Bridget Welsh is Associate Professor at John Cabot University, a Senior Research Associate at NTU, a Senior Associate Fellow THC and a University Fellow of CDU. She analyzes Southeast Asian politics, especially Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia. She is committed to engagement, fostering mutual understanding and empowerment.

A truly Malaysian election

Taken from East Asia Forum The stunning victory of Malaysia’s opposition on 9 May 2018 in the country’s 14th general election and the equally impressive peaceful turnover of power — as the federal government changed hands for the first time in the country’s 60-year history — has put Malaysia under the international spotlight. Bucking the global trend of authoritarianism, millions of Malaysians said ‘enough was enough’ of the leadership of scandal-tainted Najib Razak. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan coalition won an outright majority in the Parliament and collectively won 50 per cent of the popular vote. Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition saw its seats effectively cut in half and suffered its worst outcome ever at 36.4 per cent of the popular vote. The dominant story is that this was about three men and their roles in Malaysia’s history — Najib’s alienation of the public due to his perceived abuse of power, Mahathir’s charismatic and strategic return representing a safe landing for those in the system, and jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s core reform drive anchoring the momentum for change. Mahathir’s leadership of the opposition was the game changer as it evoked the groundswell of electoral support that was able to overcome a skewed...

A political storm is coming

Taken from malaysiakini.com In this quiet morning in Kuala Lumpur – after more than two weeks traveling across Malaysia learning from the graciousness of ordinary citizens in the campaign – it is apparent a political storm is coming. Roads were packed with voters going home, resolute and purposeful. Conversations in rest areas spoke of undaunted commitments to change and a deep love of Malaysia. Even traditional BN supporters en route recognise that there are dark clouds on their horizon, although many continue to believe that their advantage of money, machinery and manipulations will pull them through the election. Some think it will be a comfortable margin. My estimate is that we are looking at a difference of 30 too-close-to-call seats that can swing in favour of either side at the national level. There will be many surprises. BN still holds the lead, but it has been on a direction of diminishing returns in the course of the campaign. Caretaker prime minister Najib Abdul Razak did not control the narrative. Pakatan Harapan chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad has given Malaysians the strongest chance to unseat the BN since independence. The structural advantages of malapportionment, gerrymandering and voter movement/exclusion for the BN should...

GE14 – show me the money

Taken from malaysiakini.com Money remains one of the most important facets of this election. The scandal over election financing at the 2013 polls tied to 1MDB is a major campaign issue in the urban areas, and, of course, money is being used to finance this campaign and woo voters, often through direct vote buying. Videos and pictures of cash handouts in GE14 have circulated widely, so much so that this is the norm. A conservative rough total estimate of promises made in this campaign by the BN reach RM100 billion – a figure drawn from a study of promises made by senior BN leaders since January this year as well as from published manifestos. This does not include the discretionary (and often non-accountable) funds allocated by the Prime Minister’s Office, estimated to have a budget of RM18 billion for operating and development expenses, and funds that have been brought in or donated specifically for party spending in the GE14 campaign. Despite the bonanza of promises and rewards, there are marked differences in how money is shaping GE14 compared to earlier campaigns. Spending levels in this campaign on the ground outside of the capital are lower, as the machinery for all...

Ambitions in the east coast: Terengganu and Kelantan

Taken from malaysiakini.com The 14th general election can be argued to be a battle for the Malay soul, with Pakatan Harapan calling for a ‘Malay tsunami’, BN rallying Malay nationalism on the ground while promising more ‘goodies’, and PAS pushing its ‘choose Islam’ agenda. Nowhere is this battle more apparent than in the beautiful states of Terengganu and Kelantan. Making up only eight and 14 parliamentary seats respectively, or a total of 10 percent of the seats nationally, the number belie how critical they are for the political landscape. In part, this is due to the intense level of political competition, with large numbers of competitive seats and both having had repeated changes in governments. More important, however, is the fact that these areas will determine the role that PAS will play on the national stage as either the victor or vanquished. Pundits and pollsters have already repeatedly called Kelantan for BN, and applied this similar outlook to Terengganu, predicting BN will win the majority of parliamentary seats. On the ground, voting trends are harder to call, especially at the state level. The sentiments do not have to do with the same political struggles in the Malay community elsewhere, namely...

A tightening ‘Umno Belt’ in Malacca, NS, Pahang

Taken from malaysiakini.com In GE14, an important area to watch is what I call the ‘Umno Belt’ – the three charming states of Malacca (with six parliamentary seats), Negeri Sembilan (eight seats) and Pahang (14 seats) that collectively make up 28 seats in parliament. The Umno Belt is an important indicator of how strong Bersatu is and whether its influence extends beyond the base of its senior leaders – Johor and Kedah. It is also a test of whether Pakatan Harapan as a coalition is able to work well together. Last night’s large rally in Malacca shows that there are indeed strong undercurrents in states long seen as an integral part of the BN’s core. The Umno Belt states are often overlooked because in the past they didn’t seem to matter. Sure, a few seats such as Kuantan, Rasah and Kota Melaka were won by the opposition, and seats such as Bentong and Raub were close contests with the former remembered for the alleged blackout during the 2013 counting of votes, but overall, the smaller number of seats and generally lack of competitiveness left these areas out of analysis. In this election, all seats in Negri Sembilan, while still leaning BN, are competitive, and five out of six seats...

Battle royale in Johor: Determining the future of Umno leadership

Taken from malaysiakini.com All eyes are on the majestic state of Johor, which has been declared a “frontline” state for Pakatan Harapan to win in the 14th general election (GE14). Polls are pointing to swings, NGOs are joining the fray with racialised warnings and on the ground the political combat is fierce, with even the Election Commission taking sides in their childish (vote-losing for BN) cutouts of Harapan chairperson Dr Mahathir Mohamad from billboards. Of the 26 seats, 19 or 73 percent are competitive and can be won by either side, depending on the movement in the last few days of the campaign. The state government is also in the balance, although numbers generally favour BN among state seats. The Johor battleground is special, not just because of the contest and the number of seats, but because of its decisive role in deciding the leadership of Umno – even after the election. The war inside Since mid-2015 and the revelation of the 1MDB scandal, there has been a war ongoing inside the party, with the state’s leaders and the rank-and-file taking sides. Johor Umno led the charge against Najib Abdul Razak, not only with the resignation of former deputy prime minister (now Bersatu leader) Muhyiddin Yassin (photo) but...

Engaging disengagement – the youth vote in GE14

Taken from malaysiakini.com Comprising nearly 40 percent of the 14.9 million electorate, Malaysia’s youth (those under the age of 35) will be decisive in shaping the outcome of GE14. It is fitting that in this crossroads election about Malaysia’s democracy, the young will choose the path ahead. The problem is that for many of Malaysia’s millennials (born in the 1980s) and Generation Z (born after the mid-1990s), none of the political parties are adequately capturing their aspirations for the future. Disillusion, disengagement and growing indifference have been winning as the youthful enthusiasm present in GE13 is noticeably absent in this election. Those that do come out (or come home) will be crucial in determining the outcome of close races. The youth vote will be especially important in Johor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, and given their numbers they hold the results of the national election in their hands. Today’s youth understandably engage politics differently than their seniors. Most have come of voting age after the 2008 election, so having a prominent opposition is “normal”. Their views of the opposition, however, are less sanguine compared to earlier generations. The discord within the opposition and failures of the Kajang move which led to...

Heavy, hidden hands in GE14: BN’s electoral advantage

Taken from malaysiakini.com It is a given that elections in Malaysia are unfair, but GE14 takes this unfairness to new lows. Malapportionment, gerrymandering, back-door movements of voters, alleged phantom voters, manipulation of regulations, and apparent bias of government officials are seriously discrediting this election like no other. This article looks at the potential impact of these manoeuvres and argues that given the competitiveness of the contests, these factors have the potential to seriously influence the result. The analysis below is based on an assessment of changes at the polling station level on parliamentary seats using 2017 fourth quarter electoral roll (the one to be used for the May polls), drawing from a study of voting behavior across the past four elections, and aims to take account of a broad range of factors shaping electoral integrity. The embedded advantages the BN government have are significant and should not be underestimated. There has been extensive analysis of the March 2018 delineation exercise, what I am calling the “front door” delineation as it is open to the public and easier assessment. Analysts have pointed out that the malapportionment means that the BN can win a majority of seats with as low as 16.5%...

Power and place in Penang

Taken from malaysiakini.com Penang is safely in opposition hands, with Pakatan Harapan expected to win a majority of parliamentary and state seats. This does not mean, however, that there are not political undercurrents that are shaping the results. In fact, many seats are competitive, including Permatang Pauh, Anwar Ibrahim’s traditional constituency where his daughter Nurul Izzah is contesting. To understand why, given that the state is an opposition stronghold, it is necessary to look at a nexus of local and national issues. Disgruntlement over development Many middle-class Penangites, especially those on the island, are unhappy with the pace and mode of development in the state. Congestion and (over)construction have evoked strong reactions from those concerned with their impact on the environment and quality of life. Critics contend that caretaker chief minister Lim Guan Eng’s development vision is not that different from that of BN’s – focused on ‘hard’ physical infrastructure rather than ‘soft’ human capacity enhancement. There are lingering concerns, for example, with the undersea tunnel, both its conception and financing. This is compounded by a sense of dismissal of these concerns, with inadequate outreach to many in civil society who expect more engagement in governance. Lim’s government has evoked the...

This Malaysian election is different

Taken from East Asia Forum Malaysia’s government has dissolved the Parliament to make way for the 14th General Election (GE14). The country will go to the polls on 9 May. From afar, this election seems like a repeat of the last election in 2013, when a polarised electorate was divided over the governance of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Questions of leadership, ethnic inclusion, economic management and democratic reform were at the heart of the earlier polls. These issues remain important. But now there is greater electoral competitiveness, a reformulated opposition and international intervention in an election that will be a crossroads for democracy and governance in Malaysia. In 2013, the campaign centred on Najib. Painted as a reformer, the BN anchored its success to Najib to pull votes in. His picture was plastered across the country, backed up by a ‘1Malaysia’ public relations blitz and a campaign flush with cash. Najib was able to rally his political base and ally with business, ever dependent on government largesse. He was also able to use his advantage through electoral malapportionment and gerrymandering to win the majority of seats despite losing the popular vote. In 2018,...

All quiet on the Sarawak front

Taken from malaysiakini.com The mood in Sarawak is relatively quiet. Sarawakians have serious election fatigue. But it is not only the voters who are tired, the messages and campaign are as well. The challenge for both sides will be to get Sarawakians to be vested in GE14 and come out to vote. Make no bones about it, the contests in Sarawak will be important. This is BN’s safest deposit, and the BN is relying on it. With 31 parliamentary seats, Sarawak makes up 14% of national seats, with 1.2 million voters. Seats from Sarawak comprise 19% of the BN win in 2013. More Sarawakians are registered in the population of 2.6 million than in most states, reflecting long-standing engagement with political issues. The state election two years ago has been a national bell weather, with BN’s whopping victory in the 2016 polls overshadowing dynamics locally. Voter turnout drops, delineation, and a changed narrative led by the late chief minister, Adenan Satem (2014-2017), brought home the BN victory one year after the 1MDB allegations emerged. On the defensive As such, the opposition goes into the Sarawak contest on the defensive. With the DAP’s loss of five state seats in 2016 (from...

Is Sabah ready for political change?

Taken from Malaysiakini.com An estimated 1.1 million voters in the beautiful state of Sabah will potentially hold the balance of national power. With 25 parliamentary seats (26 including Labuan), or 12% of the Dewan Rakyat, Sabah will determine whether BN will win comfortably (or not). Most certainly, Sabahans will decide the political future of their state, provide an assessment of Musa Aman’s 15 years as chief minister, and determine the state’s relationship with the federal government. Sabah has traditionally been seen to be part of the BN’s ‘safe deposit.’ Yet this election, the potential for change is stronger than in recent elections. The feeling on the ground is palpably different, as below the surface of congeniality lies deep resentments coupled with even greater aspirations. Below I outline a few factors that are shaping the Sabah campaign and are converging towards a result that will put Sabah very much on the national stage. Sabahans, however, are less concerned with what happens nationally than what happens in their own state, with local concerns and grievances paramount. Sabah for Sabahans Unlike Sarawak, the desire for greater state autonomy in Sabah has not been co-opted by the BN. In part, this is due to...

GE14 unknowns: Malaysia’s highly competitive polls

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Most analysts will tell you that BN will emphatically win the coming May 9 election. I am not most analysts. While I agree with the dominant argument that BN goes into GE14 with significant structural advantages and the ruling coalition is a strong favourite to win, the campaign is fluid and riddled with uncertainties. Compared to 2013, this election has more competitive seats and more unknowns. No one can predict the outcome with certainty. Below I outline five issue areas that make GE14 arguably one of Malaysia’s most competitive, suggesting that much of what is happening in the election to date is evolving in the last few weeks of the campaign, and as such GE14’s outcome and that of Malaysia’s political future is very much in the balance. 1. Tighter contests In 2013, nearly 50% of the seats (111 of 222) were competitive, with 32% of the seats won by less than 10%. Most of these close seats were fierce battles, some of which came down to blackouts, postal votes and multi-cornered splitting of the opposition vote. Polling agents were often unsung heroes. Recall that in four parliamentary seats in Sabah, opposition differences resulted in BN winning...

From the streets to the courtroom: judicial electoral contestation

Malaysians are gearing up for heated polls in the 14th General Election (GE14). Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his party the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in office since 1957, aim to perpetuate their tenure. Many do not fully realise, however, that for the past three years there have been intense battles in the courtrooms, which continue to cast an unconstitutional shadow over the election. Minimally, the legal challenges have raised serious questions about the fairness of the electoral process and the nature of political power in Malaysia. When Malaysia’s electoral reform process began in 2007, the focus was to head to the streets to draw attention to the country’s uneven electoral playing field. Bersih (the Coalition for Clean Elections) moved from an opposition vehicle to a broad civil society movement. From 2011 the movement was led by lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan, whose leadership brought out thousands of Malaysians to rallies and culminated in a People’s Tribunal in 2013 outlining serious irregularities in that year’s election, GE13. That year the chairmanship of Bersih was taken over by Maria Chin Abdullah, a social activist, who ironically spearheaded fierce legal challenges over the electoral process until her resignation last month to stand as...

Rethinking EU-ASEAN economic engagement

Taken from Istituto Affari Internazionali As the European Union looks to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to anchor its political engagement in Asia, there is a need for strategic vision and concerted efforts to strengthen economic ties, re-assessing the nature of the relationship while preparing for the future. It is not enough to rely on the natural camaraderie between what are arguably the two most successful cooperative regional organizations. The EU needs to be more strategic. It must learn from the recent history of engagements with ASEAN and come out in front of regional trends, developing a more targeted and people-centred approach that reinforces EU norms. To date, key economic debates between the EU and ASEAN have centred on a potential region-wide free trade agreement. This builds on the success of other bilateral trade agreements with Japan (with negotiations finalized last year), Singapore (to be submitted for EU approval in April 2018) and Vietnam (currently under legal review), and reinforces the EU’s commitment to overcome global trade barriers. Economic exchanges have also been buttressed by robust multilateral and bilateral missions. These have expanded the EU’s presence and visibility in ASEAN, with the 2015 appointment of an ambassador to ASEAN...

Democratic space and Malaysia’s 2018 elections

This is English translation of the piece published in Italian in Relazioni internazionali e International political economy del Sud-Est asiatico, Torino World Affairs Institute (Twai) Contemporary Malaysian politics looks like a contest between two stalwarts from the dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Current Prime Minister Najib Razak, in office since 2009, is facing a challenge from a multi-faceted opposition now led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, the man who led the country from 1981-2003 and who ironically put in place many of the undemocratic institutional and governance conditions that have been the subject of calls for reform since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Ninety-two-year-old Mahathir joined the opposition last year after he failed to convince current UMNO leaders to unseat Najib in the midst of revelations of unprecedented levels of corruption. It is thus tempting to see the next election – required to be held before August this year but likely to be called earlier – as a test of different views of their records in office and legacies. The campaign to date has concentrated on competing perceptions of their leadership, with both men demonized and lauded by their supporters. This election, however, is less about the...
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Malaysia’s political drama is worthy of Shakespeare

Taken from BBC.co.uk The story of the relationship between just-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim is so full of drama it would be fitting for Shakespeare – loyalty, betrayal, tragedy and irony meld together in a narrative for the ages. Dr Mahathir, now 92, first put Anwar in prison on corruption and sodomy charges...

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The GE14 aftermath: Hope and healing

Taken from malaysiakini.com Dr Mahathir Mohamad is once again Malaysia’s prime minister. Pakatan Harapan under the strategic leadership of Mahathir was able to create the perfect electoral storm to win over large shares of Umno’s base, maintain the support of the opposition and bring about Malaysia’s first change of government at the federal level in...

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Tales of a resilient Umno, jaded voters, and a boring opposition

Book Launch and Forum Held December 18th held at the University of Notthingham Malaysia campus, co-sponsored by The Malaysia Institute of Australia National University Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore (SIRD and Rowman Littlefield) Co-edited by Greg Lopez and Bridget Welsh. This collection of eighteen essays was launched in Kuala Lumpur. It will be in...

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Trends in Soft Power in East Asia: Distance, Diversity and Drivers

Kai-Ping Huang and Bridget Welsh discuss trends in soft power for Global Asia’s In Focus section, themed “Battle for Influence: Perceptions in Asia of China and the US”. The battle for soft-power supremacy among Great Powers in East Asia holds some surprises as China’s influence is not gaining in ways commensurate with its rising power and the...

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Tough year for human rights in Southeast Asia

Taken from New Mandala In reflecting on developments in 2016, attention has centered on events in the West or the Middle East, Trump’s presidential victory or the brutality in Aleppo. But closer to home, Southeast Asia has experienced worrying trends that have undermined human rights and fostered division. Overall, 2016 was not a good year...

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Corruption Trends in 2016: Southeast Asia’s Governance Plight

Taken from The Habibie Centre ─ Asean Studies Program Serious corruption scandals continued to plague Southeast Asia as the monies involve reach record levels. In December 2015 Indonesians were riveted by the US$4 billion extortion attempt of Freeport McMoRan involving the Speaker of the House of Representatives Setya Novanto. He later resigned amidst ethics concerns. Next...

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Democracy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation Between Michael Vatikiotis and Bridget Welsh

Taken from The Habibie Centre ─ Asean Studies Program Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and journalist living in Singapore. After training as a journalist with the BBC in London, he moved to Asia and was a correspondent and then editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has written two novels set in Indonesia. Dr....

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Najib’s fear campaign

Taken from New Mandala The Malaysian Prime Minister’s ruthless tactics to hold onto power at all costs demonstrate that he is the one who is most afraid while his people are willing to fight on, Bridget Welsh writes. This week Najib Tun Razak is beating the Malay chauvinist drum at his party’s annual general assembly...

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Donald Trump’s upsetting victory

Taken from Malaysiakini.com For months, I have worried about a Trump victory, and it has become a reality. Donald Trump won the US presidency yesterday. He achieved a political upset that makes this year’s baseball World Series victory of the Chicago Cubs pale in comparison. As they were in Brexit, the polls and pundits were...

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