there are two worlds politicians will have to speak to: the first and the third. In one, even basic services are craved; but in the other, five-figure salary earners are comfortable enough to insist on non-material needs.
To be fair, such inequalities have not escaped the government’s attention and redistributive interventions were made. According to the latest plan, cash aid is now disbursed to close to half the households in Malaysia if one goes by the data from the latest household income survey. An almost surreal fact for a country claiming to be achieving ‘high income nation’ status in two years’ time.
There are two worlds politicians will have to speak to: the first and the third.
Granted, all nations are complex with their own identity, ideology, class, and developmental divides. Yet this ostensibly last election before the 2020 milestone also signals a wander into the unknown for there is no longer any developmental—teleological even—model that speaks of the choices and challenges for Malaysians ahead. There are at least two aspects to this.
First, while the end goal of the New Economic Policy (NEP) is to eliminate inter-ethnic inequality, the rather simplistic framework has led to a more complicated outcome. According to a World Bank report, most income inequality now exists within ethnic groups.
Yet, the instruments aimed at boosting inter-ethnic equality have also resulted in public-private inequities that stemmed from the state’s ownership of the economy, an oversized civil service, and labor benefits accrued to said service (such as higher minimum wages as well as ostensibly higher purchasing power).
At the same time, Malaysia remains a low-wage society, even for university graduates. The kind of wages being afforded to fresh graduates in Singapore, even on a dollar-to-dollar basis, is almost unthinkable in Malaysia. Both of which combined to form a situation of over-reliance on state employment, low productivity, and the encouragement of talent outflow.
This happens at the same time as Malaysia reports encouraging GDP growth figures, as well as visibly high income consumerist patterns (and housing prices), creating a confounding situation – high growth data with little personal wealth increase; high consumerist options matched by low income – interlocutors stuck in old race-based paradigms are unwilling and unable to articulate.
Tearing apart the old consensus of racial progress also contributed to the proliferation of political parties and movements in Malaysia as there is no longer a grand narrative to adhere to. Insecurity seeps in. Protectionist sentiments increase. Interest groups multiply, more so in a political economy touched by the many hands of the state.
Tearing apart the old consensus of racial progress also contributed to the proliferation of political parties and movements in Malaysia as there is no longer a grand narrative to adhere to.
Secondly, not only have first world countries such as Japan (via the Look East Policy) expired as role models for Malaysia, the country has, whether by choice or not, begin to experience "first world problems" of its own.
Urban-rural, intra-urban income and opportunity gaps plague Malaysia as much as it plagues Britain. The aforementioned urban poverty might make some uncomfortable for its comparison to African countries, but the same problem has occurred in the United States and New Zealand. Youth un- and underemployment is as much a Malaysian problem as it is a South Korean one.
Disruptive change brought on by artificial intelligence and social media will reach Malaysian shores like any technological change: rapid, revolutionary, and ruthless. Climate change will impose its effects (for some, it already has) and like most countries, probably with the exception of Europe, it will be an issue that has long-term effects but almost zero short-term incentives for politicians to act on it, more so in a time of climate change denying and anti-vaxxers.
It’s worth noting that out of the manifestos of the three major contenders (BN, PH, and Pas), only PH’s has explicitly addressed the issue of climate change.
To be clear, I am not saying Malaysia is similar to other first world countries. For example, it will have to deal with the problem of growing old before growing rich (enough), unlike Japan which only needs to deal with the first half of that problem. Malaysia’s educational institutions are still lag far behind first world counterparts, which is probably why Singaporean graduates can fetch salaries Malaysia’s graduates cannot.
What is for sure for Malaysia is that it cannot spend its way out of it. The decline of humanities and social science in universities also means that the state has hoarded much of the critical thinking – a fact to be dealt with regardless of the outcome of the elections.
The passing of the anti-fake news bill and the populist streak dispensed by unpopular parties are not promising signs. Like the world writ large, Malaysia has entered terra incognita. It will need to devise ways and philosophies of managing a hyper-connected yet fragmented world. And it needs to do so now not as a nation catching up, but as a member within a global incubator.
The passing of the anti-fake news bill and the populist streak dispensed by unpopular parties are not promising signs.
Elections are good for deciding pathways of change, only if those pathways are carefully thought-out, comprehensively debated, and creatively sold. For too long Malaysians have strived for a dream to go from third world to first. It may now need to figure out a way to connect first world and third.
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A PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, Nicholas Chan works in the department of politics and international studies on radicalism and counter-radicalization, authoritarianism, Southeast Asian state and society.
This article was first published at New Mandala – a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.
TNL Editor: Morley J Weston