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.

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, generation and gender – that were in line with the ‘Mahathir’ pull factor in last year’s May election. Now, almost a year and a half later, the contest will be a bellwether of his leadership. The second test is that of BN – the former governing coalition that has lost support over the last decade, especially among non-Malays. By fielding a MCA candidate – former two-term MP Wee Jeck Seng – and giving the seat to the party that traditionally held the seat, BN will showcase whether it can return to national power by capturing support across ethnic groups. It is doing so after announcing last month the Malay chauvinist Umno-PAS Unity Charter in the hope of capturing Malay sentiment, while extending outreach to Chinese voters. Tanjong Piai will thus be an indicator of different national leadership ambitions. Both aim to make the contest a...

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 not directly chosen by the people, but instead the product of elite negotiations for power. To understand the risks of these manoeuvres, it is necessary to step back and look at the drivers of this deal-making and the potential impact these have on Malaysian politics. I argue any betrayal of the GE14 mandate will leave a lasting imprint, one which will deepen political polarisation and foster instability. Despite the cavalier attitude of leaders to engaging in such deals, ‘new’ Malaysians will not forget easily. Money still the key driver At its core, Malaysia’s ‘backdoor’ dealing revolves around the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Anwar Ibrahim axis, support for different leaders, and is tied to different views of the political transition. It builds on the distrust that has plagued Pakatan Harapan since its conception, and which has continued to fester. At issue is not only a power leadership contest,...

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 to be a strategic one, in which the combination of the bases of support of both parties will put it in a potential position to win national power. A closer look suggests that the alliance faces more obstacles than has been publicly acknowledged. Despite these hurdles, however, and looking at different electoral scenarios, the alliance poses a real threat to Harapan. Troubled national leadership The first major obstacle facing the opposition alliance is a lack of viable leadership. Neither party president – PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang or Umno’s Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – have the national credentials to lead the country as prime minister. Hadi’s racialised discourse makes him one of the most polarising leaders in the country across ethnic communities. His five-year rudderless and exclusionary leadership of Terengganu from 1999 led to the loss of the decisive state in the 2004 general elections. Zahid,...

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 studies, he succeeded in not only completing his doctorate, but also developed important foundational ideas in thermodynamics, construction, and aerodynamics that still hold his name. He rose to become the vice-president of Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm in Hamburg, now part of Airbus. Recruited by Suharto, Habibie returned to Indonesia in 1974 to contribute to the country’s industrialisation, particularly the aviation industry. He served in six different cabinets, promoting science and technology. He led the Indonesia Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) which served to widen the base of support for the New Order government, and embraced how faith, modernity and community were intertwined. In 1994, his tenure was marred by corruption allegations involving the procurement of East German retired warships for the Indonesian Navy. This story led to the controversial ban of Tempo magazine, which reinforced his role as part of the New Order regime. In March 1998, at the height of...

A new arena awaits as Myanmar warms up for 2020 polls

Taken from The Straits Times The parties, voters and issues have undergone major changes since the last elections even if Aung San Suu Kyi remains the anchor of her party’s campaign While the election campaign has not officially started, it is clear that there is a reorientation in Myanmar politics towards next year’s polls. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and ethnic parties are already developing their campaign strategies and ratcheting up their political engagement. Myanmar’s 2020 polls will be markedly different from the historic 2015 transition elections. The campaign, political parties and forms of mobilisation are changing as the country grapples with working in a more open, contentious political system. Compared with all the countries in South-east Asia, Myanmar has undergone the most rapid and intensive political, economic and social changes in the last five years. These changes are reshaping politics. Facebook Election First, the coming general election will be a Facebook election. An estimated 20 million citizens (or 38 per cent of the population) are on social media, particularly Facebook. Not only is this medium becoming the norm for sharing political news, concerns about hate speech, fake news and political...

Maju Malaysia? Anger, distrust and cynicism

Taken from malaysiakini.com A little over one year after the election of Pakatan Harapan, the dominant sentiment is not hope, but betrayal. When ministers break bread with those seen to be engaged in attacks against the nation’s social fabric, and elected representatives are charged with sexual assault, it is no wonder the level of anger of Malaysians has risen. Sadly for some, an equating of Harapan with BN is misplaced, as many of their supporters are even angrier with this no longer new government for its perceived failure to uphold the principles they rode into office. With BN they knew what to expect. Harapan is seen not to have met expectations, and this crash in expectations has evoked strong reactions. With citizens having vested so much emotional connection to a ‘New Malaysia,’ it has been a difficult year to watch the escalation of disappointment to a debilitating level of anger, distrust and cynicism. The list of ‘successes’ (and there are quite a few of these) pales in relation to perceived lost opportunities, as the focus is on the areas where Harapan supporters feel cheated. Rather than a polarised electorate, Malaysia is now a combination of voters who feel displaced from power, and others who...

Lowering the voting age – the right risk for Harapan

Taken from malaysiakini.com The constitutional amendment under consideration in the current parliamentary sitting to lower the voting age from 18 to 21 is arguably one of the most impactful reform initiatives of the Pakatan Harapan government. Bringing an estimated 3.8 million young people into the electoral roll, and in the process according young people the inclusion they deserve, is an important step towards strengthening the country’s democratic foundation. Malaysia not only joins the pattern of representation in the majority of the world, Harapan provides substance to the reform programme that got it elected and rewards the young for their support in GE14. Over the past week, I have been asked which party will benefit politically and what will be the potential electoral impact of this reform. The answer is not a simple one, as it is shaped by whether other electoral reforms are adopted (automated registration and a new delineation) as well as turnout and support levels that are shaped in a yet-fought campaign. It is important to recognise that the young will set their own path. Past voting patterns, however, suggest that all political parties can potentially gain from lowering the voting age but disproportionately, the opposition has gained...

PAS’ post-GE14 waiting game

Taken from malaysiakini.com PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang ended the party’s 65th muktamar by predicting a collapse of Pakatan Harapan. This should come as no surprise, as in the assembly he harped on the alleged failures of the government. The party has been engaged in trying to promote divisions in and dissatisfaction with Harapan since GE14. At the same assembly, Hadi received formal approval from the delegates for a partnership with Umno, a de facto relationship that has existed electorally post-GE14 but one in practice started much earlier. The move signals a change in the alliance at the leadership level to greater grassroots ties. There is little recognition that the conditions Harapan faces were the product of Umno mismanagement, or any articulation of how PAS would manage the challenges the country faces. PAS is engaged in a full-on attack on Harapan, with the hope that it will bring PAS into national power. Of the two parties in the opposition, PAS has proven (so far) most adept at navigating New Malaysia’s politics of uncertainty and has gained political traction over the last year. There have been important changes taking place in the Islamic party in recent years. PAS is clearly engaged in a...

EU-Asia Relations: New Game Changers

Taken from thediplomat.com Trans-Pacific View 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 with Dr. Nicola Casarini, a fellow of Istituto Affari Internazionali, Italy’s leading think tank, and Dr. Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science and director of Asian outreach at John Cabot University in Rome, is the 189th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  John Cabot University and the Istituto Affari Internazionale convened a timely conference on new game changers in EU-Asia relations. Identify the top three takeaways. The conference discussed the broad shifts impacting EU-Asia relations. Attention centered on seven major developments: 1) tensions in the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States arising during the Trump administration; 2) fragmentation caused by internal splits within the European Union, especially from Brexit; 3) the important rise of China not only as the second largest global economy but through its embrace of its global leadership role under Xi Jinping; 4) dynamics in the China-U.S. relationship and pressures to adopt positions in binary contentions over trade and security; 5) the increasing importance of other Asian powers, notably Japan, India, and to a lesser extent ASEAN; 6) economic realignments...

Back To The Past?

Taken from Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad’s return as Malaysia’s prime minister has brought important shifts in foreign policy priorities and partnerships from that of his predecessor Najib Tun Razak. Framed through a nationalist lens and by Mahathir’s earlier tenure as premier from 1981 to 2003, these changes are predominantly coloured by the past and do not fully reflect an appreciation of the new global environment and a calculated positioning of Malaysia for future regional uncertainties. The most touted break from the Najib era has been Mahathir’s approach to China. Najib had moved the country closer to the rising global hegemon by expanding investment ties and dampening down responses to China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Malaysia became a critical country in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative due to its advantageous geopolitical location within Southeast Asia and its importance in the Obama administration’s Asia pivot policy. Najib’s government on its part had recognised China as the main driver of the region’s economy post the 2008 financial crisis. After the 2015 revelation of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandals, involving USD$4.5 billion tied to kleptocracy associated with the Najib government, China became a needed...
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New Malaysia boldly go

Taken from malaysiakini.com Over a year has passed since Pakatan Harapan was elected into government. This month there was a range of assessments of the government’s performance, with criticisms focusing on needless infighting, challenges in managing the economy, slow implementation of reforms and the persistent corrosive role of race and religion in national politics. One...

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Rantau redemption

Taken from malaysiakini.com In the seventh post GE-14 by-election, the now bustling town of Rantau is capturing national attention. Flags, cars and traffic have turned this sleepy town into a national political barometer. This contest, involving 20,926 voters, will be yet another assessment of Pakatan Harapan’s performance in an important swing state. Negeri Sembilan was...

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Euphoria Dashed: Malaysia’s Struggle With Political Transition

Taken from Global Asia When Malaysia’s opposition coalition took power after a shock election victory in May 2018 that ousted the Barisan Nasional coalition, in power since independence in 1957, “New Malaysia” was born. Now, two months short of a year later, it is clear there was no “reset” button, that the trajectories in place...

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The Semenyih rebuke

Taken from malaysiakini.com Explanations abound regarding Pakatan Harapan’s loss. They range from simplistic explanations of ‘identity politics’ and the candidate(s), to failures in messaging/machinery and government performance. In fact, as with all elections, the explanations of voting behaviour usually reflect a combination of factors. Ultimately, they all point to one thing: a growing public deficit...

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Weaker political parties in Semenyih by-election

Taken from malaysiakini.com The French statesman Charles de Gaulle once said: ‘Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.’ This could also be said of the Semenyih by-election – where 54,000 largely urban voters face the serious decision of whether to endorse Pakatan Harapan, return BN to the seat it has...

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‘Old Malaysia’ in Cameron Highlands

Taken from malaysiakini.com Although not to the degree touted by the BN as a ‘referendum,’ the Cameron Highlands by-election does offer important lessons. So far, in valuable analyses, the focus has been on ‘ethnic voting’ patterns (in which the Malay community showed the most swing away from the new federal government), the choice of candidates...

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Building a New Malaysia: Agendas and Aspirations

HELP University forum on 14 Jan 2019, discussing the national issues facing Malaysia. “Unfair, Premature to Say PH Govt As Having Failed Malaysians — Voon,” theborneopost.com, Jan 16, 2019. “Dr Mahathir-Anwar Succession Plan Not Being Handled Well, Forum Told,” The Malaysian Insight, Jan 15, 2019. “PH Has Not Lived Up To Expectations, Says Analyst,” freemalaysiatoday.com,...

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Singapore’s PAP Managing Uncertainty

Taken from East Asia Forum Singapore’s 2018 was eventful. Key developments had less to do with the city-state’s ASEAN chairmanship and more to do with the governing People’s Action Party’s (PAP) responses to growing uncertainty related to domestic pressures and regional developments. In keeping with the norms of the conservative government, the PAP opted for...

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Hopes and Heroes: Malaysia in 2018

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Malaysia’s year of embracing change has been both euphoric and disquieting. After the victory of Pakatan Harapan in May and the rapid formation of a new government, high expectations have been met by hard realities. Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s return has brought to the fore many of the problems of his earlier tenure...

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