I have spent the past three weeks almost exclusively in Malaysia – travelling and listening to people. A lot of this time has inevitably been spent with fellow writers and editors.
In fact, journalists prefer talking to other journalists so there’s always a danger that we’re living in a bubble — something that we often accuse politicians of doing! At the same time, and as explained by Malaysian Insider’s Jahabar Sadiq: “We were caught napping in 2008. Ever since, we’ve been over-compensating.”
So bearing in mind our collective fear of being wrong, here – for what it’s worth – are the key trends I’ve identified that will feature in the next general election (GE).
- The delayed pendulum: Malaysian GEs have tended to follow a pendulum-like movement, with swings to and from Barisan National (BN) in alternate polls.
However, in 2012/3 there will be a subsidiary trend at work in Sabah, Sarawak and Johor (dubbed BN’s “Fixed Deposit”) if there is a shift of Chinese support while the rest of the peninsula reverts to form.
- The democracy wave from Singapore: The vote in southern Johor will be impacted by the many Malaysians who live and work in the city-state.
Having observed the republic’s two nation-wide polls (parliamentary and presidential) in 2011 and witnessed the extent to which the PAP government subsequently reversed unpopular housing, healthcare and immigration policies, Johoreans will have learnt the value of tactical voting in order to engineer policy shifts.
- Sabah: West Malaysian/UMNO leaders continue to underestimate the importance of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Illegal Immigrants for Sabahans (especially the KadazanDusun and Murut communities).
- The Prime Minister’s two key performance indicators (KPIs): Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is slated to win the next GE.
However, victory is only the first of his KPIs.bThe second is that he must surpass his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s 2008 showing (140 seats). Indeed, the rationale behind Najib’s rise to the premiership was his unspoken promise of returning UMNO (and BN) to its earlier glory. Failure to achieve this will lead to a reassessment of his leadership.
- Najib’s presidential style campaign: It has boosted the premier’s approval ratings. Given the fact that Malaysia has adopted the Westminster system, the PM’s popularity has not translated into greater support for UMNO (or BN), leaving many potential candidates to struggle.
As such, there is no guarantee that Najib’s personal popularity will strengthen BN in the 13th GE.
- Newly-registered voters: Estimated at some 1.9 million, both sides are scratching their heads as to how to appeal to and win over this disparate and largely disinterested mass of voters.
There appears to be little party loyalty and commitment among this group. Their support may well depend on a last-minute and/or unexpected political “black swan-type” event triggering a sudden and massive swing in either coalition’s favour.
- Indian community: The community is no longer virulently anti-Barisan. While Malaysian Indians are by no means “grateful”, the Hindraf-connected anger has dissipated with the departure of MIC honcho Datuk Seri Samy Vellu and Datuk Seri G. Palanivel’s low-key leadership.
The Indian vote will help BN in countless marginal seats.
- NFC – “Istana” Mat Deros for 2012: In 2008 we had UMNO’s Port Klang Assemblyman, the late Zakaria Mat Deros, and his infamous “Istana” built on allegedly illegally-acquired land.
In 2012/13 we have the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal, which continues to unfold.The NFC has been very damaging in rural Malay and Indian communities where voters are most familiar with the economics of cattle-rearing.
- Changing face of domestic politics: Malaysian politics is shifting. This will be the last GE for “institutional” players, the UMNO warlords who refuse to court public opinion.
Most of these political dinosaurs can’t be bothered to engage with the public, debate and/or win support from the media. Indeed, party hacks – from both BN and Pakatan – will become increasingly unpopular and loathed.
They have no future and will be replaced by those who can think, talk and argue in public such as Saifuddin Abdullah, Zambry Abdul Kadir and Shabery Cheek.
Emotional intelligence and humility will also be important. The absence of these two qualities will lead to the premature political demise of certain candidates.
- Kedah: Pakatan extols its successes in Penang and Selangor. However, the coalition is strangely silent about the Kedah government’s less than sterling record of administration.
- Public trust in the Government: Widespread cynicism and distrust will force the Government to shelve many policy and business initiatives.
BN’s ability to command public support without extensive consultation and stakeholder engagement has evaporated.Put all this together and what do you get? A very, very interesting 2012/13 indeed.