Malaysia’s opposition, with hopes for an historic victory in May 5 polls, is promising to replicate nationwide its achievements in the showcase state of Penang, where it has curbed corruption and balanced the books.
The opposition won the state in 2008 elections for the first time in a generation, launching open tenders to improve efficiency and requiring senior officials to declare their assets.
The moves have earned praise from graft watchdogs and corresponded with a doubling of investment in Penang from 2008-12 compared to the previous four years under the administration of Malaysia’s decades-old regime.
With the vote shaping up as the closest ever, the opposition says its record in Penang – a picturesque mix of British colonial architecture and Malaysia’s polyglot cultures – answers critics who say it has no experience of government.
The Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has ruled since independence in 1957, derides the three-party opposition as amateurs incapable of governing.
“What we are proud of is that we have managed to run a clean government,” said Lim Guan Eng, the northern state’s pugnacious ethnic Chinese chief minister.
“I would not say that Penang is corruption-free but I think we are the cleanest state in terms of administration in the country,” Lim, 52, said.
Surveys rank corruption as a top public concern, making Penang’s example a potent weapon as many voters are abandoning Barisan over graft, authoritarianism and divisive racial politics.
“It is a good showcase as a place where reacting against bad governance actually gave results,” said Ooi Kee Beng, who studies Malaysian politics for Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
But replicating that success nationally is a far greater challenge for the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former top Barisan leader until his ouster and jailing in a 1998 power struggle.
The line between government and business has long been blurred under Barisan. Huge government contracts are still often awarded behind closed doors, factors that economists say weaken economic competitiveness.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has targeted corruption as a major threat, though observers say his anti-graft record is modest at best.
“Quite simply, a failure to eradicate corruption will harm our democratic and economic progress,” Najib told AFP in emailed comments.
A Pakatan federal government would inherit institutions such as an anti-graft commission weakened by Barisan, said Josie Fernandez, secretary general with Transparency International’s Malaysia chapter.
“It will be very challenging. I think the political will is there [within Pakatan] but there should be no compromises. If you are going to really fight corruption, it should be done without fear or favour. It can be done,” she said.
The opposition comprises Anwar’s multi-racial party, a secular party dominated by ethnic Chinese -- which Lim heads -- and a conservative Islamic party of Muslim ethnic Malays, who make up more than half of Malaysia’s people.
They squabble occasionally over religious and social policy, raising questions over whether differences would paralyse them nationally. Pakatan parties individually control four states but have little experience at co-governing.
Pakatan leaders dismiss the worries, saying its members agree on the big picture of eliminating graft and abuse of power, and investing heavily in education and social welfare.
“We have a shot at it, which we never had in the past. We offer a real choice for the first time in Malaysian history,” said Lim, whose boyish face is topped by a crown of slicked-back hair.
Lim’s political enemies say he has benefited from the state’s declaration as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
That helped draw investment and tourists to Penang, a cosmopolitan trade hub in its 19th-century heyday, whose capital Georgetown is still marked by narrow lanes winding through historic rows of Chinese-style shophouses.
Analysts say Penang’s success is a major concern for Barisan as polls near.
“Prior to 2008, no one really talked about good governance, transparency. To me this is a new vocabulary that has become commonplace,” said Francis Loh, president of independent Penang-based democratic rights group Aliran.