Malaysian police officers show their inked fingers after casting their votes in early voting for the November 19 general election. The ink, which takes a few days to wear off, is aimed at helping prevent people turning up and trying to vote again. Photo: Xinhua
As I see it
by Joseph Sipalan
As I see it
by Joseph Sipalan

Malaysia, used to one-party rule, faces learning curve with messy politics

  • 21 million voters will choose between three coalitions whose leaders have, at some time or other, been colleagues in same party or alliance
  • Citizens have only been getting to grips with a two-party system in recent years; now the nation is entering uncharted waters

The past couple of weeks would have been a confusing time for the average Malaysian, as familiar faces in unfamiliar configurations went about the business of hard-selling their credentials as the best option to lead the nation over the next five years.

On November 19, about 21 million voters will face the task of choosing between three distinct political coalitions whose leaders have, at one point or the other, been colleagues in the same party or alliance.

The situation presents a steep learning curve for Malaysia’s electorate, who had only really just begun to get the hang of a two-party system where they had to pick between the ruling party and the opposition.

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But to (hopefully) make sense of some of the complexities surrounding this year’s election, we need to look back at how Malaysia’s political landscape has changed up to this point, where we now have a contest between Barisan Nasional (BN), Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Perikatan Nasional (PN).

The foundation for a two-party system was laid in 2008, when the then-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the BN coalition it leads were denied the coveted two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in decades, on the back of surging support for the opposition among the country’s minority Chinese and Indian ethnic groups.

This resulted in the post-election formation of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition, brokered by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to bring his People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) under a common banner.


Malaysia's former first lady sentenced to 10 years in jail for bribery

Malaysia's former first lady sentenced to 10 years in jail for bribery

This opposition alliance made further headway in the 2013 national polls. Though they lost that year, PR secured the popular vote and increased their share of the 222-seat parliament.

It was the first significant challenge that BN had faced from a rival coalition since it came to power when the nation gained independence from Britain in 1957.

However, the PR pact fell apart in 2015 after PAS quit, choosing instead to sidle up with Umno on the pretext of Malay-Muslim solidarity. A clutch of “progressive” PAS senior leaders quit to form Amanah, which was brought into the opposition fold to create Pakatan Harapan with PKR and DAP.
This was also when news broke of the multibillion-dollar scandal relating to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad ( 1MDB), founded by then-prime minister Najib Razak. It triggered an exodus from Umno led by veteran politicians Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin, with the latter sacked by Najib as his deputy for questioning the handling of 1MDB.

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Mahathir and Muhyiddin formed the Bersatu party and allied with PH on an anti-corruption campaign, leading to their victory in the watershed 2018 general election and the country’s first-ever change of government.

But 22 months later, Muhyiddin and several PKR turncoats orchestrated a political coup, bringing Umno back into power – with PAS in tow – as they formed a new Malay nationalist government to uphold the rights of the majority Malays which they claimed were being eroded by the multiracial PH.

Muhyiddin, now premier and in charge of Bersatu after Mahathir was removed from the party, formed a new coalition with PAS called Perikatan Nasional.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gestures as he arrives at a campaign rally on November 16. Photo: AFP

Further political manoeuvring caused a second change in prime minister, and eventually the dissolution of parliament to pave way for the November 19 polls, well ahead of the late 2023 deadline.

With all the realignment that has happened, especially in recent years, voters can be forgiven if they are left confused over which politician is with which party or coalition.

Numerous surveys were carried out in the run up to the election, and the general consensus is that no single coalition will be able to secure enough seats to gain a simple majority needed to form government.

If this prediction comes to pass, we can expect plenty of horse-trading post-polling day as coalitions scramble to make the numbers and gain the right to take power.

The results, of course, could still go any which way, but one thing for sure is that politics in Malaysia is sailing into uncharted territory.