What Would It Take To End BN’s Rule Over Malaysia?

Posted on January 14, 2017



The Barisan Nasional (BN) and its predecessor, the Alliance party have ruled Malaya and Malaysia since our independence from the British in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963 without a break, making it the longest ruling political party in the world. With its total dominance over politics in its over five decades rule, BN has evolved into a creature where its leaders no longer serve the people but have turned the country into their personal golden goose to extract and plunder at will.

The 1MDB scandal only brought to the fore the sickness that has already stricken us for the last 3 decades since the ascendancy of the 4th Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.  The pillars of democracy like the judiciary, Parliament, public institutions were systematically weakened; where racialism were institutionalized, crony capitalism celebrated, privatization became “piratization” and the first of numerous financial scandals surfaced.

If Malaysia is likened to a cancer-stricken person, 1MDB would be a Stage 4 cancer, where its impact has spread to all other organs of government, undermining the soundness of the political and economic system of the country. Without immediate and drastic intervention, the prognosis is poor, at best we are unlikely to achieve developed or high income country status by 2020 or at worst, on the slippery road to being a failed state.

Can BN reform itself and restore the nation to good health or is it time for Malaysians to sack this political alliance that has mismanaged this country, turning it into a kleptocracy and hand over the rein to a new coalition?  Can we survive as a nation if we give BN another 5 years of rule?

Targeting marginal seats won by BN

Due to decades of unfair and unconstitutional delineation of election boundaries by the election Commission, the electoral playing field has never been level and will not be level at the next coming General Election. Gerrymandering and malapportionment of constituencies ensured that even with a minority vote of 47 percent, BN is still able to win 60 percent of the 222 Parliament seats contested at GE13. It should be noted that a vast majority of the seats won by BN are in the rural and semi-urban constituencies.

But the fact is 38 of the 133 Federal seats won by BN were marginally won with less than 10 percent of the votes, meaning a mere 6 percent swing towards the opposition in GE14 would end BN’s hegemonic rule. In fact, for around 10 constituencies it would take 500 or less voters to make a difference in the outcome.

Thus the effort of INVOKE to target these marginal seat is commendable and worthy of support. When you do not have the backing of public machineries and limitless financial resources like BN does, you need to fight smart. Voters’ education, registration of new voters, get-out-the-vote programmes and guarding of votes on polling day in such marginal seats are crucially important.

Alleviate the economic well-being of the Bottom 40

But what message would you bring these targeted constituencies and to the Malaysian voters that would convince them that the time has come for change?

The main concerns of the average voter are bread and butter issues, policies that affect their economic well-being directly. In a 2012 survey by Merdeka Centre[1] on issues of voter concern, it was found that 34 percent listed economic concerns as their number one concern while 19 percent listed crimes and social problems as their main concern. A more recent survey by the same pollster in 2016 of Sarawak voters before the state election also listed economic concerns (33.2%) as their number issue, followed by development and infrastructure issues (27.7%).[2]

Clearly, any political coalition that is serious in wanting the people’s mandate must address the economic concerns of its citizens. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and its allies must clearly and boldly come out with policies that go beyond sloganeering and vague promises during election but clear policies with timeline for their implementation.

Redress the Borneo injustice

Sabahans and Sarawakians have long felt like poor cousins from the backwaters of Borneo but now with BN’s hold on power weakened since the 12th General Election in 2008, both these partners of the Federation are kingmakers.  Their discontent has now surged to become a movement with some even calling for secession from Malaysia.

The injustices to Borneo cannot be denied. Though they are rich in natural resources, they remain as two of the poorest states in Malaysia. Their infrastructures are decades behind those of the Peninsula with many areas still inaccessible by road and villages that are without electricity and piped clean water.

A commitment to redress specific areas of injustice is not only necessary to win over the East Malaysian voters and their leaders in order to form the next government but it is also the right thing to do. It is time to fully honour the spirit and terms of the 20/18 points of the Malaysia Agreement. With the passing of Sarawak’s CM Adenan Satem, the baton to lead the charge to uplift the East Malaysians have fallen to the ground and it may be the best time for the opposition coalition to pick it up.

Address the Malay/Muslim insecurity

For a relatively new nation like Malaysia that has less than 60 years of history and where most of its citizens have only known one ruling party, the idea of changing government is quite revolutionary if not downright terrifying, for many. It’s like asking a person who has never flown in an airplane to skydive off one. There need to be a lot of assurances and guarantees.

For many the Malay who have benefitted from decades of assistance from the BN government, many have a genuine sense of gratitude to BN and to UMNO in particular. Many would say, “I know that UMNO is corrupt and that the New Economic Policy (NEP) has not really benefitted most Malay, but what choice do I have? If with the support of UMNO and the NEP I am still struggling to survive, what hope do I have under a new government that is uncommitted to helping the Malay?”

Another question Malay/Muslim voters may ask is, “I know that UMNO, especially now with the support of PAS, will uphold Islam and defend the rights of Muslim but what assurances do I have that Islam will not be sidelined and Islamic values will not be eroded?”

These are tough questions but I believe answers and solutions can be found that would satisfy both the Malay/Muslim and non-Malay/Muslim voters. One thing is sure, skirting around these questions will only ensure that BN/UMNO will prevail at GE14 by exploiting the insecurities of the Malay/Muslim communities especially in the Peninsula. Only clear and bold declarations by the government-in-waiting would give the necessary assurances that the interests of the Malay/Muslim community would not only be taken care of but would thrive with good governance and the upholding of justice for all.

Commit to institutional reforms

To win over voters and capture Putrajaya would not bring an end to Malaysia’s problems. It should only be the beginning to solving our multitude of problems that came with decades of misrule by a BN government.

The 1MDB crisis is a blessing in disguise in a sense that it exposed the weaknesses of our public institutions and legislations. Prime Minister Najib Razak merely took advantage of the weaknesses. Removing Najib and the BN government will not guarantee that there won’t be a repeat of 1MDB unless the new government is committed to institutional reforms.

Just prior to the Bersih 4 rally in August, 2015, BERSIH 2.0 proposed 10 long-term institutional reforms to address the root-causes of prime ministerial corruption[3]. I will list them verbatim here. They are…

  1. Make the Election Commission accountable to the Parliament, with EC members nominated by parliamentary parties based on vote share.
  2. Clean up the electoral rolls, ensuring level-playing field in contestation, and eliminating malapportionment and gerrymandering before the next general elections.
  3. Stop Mahathir’s legacy of the Prime Minister simultaneously holding the portfolio of Minister of Finance.
  4. Introduce parliamentary reform to enable more effective scrutiny of the Executive and more consultative law making, as per recommendations by BERSIH 2.0 and the Coalition for Parliamentary Reform (CPR).
  5. Make the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) a constitutional body answerable to Parliament and imbue the MACC with both investigative and prosecutorial powers.
  6. Restrict the role of Attorney-General (AG) to providing legal advice to the Federal Government, with the prosecutorial power transferred to an independent office of Director of Public Prosecutions.
  7. Establish Freedom of Information (FOI) Laws at the federal and state levels.
  8. Make public declaration of assets – including those of spouses — mandatory for all members of the Cabinet, all deputy ministers and all officers holding top offices in government and government-linked companies (GLCs).
  9. Abolish draconian laws, such as the Sedition Act 1948; Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015; Peaceful Assembly Act 2012; Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012; and amend provisions of Penal Code which violate freedoms and rights.
  10. Establish an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to depoliticize the Royal Malaysia Police and turning it from a violator of human rights into a protector of human rights.

The list of reforms is not comprehensive but they are some of the most important reforms needed to deal with the scourge of corruption, to rebuild Malaysia and to restore the confidence of both Malaysians and the international community.  Will PH and its coalition partners commit to such reforms and have a first 100-day list of legislations they would amend or abolish and actions they would take to restore the independence of our public institutions?

Avoid multi-cornered contests

The political landscape has significantly changed since GE13 in 2013. Not only has the opposition coalition of Pakatan Rakyat (PR) fallen apart, UMNO itself has major fissures with the departure of its former strongman and the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir and Najib’s deputy PM, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin from UMNO and setting up the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) which has aligned itself to PH.  Meanwhile, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) whose disagreement with its coalition partners over the implementation of hudud laws led to the demise of PR is now in courtship with UMNO with possible marriage in sight.

The results of the twin by-elections held for the parliamentary constituencies of P93 Sungai Besar and P67 Kuala Kangsar in June, 2016 due to the tragic death of its two Members of Parliament in a helicopter crash, forebode disastrous consequence for the opposition coalition should there be multi-cornered fights in the poll. From narrow wins in GE13, BN/UMNO expanded their winning margins from 399 to 9,191 votes for Sungai Besar and from 1,082 to 6,969 votes for Kuala Kangsar, thanks to multi-cornered contests between UMNO, Amanah and PAS.

Despite the introduction of Bersatu now into an electoral pact with PH, it is still difficult to judge if that could make any significant difference to the outcome. Bersatu may be able to draw enough support from certain states to take away some seats from UMNO but would that be more than what PAS could do for UMNO to win seats won marginally by PR at the last round? Who know? We are truly in uncharted territories this time.

The surest way to ensure electoral victories for the opposition coalition would be to avoid multi-cornered contests. It’s easier said than done. Whatever the final configuration would be, it would be imperative that the battle lines are drawn clearly. If it is not possible for PAS to be part of the opposition coalition, then let it be clear that they are in partnership with UMNO despite denials. For anyone who is not with a united opposition alliance is against it and is helping BN to stay in power. That has to be made crystal clear to the voters.  This same logic would apply to the numerous political parties in East Malaysia, in particular Sabah. If you want to help BN stay in power, have multi-cornered contests. Negotiations must begin in earnest and egos must be put aside to ensure that BN is defeated in Sabah.


While there are many circumstances that are beyond the control the opposition leaders and they do not have the influence and financial resources of the incumbent, there are steps that they can do to put themselves on a firmer footing going into GE14.

They must not depend on reactionary politics to score political points at every new scandals or inflammatory statements made by their opponents or to leave things to fate, hoping that global or national economy will falter enough to make people hate Najib and vote against BN. It’s not enough that we hate BN, make us love PH and its partners.

At the end of the day, we must not forget that, no matter how flawed, we are a democracy and the voters will decide who has earned the right to rule for the next five years. Even if GE14 is called this year, there is still time for the opposition coalition to pull their act together and present a vision for a new Malaysia that is simply irresistible. And who knows, with a little help from the Divine, we may have a new Government after GE14.

THOMAS FANN is a social activist and chairperson of Engage, a non-governmental organisation involved in strengthening democracy, defending human rights, promoting social justice and protecting the environment.

[1] http://www.merdeka.org/v4/index.php/downloads/category/2-researches?download=32:poll-release-dec-2012-voter-issues

[2] http://merdeka.org/v4/index.php/downloads/category/2-researches?download=172:sarawak-state-public-opinion-survey-2016

[3] https://www.bersih.org/10-institutional-reforms-to-stop-more-prime-ministerial-corruption/