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Malaysians staged a protest at the Merlion Park in 2013, over the 13th Malaysian general election results.

Could Malaysians in Singapore hold the trump card to the Malaysian 14th GE

by Tan Wah Piow

Could Malaysians in Singapore wield the crucial votes to bring about systemic change of Malaysia? This is a possibility if the analysis of one political scientist were correct.

The Malaysian General Elections GE14 is due to be called anytime from now, but no later than 24th August. Goodies such as cooking oil with the ruling coalition logo are ready for distribution, along with their flags.

Following the declaration by the Malaysian opposition front Pakatan Harapan (PH) to name Mahathir as the Prime Minister designate if the opposition won the GE14, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Malaysian voters has begun.

Prior to this latest Jan 2018 PH declaration, the Malaysian opposition camp was in disarray. The first major setback happened soon after GE13 when PAS, an islamic party with sizeable electoral support in the northern states of Peninsula Malaysia left the opposition coalition, then named Pakatan Rakyat. With Annuar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition coalition in jail, the prospect of the opposition coalition winning enough votes to form an alternative government was remote. The public image of the opposition coalition was further tarnished by personality conflicts, and power struggles.

The political landscape changed significantly once the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir formed his new Bersatu Party to woo the Malay voters away from the ruling UMNO. Mahathir still enjoys significant goodwill within the Malay electorate even though non-Malay  voters are divided about his legacy. Some rightly blamed him for the rise of crony capitalism in Malaysia, and for the islamization of the State. A tiny but articulate minority, and the radical youths,  cannot forgive Mahathir for using internal Security Act against social activists during his term of office.

On his own, Mahathir, at 93, despite his claim of wanting to sign up 1 million members, would not be able to unseat Najib, the man he had once chosen for the Premiership. Mahathir now said that that at the time,  “I was not aware he would be a thief”.

The opposition’s disarray, coupled with a rather buoyant economy brought about partly by the influx of Chinese investments, substantially benefited Najib’s electoral prospects despite a general decline in real earnings following the introduction of GST - the consumer tax. Hence, in mid-December, a poll by Merdeka Center, an independent pollster, predicted that the incumbent Najib-led ruling coalition might win a two-third majority in parliamentary seats even if they were to lose the popular support. This anomaly is the likely outcome of electoral boundary changes and voters fatigue and disappointment with the opposition. Currently the ruling coalition enjoys just a simple majority.

With this latest show of unity at the PH Convention 2018, the fortune of the opposition could potentially change for the better. The “feel good” factor amongst the opposition is, however,  not shared by all. Despite Mahathir’s public apology for his past mistakes, it was insufficient to appease his critics, especially those who were imprisoned by him. Instead of applauding Mahathir for his tenacity and steadfastness, and boundless energy in wanting to bring about change, they continue to doubt his motivation. His radical critics from the left, and those in UMNO mocked the opposition for having to rely on an old man of 93 with a checkered history  to spearhead institutional reforms.

What the critics of Mahathir have failed to appreciate  was that without Mahathir’s efforts, skills and stature, the PH would not be able to forge an agreement on the thorny issue of seat allocation at this early stage of the pre-Election process. The agreed allocation is 52 seats to Mahathir’s Bersatu Party, 51 seats for Annuar’s Keadilan, 35 to DAP, and 27 to Amanah, a progressive breakaway from PAS. The composition of the seats is designed to address the insecurity of Malay voters who fear that voting out UMNO could undermine their position as a community. Under the terms of the declaration, a new Government under Dr Mahathir would pave the way for Annuar, now in prison, to become the next Prime Minister. The opposition coalition, after the PH 2018 Convention, is now in a better position to present itself as a credible united force representing the interests of all ethnicity.

Given Mahathir’s past, it is unavoidable if radical critics continue to dismiss  PH as UMNO mark II, and for not presenting the voters with any radical alternative platform.

The PH  is not a left wing coalition, but a coalition of four political parties based on the following common political  denominators. At the convention, apart from agreeing to Mahathir as the PM designate, the other agreed terms include a maximum two-term premiership, structural institutional reforms and end of corruption. These are important minimum reforms to achieve a functional democratic system. It is possibly as radical as one could ever achieve in real politics within an electoral time frame, and one which would not be out of place for any of the neighbouring countries.

The fact that this platform was endorsed by Mahathir at the Convention does not make it less credible or radical. It is a platform that reflects the spirit of the few hundred thousands who marched on the street of Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere under the banner of Bersih in the past few years. Mahathir’s endorsement of the platform is a recognition that the demands are do-able, thereby making it more credible and electable. With the endorsement of someone with 22 years experience as a Prime Minister,  it is now difficult for cynics, and the ruling coalition to dismiss  institutional reforms as impractical youthful idealism.

Based on earlier opinion polls, some predict that the Mahathir factor could shift conservatively  5% of the Malay votes in favour of the opposition. “If Mahathir has the Heneiken-effect, to reach the parts of the Malay constituencies no other politicians could, why quibble about his age, or past misdeeds? “ said one of his former ISA detainee.

A shift of 5% of the Malay votes could be the game changer that UMNO fears. Whether the Mahathir effect could be off-set by the political-fatigue of the past two elections where high expectations for change were met with disappointing outcomes is anyone guess.

During the 2013 Elections, a substantial number of 385,000 Malaysians residing in Singapore return home to cast their votes. Some even return from further afield - U.K., Hong Kong and Australia included.

Malaysians voters residing in Singapore could potentially make a difference to the GE14 outcome  as many hail from suburban areas where there are 30 marginal seats with Malay majority of less than 65% up. Based on last General Elections results, these seats are up for grabs by the opposition as in some cases, the opposition lost by a few hundred votes.  Liew Chin Tong, a social scientist and opposition MP did not name these marginal constituencies for ‘tactical reasons’, but identified them as

Cluster 2 – Penang/Northern Perak – 7 Seats
Cluster 3 – Northern Selangor/Southern Perak – 8 Seats
Cluster 4 – Greater Muar (Johor) – 5 seats
Cluster 5 – Southern Johor – 6 Seats
Cluster 6 – Pahang – 4 Seats

According to Liew Chin Tong, if UMNO loses these 30 seats and a further 10 in Perlis/Kedah (Cluster 1), it could usher in a new Malaysia. The Mahathir-effect could affect voters in cluster 1 where his party Bersatu is making good progress. It is for this reason that many predict the GE14 is unlikely to happen in mid -February when most Malaysians in Singapore would return home for family reunion. They are the anti-establishment voters UMNO would like to keep out.

If the Malaysians in Singapore are mobilised to return home to cast their votes, in the light of the current trend, they together with the Mahathir-effect which was missing in the last General Elections, could change the political landscape of Malaysia.

Amongst the Asean counties, Malaysians are probably more engaged than any of their counterparts elsewhere in the ASEAN region in using the electoral process to effect change. With the exception of Singapore, and Vietnam where voting is compulsory (hence with voters turnout was 94% and 99% respectively), voters turnout in Malaysia at 85%, is highest amongst ASEAN countries. Many are willing to devote time and money for the cause of change through the ballot box despite all the odds stack against them. This is a credit to the country, and the people.