Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at NTU, a Senior Associate Fellow of THC and a University Fellow of CDU. She is also an Honorary Research Associate at University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (UNARI). She analyzes Southeast Asian politics, especially Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. She is committed to engagement and empowerment.

Protecting vulnerable Malaysians in crisis

With the lockdown extended at least through mid-April, the impact will be devastating for vulnerable families, with serious short- and long-term effects for the economy and the society itself. One positive in the past week has been the ongoing constructive discussion about how Malaysia can get through this unprecedented trying period. This article joins the debate. My earlier piece highlighted how society can work together and pointed out ways to harness social capital to strengthen ties and build social trust. This was based on the premise that the empowerment of ordinary people can make a difference – as it has repeatedly in Malaysian history – and that rebuilding ties is essential for the human spirit in these uncertain times. Here I focus on a set of modest ideas for consideration, appreciating that the focus should not be on one side or another of the political divide, but bringing the best that can be brought to a difficult situation. From the onset, I firmly believe that Malaysia has comparatively taken bold moves to address the crisis, not least of which was the needed extension of the movement control order. The Covid-19 crisis can offer further opportunities to move the country forward, to engage...

‘Forza’ for Malaysia: Harnessing social capital to combat Covid-19

Taken from malaysiakini.com With daily reports showing the serious spread of Covid-19, it is necessary to expand the discussion of potential solutions to the crisis. In the first of two pieces, I am focusing on how social capital can be a force to reduce the spread of the virus. I use the Italian word ‘forza’; so apt in these uncertain times as it speaks to the fortitude that society is showing in the face of the ongoing hardships of Covid-19. Rethinking approaches The responses to this unprecedented period in our lifetimes reflect long distrust in governance and political institutions in Malaysia – eroded by corruption (not least of which is 1MDB), inane comments and behaviour by politicians, and importantly, long-standing practices of division that have seeped into the psyche where the rule of law, seen to be selectively enforced, is not to be respected and government is for some, not all. There is also a tendency to make people heroes and label others as enemies, to see situations in black and white, or even worse through a ‘blame game’ tinted by racialised lens. The practice of pitting people and groups against each other is deeply embedded. It is easy to...

Dissolution: Bubar menjadi bubur?

Taken from malaysiakini.com Questions over whether to dissolve Malaysia’s parliament and call elections are at the heart of recent debates about the country’s future. They are affecting the current stability of the Muhyiddin Yassin government as there are sentiments among factions of the different parties, especially in Umno, that a new electoral outcome would improve their leverage and return them to dominance. At the same time, some Pakatan Harapan members and supporters believe the electorate will vote them back with a more secure majority and are already making calls for the return of a ‘progressive’ government. Rather than self-reflect on their own contributions to the government collapse, some Harapan leaders are moving ahead and laying out their electoral strategies. Yet others rest their arguments on less calculating goals, pointing to the more idealist and essential role elections play in a democracy as empowering the electorate. There are real concerns with how some political party elites are securing power, allegedly buying the other side over or offering positions and other rewards. A new mandate, it is advocated, can reset the slate, bring in new entrants and ideas into the process and it is hoped, move the country forward. Regrets and change...

‘Old Malaysia’ triumphs for now

Taken from East Asia Forum Malaysia has experienced a dramatic political transition as conservative political parties return to government. The new Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition opportunistically used legal means to grab power, making Muhyiddin Yassin the country’s eighth prime minister allied with the 1MDB scandal-tainted United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). To understand this change in government, it is essential to recognise how much the ‘old’ features of Malaysia’s political system persist. The nexus between politics and business, the personalistic fragmented party system and the dominance of a racial–religious paradigm constrains reform of the political system. Old practices have derailed hopes of a ‘new’ Malaysia — at least for now. Politics in Malaysia has long been a business. Politicians join parties to make money, and once in power, politicians distribute patronage and favours to their business cronies. In the 21 months of the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan government, these practices were not fundamentally changed. Anti-corruption efforts concentrated on top figures from the previous government and enforcement was unevenly applied. The introduction of checks on such corruption and cronyism slowed down decision-making and provoked disgruntlement among the business elite. There was pressure to return to ‘business...

Irony and opportunity in the power grab

Taken from malaysiakini.com History has long taught us that change is not a linear process. Reforming Malaysia was and is never going to be easy. A week ago, I wrote that a non-Pakatan Harapan coalition tied to Muafakat Nasional involving Umno and PAS would come to power through the backdoor. I did not predict or even imagine some of the developments that occurred over the last week, as loyalties shifted, the emotional swings, and the degree of personal and political betrayals. While there were moments when the balance moved in favour of more reformist forces, the entrenched interests against reform, internal divisions within the former Harapan and the greed among party elites in the system won out. The end result is that a new leader is in the Prime Minister’s Office (with the likely fall of a total of four state governments), the system has been badly damaged and the hopes of Malaysians for a more inclusive reform-oriented country have been dashed – for now. The opposite of what most Malaysians voted for has happened. Malaysia will have a Malay/Muslim nationalist government that will appeal to racial and religious sentiments. There will be a return to pre-GE14 “business as usual”....

Malaysia’s ‘prisoner’s political dilemma’: Choices ahead

Taken from malaysiakini.com After a day where the political showdown between interim Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim over Malaysia’s future came starkly into the open with both men holding press conferences stating different visions for government and leadership, the Agong faces what can be seen as the country’s prisoner’s dilemma. A “prisoner’s dilemma” is a situation where two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce the optimal outcome. Both men – Mahathir and Anwar – think they are right in “saving the nation” and “saving democracy and the people’s mandate”. They believe they are doing the right thing for the country, but, sadly, those being held prisoner in this situation are the Malaysian people. Let’s look carefully at the main three options ahead, recognising that the political situation in Malaysia is rapidly evolving and even as I write this the options laid out below may be moot or changed. Option 1: Mahathir’s ‘disunity’ government Giving himself full decision-making powers, this option allows Mahathir to pick and choose the cabinet as he wants, including individuals outside of political parties. I call it the “disunity” option because it was provoked and could provoke disunity. Besides...

Dissecting developments in wake of Harapan gov’t demise

Taken from malaysiakini.com The last four days have been filled with political intrigue and uncertainty, as the contestation for power has led to the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government, the resignation and return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the prime minister position and greater momentum in calls for new elections. It is useful to dissect what is happening (as best one can in a fluid situation) and lay out the key issues/factors that are shaping this transition period. The big picture Malaysia is experiencing a second non-Umno led government change in its history. The first was the Harapan government that was brought into power after GE14 that collapsed on Monday. A change and collapse of government are a normal part of a multi-party coalition systems, although the drama surrounding how this has evolved has been uniquely Malaysian. While the country has been held hostage to elite wrangling, and elites across the political parties are responsible in part for putting the country in this situation, the process has been largely confined at the elite level, legal and peaceful. Malaysia’s Agong has played an important role in mediating the elite conflicts and assuring that the process remains constitutional. His broad engagement...

The day the Harapan government died

Taken from malaysiakini.com After the events of this weekend – the threats to leave the coalition in the presidential council meeting, followed by Bersatu, Warisan and Azmin Ali’s PKR camp openly joining forces with Umno and PAS – the coalition government that was elected to federal power in 2018 is over. E tu Bersatu? Pakatan Harapan may reconfigure itself, go into opposition or go to the polls when (and if) new elections will be called – but indications are that it will be replaced with a new backdoor reconfiguration. Cooperation among PAS, Umno, Bersatu and the split faction of Azmin – parties that align on issues of race and patronage – have been in the works for some time. Driven by the ‘get’ card – get out of jail, get back into position, get accounts unfrozen and most important of all ‘get into power’ – the elite machinations have been ongoing. Money and power are indeed powerful drivers. What changed in the last week was that the kingmakers – the elected elites in Sabah and Sarawak represented by Warisan and GPS formerly joined the Muafakat coalition, giving Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his now allies of Umno and PAS the numbers...

China’s response to the protests in Hong Kong speaks to how it’s engaging in the region as a whole

Interview with Désirée Meili of Asia Society Switzerland Désirée Meili: When did your fascination with Asia become clear? Bridget Welsh: I’m a third culture kid, which means that I often lived in societies that I was not from in terms of nationality. We traveled around a lot, as my father was a petroleum engineer, and one of the places we ended up in was Malaysia. This is where I went to high school and thus, my association with Malaysia began in the 1980s. As a consequence of this, my understanding of Malaysian society, Malaysian politics is deeply rooted in my childhood. I consider Malaysia a second home and this serves as my connection to Southeast Asia more broadly, because Malaysia is part of a very rich and vibrant region to which I am also closely connected to. You refer to yourself as a “forensic” political scientist. What does that mean? I think there are three aspects to this. First of all, we look for factual evidence to support different sets of arguments. The second thing is that we constantly reevaluate the issues and arguments in a scientific way – as much as it can be scientific, we have to recognize the...

Kimanis – an Umno revival?

Taken from malaysiakini.com As the dust settles over the Kimanis by-election, it is valuable to look at the voting patterns that secured the Umno victory in this competitive seat and to flesh out the broader political implications of this outcome. The voting shows that even in a locally-driven contest, which this by-election was, the erosion of Pakatan Harapan and its allies’ support is taking on a now familiar form – the decline is broad, across races and generations. Voters who are disappointed with a perceived lack of reform and weak economic performance are willing to return to Umno and simultaneously send a signal to those in office that they are not doing enough to hold onto their GE14 political mandate. The Warisan loss in Kimanis – the fifth loss by Harapan and its allies in the 10 post-GE14 by-elections – only ratchets up the pressure for Harapan and Warisan to deliver and transform how they engage the electorate. Make no mistake, this loss was one of their own making. The Kimanis outcome has given a new lease of life to Umno and nationally puts the party on a stronger footing in its relationship with PAS and as a viable opposition...

US Presidential Elections 2020: Outlook for Southeast Asia

As interviewed by Mercy Kuo for thediplomat.com Identify five strategic priorities in Southeast Asia for U.S. presidential candidates to understand.   Southeast Asia is an arena for great power competition, in which Southeast Asians are not adequately respected or appreciated. U.S.-China competition has deepened this trend in recent years, as Southeast Asian countries are being asked to choose sides. This is taking place when there is a decline of U.S. power in the region, both in terms of influence among traditional allies such as Thailand and the Philippines as well as among publics. Views of the United States as a reliable ally, a democratic model, and valuable business partner are changing for the worse. The primacy of transactional politics under the Trump administration has empowered oligarchs who are not interested in creating a more competitive business environment for investment, nor promoting more democratic space for political engagement. Instead, there is increasing dependence on divisive nationalist rhetoric and identity politics. In this context, U.S. practices and priorities need to shift. Leaders need to show up to regional meetings, not just to show face but to reaffirm that the United States is relevant to Southeast Asia. This is not just about taking...
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Kimanis by-election – Umno’s last hurrah in Sabah?

Taken from malaysiakini.com With the final legal appeal decided on Friday and nominations yesterday, the year begins with the 10th by-election since GE14 – Kimanis in Sabah. Located on the west coast of the state, this parliamentary seat has traditionally been an Umno stronghold – and was claimed by former foreign minister Anifah Aman and younger half-brother...

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Finding the positive – Malaysia’s last decade, Pt II

Taken from malaysiakini.com If 2019 has been difficult, one can argue that it has been part of a broader, difficult trajectory that began in 2009 when Najib Abdul Razak de facto assumed leadership of Malaysia. While he would not become prime minister until 2011, the last decade was one where Malaysians broke from the past after the...

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Getting caught in the negative – Malaysia 2019, Pt I

Taken from malaysiakini.com By most accounts it has been a hard year for Malaysia politically. After a peaceful election full of hope in May last year, 2019 has brought to the surface the realities of governing a polarized country full of angry mobilized citizens with high expectations and very different visions of the country they...

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The turning of the tide in Tanjong Piai

Taken from malaysiakini.com The voters in Tanjong Piai delivered the worst loss for an incumbent government in a federal by-election in Malaysian history this weekend. It was also another first: this was the highest level of swing against Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his two tenures as prime minister in any election (including the reformasi swing...

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Jokowi 2.0: Indonesia amid US-China competition

Taken from The Diplomatwhere author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation explores the priorities and personalities that will shape Indonesia during President Joko Widodo’s second term. Explain the rationale behind Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to select political...

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Mission Possible? Tests in Tanjong Piai

Taken from malaysiakini.com The Nov 16 by-election in Tanjong Piai in Johor will provide two telling tests: the first is the level of public support for Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership of Pakatan Harapan. This Bersatu seat was won from BN as a result of shifts of support across a variety of demographic markers – race,...

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The risks of a ‘backdoor’ government

Taken from malaysiakini.com The old adage ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire’ is apt. Over the last few months, rumours of backroom deals to restructure the composition of the government have intensified to the extent that they have been publicly addressed by political leaders. Discussion centres on a potential ‘backdoor’ government – a government...

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Can the PAS-Umno alliance win?

Taken from malaysiakini.com With great fanfare, the Islamist party PAS and Malay-nationalist party Umno joined forces officially this month to become a broader opposition force. Touting itself as a political alliance for ‘Malay unity’ to ‘protect Islam,’ long-standing enemies became brothers to fight against the governing Pakatan Harapan. On the surface, this move may appear...

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BJ Habibie, Indonesia’s renaissance leader

Taken from malaysiakini.com  Pak BJ Habibie, Indonesia’s third president from 1998-1999, passed away yesterday. He was 83. Born in Parepare in South Sulawesi, Habibie was a man who embodied the hopes and ambitions of Indonesia’s post-colonial generation. He won a scholarship to study aeronautical engineering in Germany. Through his hard work and dedication to his...

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