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.

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 before the return to power of long-time former premier Mahathir Mohamad remain deeply embedded in the country’s social and political fabric. Public confidence in the new government has eroded, with a slowing economy, piecemeal political reforms and a worrying rise in ethnic tensions. Positive measures taken by the new government — and there are many, as outlined below — are being overshadowed by negative public perceptions. To date, the government has lost two by-elections (in Cameron Highlands and Semenyih) this year alone. The opposition, comprising members of the former government still led by United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) leader and former prime minister Najib Razak (despite an onslaught of outstanding legal charges against him) and the Islamist party PAS have been able to capture persistent voter resentments and channel them into a divisive racial and religious sectarian narrative. Anger and fear have replaced the euphoria...

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 in the performance of the Harapan government. Harapan has received a serious rebuke – one it needs to take seriously as it moves forward in public engagement and governance. It is worth remembering that by-elections are opportunities to send signals of dissatisfaction; the message was sent loud and clear. The government has been perceived to inadequately improve the quality of life for ordinary Malaysians, nor offer a substantive integrative programme on how it will do so. Harapan has been so focused on its own positions and politicking that it lost track of the reasons it was put into office. Jockeying and infighting continued to be on display in the by-election and served to erode public confidence. Reform measures have slowed. In fact, increasingly the trend has been to replicate the practices of Umno with patronage and racial politics, rather than adopt a programme for all...

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 never lost before GE14 or choose another path, including not to vote at all. Despite growing cynicism about politicians in Malaysia (and sadly there is a good reason for some of this cynicism), the choice of the Semenyih voters will matter. This by-election will not affect the balance of power in Selangor state. However, the campaign and outcome will serve to further consolidate new Malaysia’s political battle lines and potentially constrain the prospects for reform. A Harapan loss in Semenyih will have a derailing effect on the governing coalition, already weakened by its loss in Cameron Highlands, and embolden the BN coalition that is in desperate search of an afterlife. Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and the independent candidate will have an uphill battle breaking the mould of the competition between the two larger coalitions, but they will serve to raise important social welfare issues and...

‘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 and the need to shift campaigning practices in rural/semi-rural areas. While these issues were important in shaping the final vote, they miss the larger point: Pakatan Harapan’s biggest mistake in Cameron Highlands was that it adopted the practices and assumptions of BN in the election. In Cameron Highlands, Harapan locked itself into a ‘campaign as usual’ mode that did not effectively embrace the reform momentum that put it into office or move its campaign out of the ‘old Malaysia’ mode. Analysis of results A number of studies have examined the results. Below, using a statistical method of ecological inference, is my analysis of estimates of voting behaviour in Cameron Highlands. There are three important findings. First, turnout dropped across the different ethnic communities, especially among Chinese and Indian voters. This is not a surprise given the timing of the by-election before Chinese New Year, but...

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, Jan 14, 2019. “‘General Disappointment’ Towards Harapan in First Eight Months, Says Analyst,” malaysiakini.com, Jan 14, 2019.  

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 the familiar. But in doing so it has opened itself to greater risk as the country faces increasing headwinds.Politically, Singapore prepared the ground for elections. The announcement of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as the prime minister-designate in November reduced speculation about the hierarchy in the party’s fourth generation leadership and provided an answer — at least for now — to the question of who will succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.Heng represents a safe choice, known to the cabinet as a team player, a consummate and tested PAP cadre, and a technocrat in the area that poses the biggest challenge for Singapore — its economy. Heng now faces the daunting tasks of winning over the increasingly sophisticated public and coming out of the shadow of the Lee family.The internal wrangling for positions coincided with increased attacks on Singapore’s opposition. In October, the strongest opposition party,...

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 and simultaneously showcased the burdensome financial mismanagement of the Najib Abdul Razak era. Not only is the new government facing serious domestic political challenges and a growing public perception that it is not delivering, but Mahathir has also returned to power in unfavourable global conditions, of which the uncertainty and slowdown of the world economy are arguably the most serious and foreshadowing a difficult year ahead. As the year ends, it is fitting to reflect on both positive and negative developments and to recognise that, despite disappointments and persistent divisions, 2018 was indeed a year of hope and heroes. Citizen empowerment and freedom Foremost in this list are the ordinary Malaysians. From across the political spectrum, citizens went to the polls and took to the streets to express their aspirations. Malaysia had a peaceful transition of government and despite real anxieties over increased race-based mobilisation,...
"The End of UMNO" book launch - revised edition

“The End of UMNO” book launch – revised edition

  Discussing the revised edition of “The End of UMNO?” at the 2018 ANU Malaysia Update conference with James Chin, John Funston, and Clive Kessler.   Other links Soundbites on UMNO from James Chin and Clive Kessler   “Eerie Times...

Harapan report card: Glass half full or half empty?

Taken from malaysiakini.com Today, Pakatan Harapan faces its 100-day report card. The idea of ‘100 days’ is somewhat arbitrary and any assessment in the early days of any administration should also be treated with caution – including this one. This is especially the case given the difficult conditions Harapan has inherited, not only the financial liabilities caused by reckless spending and serious graft, but decades of erosion in institutional competence and good governance. The problems lie not only with the political system but extend into society where social relations are deeply coloured by race and resentment as well as uneven education and entitlements which reinforced inequalities. Let’s start with the positive, however. First of all, Harapan has shown that it can work together as a new coalition, and it has found its footing. While there have been moments of frustration – immature behaviour from those coveting position they somehow think they are entitled to – the five parties (with Warisan) have worked out many of their key differences and put in place a cabinet that while may lack in experience, is arguably the most talented and clean government in decades. Over the past three months, these officials on the whole...

Cautions from Sungai Kandis

Taken from malaysiakini.com Pakatan Harapan won its first by-election since taking over the government in Sungai Kandis. PKR candidate ustaz Mohd Zawawi Ahmad Mughni defeated (former premier) Najib (Abdul Razak’s) loyalist and Umno supreme council member Lokman Noor Adam. Harapan won with a comfortable majority of 5,830 votes for the incumbent PKR in a straight fight against the biggest loser in the 14th general election – Umno, although there was a drop of 35.5 percent in turnout in the contest, from 49.4 percent from 85 percent. This victory and the lower turnout was expected, but the campaign and results suggest that there are political developments evolving that do not bode well for greater political reform and more inclusive‘New Malaysia’. Return to race First of all, the by-election campaign was dominated by a racialized Umno narrative. The gamut of issues ranged from supposed Christian dominance and Communist conspiracies to alleged attacks on Malay institutions and the community at large. None of these issues was fundamentally new, as they have long been part of the defensive approach that Umno introduced after it scraped through in the 2013 elections. These right-wing attacks combine identity politics with paranoia and feed off the insecurities and fear of...

A turning point for Terengganu?

Taken from malaysiakini.com On Malaysia’s beautiful east coast, PAS is experiencing a sweet honeymoon in Terengganu. On the ground, PAS is similarly receiving the positive energy and goodwill felt in the Klang Valley towards Pakatan Harapan. In fact, one could even argue that Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar’s leadership of Terengganu is seen as one of the most dynamic nationally at the state level. With less resistance to its leadership within the civil service, a young professional team and a focus on economic development for the state, PAS’ new government is working to establish itself. Dr Sam, as he is known, is quickly coming out of party president Abdul Hadi Awang’s shadow, despite being his protégé. The challenges PAS faces in Terengganu are significant. The state’s oil and gas revenue are on the decline. Umno seriously depleted the state funds in its mismanagement, leaving little in the coffers. The sharp disparities between the wealthier south and poorer north remain large. Some of the northern areas around Setiu are among the poorest in Malaysia. There remains a large dependence on government assistance, with a “bantuan” mindset deeply entrenched. There is a large young population in search of jobs, and a deficit of...

‘New’ or ‘old’ Sabah in New Malaysia?

Taken from malaysiakini.com On the streets of Kota Kinabalu, there is open delight of the appointment of one of their own, Richard Malanjum, as the new chief justice. Across the diverse multiethnic mosaic of the state, many respond with the phrase “I feel Malaysian.” Given the continued resentments of unfairness of the federal government that percolate, these sentiments highlight that inclusiveness and appointments based on merit do resonate, much more than the handful of narrow-minded, peninsula-based views featured in the media. Sabahans, in their open and optimistic style, celebrate the successes of their own across communities, as arguably the silent majority in the country does as a whole. The question of the federal-state relationship and treatment of different ethnic communities were very much at the heart of why Sabah voted for Parti Warisan Sabah and Pakatan Harapan parties – and why they not only were critical for the coalition to form the numbers for their majority sworn into Parliament yesterday, but why there is a new Warisan coalition government in the state. While acknowledging it is still early days, this article focuses on whether there are signs of change in Sabah, and suggests that the ‘old’ Sabah will constrain the...

‘New Malaysia’ makes Singapore look outdated

Taken from Nikkei Asian Review Over two months after Mahathir Mohamad’s election in Malaysia, the political reverberations for Singapore show no signs of fading. The new Malaysian prime minister’s reviews of the key water-supply deal with Singapore and of the planned costly high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to the city-state are only visible signs of a different — and more charged — Singapore-Malaysia relationship. The key problem for Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is that developments north of the Johor-Singapore Causeway have exposed vulnerabilities at home. The PAP has become the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia, and it no longer has undemocratic immediate neighbors. Mahathir’s Pakatan victory mirrors the PAP’s worst fear: its own possible defeat. Worse yet, some of the factors that contributed to the loss of Barisan Nasional (National Front) are also present in Singapore. The first is the challenge of leadership renewal. Over the past three years, the PAP has been locked in a battle over who should succeed Lee, 66, as prime minister, with the fourth generation (4G) leaders on display. Among the leading contenders are Chan Chun Sing, the minister for trade and industry and former army chief, Finance Minister Heng...
Latest entries

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »

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...

Continue reading »