BN needs to reinvent itself (full text)

growing imbalance

(Correction: “UMNO” in the 2004 Bar in the second chart should have been “PAS”)

As ironical as it can be, Gerakan’s election slogan “reinventing” is now the remedy Barisan Nasional (BN) needs.

The niche of BN’s rule has always been its powering-sharing formula: Malay dominance with minority representation. The formula is now under threat.


In 2004, BN’s 199 parliamentary seats were shared in a manner reflecting the weights of communities. The Muslim-dominant parties (Umno and PBB) held 61% against non-Muslim parties’ 39%. The parties represented the populous West Malaysia (including Umno’s Sabah chapter) held 81% against East Malaysian parties’ 19%.

Peninsula parties in decline

The 2008 elections have effectively reduced BN to a coalition of Umno (56% of BN seats) and East Malaysian parties (29%).

Geographically, the nation is divided into two along a northwest-south fault line that cuts through the peninsula. Except for the enclaves of Perlis and Putrajaya, anywhere west of Terengganu, and north of Pahang and Negri Sembilan is opposition territory.

The four peninsula non-Muslim parties were left with just 14% (see chart). Their relevance, if not survival, is at stake.

People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was worst hit, losing both its sole parliamentary and sole state seat that it contested. Once a strong regional party in Perak, it was deserted by its supporters after joining BN in 1974. Without any front bench, party president M. Kayveas’ plan to revive PPP is now effectively history.

Gerakan, after being uprooted from its power base in Penang, may just follow PPP’s path to decline. Once the favourite for professionals and the middle-class who prefer multi-ethnic politics and working within the system, it is doubtful the party can keep its appeal with only two MPs and four state assemblymen.

MIC was not much better than Gerakan. Winning only three federal and six state seats, the party is bound to lose some of its federal front bench positions.

MCA survived best among the four but its seats were halved from 31 to 15. The number is so small that it could not fill all 18 front bench and speaker positions in the old cabinet line-up. The latest news has it that it will only get about 10 or 11 positions.

Ethnic representation discourse backfires

BN has long asserted that the non-Malay communities must vote BN to keep their representation in the government. During this election, MCA and MIC pushed this point aggressively in media advertisements whereas Gerakan capitalised on the fear of Penang’s Chinese to lose the Chinese chief minister there.

Such discourse backfired. With representation in the government being the only reason why the Chinese and Indians must support BN, instead of policy platforms, the non-Malays now have better reasons to support the federal opposition.

With the opposition controlling four west-coast state seats, the non-Malays are bound to keep one chief minister (Penang) and two exco-members (Kedah) while gaining two deputy mentris besar (MBs) in Perak and even one in Selangor where there were none in the last 50 years.

With the unprecedented appointment of Chinese and Indian deputy MBs/CM in Penang and Perak, both the Chinese and Indian votes are locked in for DAP and PKR in the next elections. Similarly, the opposition parties are likely to keep, if not increase, non-Malay support in Selangor.

The rule of the game

The trouble for BN is that as the ruling coalition now loses its multi-ethnic character, the Opposition has become increasingly national.

In 2004, DAP dominated the seats while PAS led in popular votes, leaving PKR squeezed in the centre.

In sharp contrast, the Opposition delegation in the 12th Parliament will be well-balanced. The middle-of-the-road Keadilan emerges as the big brother with 31 seats, followed by DAP’s 28 seats and PAS’ 23 seats (see Chart 2).

Unless the Opposition messes up in the states it controls, it is unlikely to have a pendulum effect for the next elections, at least not among the non-Malays.

Instead, the Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim typhoon may go on and sweep more non-Malay votes in Negri Sembilan, Malacca, Pahang and Johor.

Thanks to the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, even if the victory is wafer-thin, BN’s Chinese- and Indian-based parties may be wiped out in other states as they were this time around in Penang. The expected constituency redelineation in 2010, only affecting six states and Kuala Lumpur, may not be able to save them.

For the past 50 years, Malaysians – including Malays – had been convinced by the Alliance/BN that no government can govern the country without taking on board every ethnic community. Such perception is also shared by foreign investors and tourists.

A virtual extermination of peninsula non-Malay parties will therefore make a BN government untenable even if Umno coupled with East Malaysian parties manage to secure a simple majority. Such scenarios may trigger defection of East Malaysian or even Umno parliamentarians.

The ways to heal divisions

While some leaders in Umno and MCA are demanding that heads roll for their dismal performance, problems will not go away with merely the change of leadership. The problems are so large that they demand a BN solution rather than an Umno, MCA and MIC solution.

The electoral debacles suggest that the old tactic of divide and rule no longer works. Malaysians are moving away from ethnic politics. Unless BN also heads towards that direction, it will not be able to arrest the decline of MCA, MIC, Gerakan and PPP.

Colossal as it may be, the most important task for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to heal Malaysia’s divisions is to first transform the coalition into a single party. Falling short of that, BN should consolidate at least into two parties: one consisting of Umno and PBB; the other of all other parties.

Only with a renewed structure, may Umno arrest the attrition of non-Malays/non-Muslims to keep itself relevant.

Such consolidation will allow BN to make bold policy moves before the Opposition does. The election shows that BN has lost the hearts and minds of not only the non-Malays, but also that of many urban Malays.

It needs to win more support from middle-lower Malays and at the same time address the non-Malays’ dissatisfaction.

Some forms of welfare state to replace bumiputeraism is not inevitable. The fate of the race-based affirmative action programme was effectively sealed on March 8.

Now, the race is open to both sides of the divide to offer a “new deal”. Whoever makes the case first and convincingly will build a new social coalition to win the next election.

If both sides make serious efforts towards that, Malaysia will finally see healthy two-party or three-party competition. Otherwise, a powerful government – likely a new one – with two-thirds majority in Parliament will be restored.

There are important lessons to take home from Penang. For one, “reinventing” may be a bad slogan for a ruling party short on dynamism. However, had it been an overall strategy instead of a sound-bite, it might have been life-saving.

Just as power breeds corruption, complacency breeds disaster.’s the pdf version:

BN needs to reinvent itself 1

BN needs to reinvent itself 2

One correction for my typo in the last fifth paragraph: “Some form of welfare state to replace Bumiputeraism is now (not) inevitable.”

From Anwar’s latest statement, the opposition is now well ahead in the race to offer Malaysia a “new deal” while the BN leaders are still obsessed with power struggles.


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