By Ooi Kee Beng
For TODAY, 5 Dec 2012
And it was expectedly so – therein lies its significance.
Things were quite different back in the days before 2008, when ethnocentric exhortations were run of the mill, and UMNO Youth was the amplifier of racial extremist voices. This year, showing party unity was the order of the day.
Much of the credit must go to the fact that Malaysia today has a surprisingly stable two-party system in place. As we know, such a competitive structure has a strong moderating effect on extremist voices, be they racial or religious. After all, gaining the middle ground is how electoral victories are won.
The fact that the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Najib Razak, reportedly cited – as a warning to his followers – significant errors made by Republican challenger Mitt Romney in his defeat at the hands of United States President Barack Obama, tells us that even at the highest level, the possibility of the hitherto invincible UMNO being toppled is being taken seriously.
Indeed, the bipolar Obama-Romney battle is being reflected in the clash between Mr Najib and Mr Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition.
What this actually reveals is the most important point that anyone can make today about the dramatic changes that have been taking place in Malaysian politics, not only over the last five years but also over the last decade and a half.
Opposition forces within the Malay community have come of age. That is the fundamental difference. We are witnessing a Malay-Malay battle.
Despite the rhetoric, the Malay community – perhaps because of its increased relative size, its comparative youth, its growing urbanity or its heightened educational level – is showing a political confidence it did not have before.
Its questioning of UMNO’s claim to being the only plausible champion of their interests as a community – in fact, questioning the limitations of communal politicking – is an expression of that very maturity.
One Malay leader is pitted against another Malay leader, and each is backed by an assortment of non-Malays. Such a situation, strangely enough, does not encourage racial or religious politics. This goes for UMNO as well as the Islamist opposition, PAS.
Instead, the new issues are about wealth distribution and governance, not those of race against race, or religion against religion.
Now, issues of governance are not simple things.
They are comprehensive, covering difficult matters such as cronyism, corruption, rule of law, the state of the civil service and the electoral system, among others.
What all this boils down to once elections come around is: Who will be the next Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mr Najib or Mr Anwar?
Mr Abdullah Badawi was replaced by Mr Najib in April 2009 in punishment for letting so much support for Barisan Nasional slip away. Mr Najib’s job, therefore, is to win back that support. To his mind, the best way to do that is to continue with the reform agenda (he has preferred the term “transformation”).
However, should support for his coalition not rise markedly in the coming elections, there is a real risk that he will be replaced in his turn.
But why this sudden wish for reform and transformation on BN’s part?
No doubt, Mr Anwar has a lot to do with it. He was after all the man behind the pivotal Reformasi movement that started in 1998 after his sacking by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
But the fact that Mr Abdullah’s impressive electoral victory in 2004 could not bury that movement for good tells us that the forces pushing for change have deep roots in society, and in the times.
What Mr Anwar managed to do after his release from prison in 2005 was to become a bridge for the major opposition parties on the one hand, and a lightning rod for general social discontent on the other.
And so, although at one level, the fight is between two Malay leaders, the election, whichever way it goes, is at a deeper level about how governance in Malaysia is to develop – how Malaysia is to develop – in the coming years.
And within that equation, the role of East Malaysia will increase since both coalitions will be fighting to win votes there. Since the racial and religious – not to mention political – conditions in Sabah and Sarawak are so markedly different from those found in West Malaysia, the heightened significance of these states is bound to transform the socio-political situation.
Predicting Malaysia’s political future has become a much harder gambit.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore