In elections in 2008, Abdullah's National Front ruling coalition secured a fresh mandate but lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority, relinquished control of five of Malaysia's 13 states to the opposition and all but surrendered urban areas to the opposition. The opposition alliance now has 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament, a massive jump from its 19 seats in the outgoing house. The result was the coalition's worst electoral performance in the 51 years that it has governed Malaysia following independence from Britain in 1957. Scores of senior National Front officials lost their seats in the federal and state legislatures. [Source: Associated Press, March 10, 2008]

Opposition parties quadrupled their seats in Parliament. Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “For the first time since 1969, the National Front lost control of the assembly in northern Penang, the only state where ethnic Chinese are a majority. It also lost control of Selangor, Kedah and Perak states for the first time, and failed to wrest Kelantan state from the opposition. The defeat in Penang was like "a tsunami coming in," said Chang Ko Youn, vice president of Gerakan party, which belongs to the ruling coalition. "Nobody expected it to be so bad. I am a bit worried for the future of our party and our country." [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, March 8, 2008]

Stripped of their long-held two-thirds majority in Parliament, the governing coalition no longer could freely amend the Constitution, which it had done more than 40 times since independence from Britain in 1957. "A two-party system seems likely to evolve from the outcome of this general election,"wrote Wong Chun Wai, the editor of the pro-government Star daily, in his newspaper. "The first page of the new Malaysian political era opens today. Certainly, the elections may have ended but the drama has only just started. Stay tuned," he wrote.

Dante Pastrana wrote in the World Socialist Web Site: “National elections in March 2008 proved to be a turning point. Anwar was released from jail in 2004 after the Federal Court quashed one of his two convictions for lack of evidence. Despite being barred from standing in the poll, he organised the opposition campaign, capitalising on rising discontent over unemployment, poverty and the obvious corruption of the BN government.The results were disastrous for UMNO, which had previously relied on discrimination against the country's Chinese and Indian minorities to cement the support of the majority Malays. Anwar's allegation that these discriminatory policies favoured only the tiny Malay elite struck home. For the first time since the 1970s, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament and thus its ability to amend the constitution at will. In addition, the BN lost power in five of the country's key states.” [Source: Dante Pastrana, World Socialist Web Site, April 2, 2009]

Anwar's People's Justice party won 31 seats in the 222-member National Parliament, the most of any opposition party, and will share power in four of five states now under opposition control. The strongly Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) will lead or share power in four states, including three — Kedah, Perak and Kelantan — that share borders with Thailand, which has been battling an Islamic insurgency with historical links to Malaysia. See Separate Article ANWAR IBRAHIM[Source: Niluksi Koswanage, Reuters, March 11, 2008]

On reasons for the poor showing of the ruling coalition in the 2008 elections, Associated Press reported: “The stunning electoral upheaval was the outcome of simmering racial tensions, income disparities, inflation, rising crime and anger against the enrichment of the ruling elite. Analysts see it as the foothold that the resurgent opposition needs to eventually break the National Front's stranglehold over power. "They have not taken care of the people," said Michael Lim, a first-time voter in the capital of Kuala Lumpur. "A lot of promises were made, but nothing fulfilled." Although the economy grew by 6.3 percent in 2007, exceeding government expectations of 6 percent, many Malaysians feel the benefits have not trickled down to them.[Source: Associated Press, March 10, 2008]

Race Issues and the Poor Showing of the Ruling Coalition in the 2008 Elections

Anger among ethnic Indians and Chinese over religious disputes and economic preferences for the Malays, the majority ethnic group, appeared to play a major role in the opposition’s gains. Opposition rallies have drew big crowds, especially Chinese and Indian voters unhappy with Abdullah's Malay-dominated coalition. Chinese and Indians account for a third of the population of 26 million and some complain the government discriminates in favor of Malays, when it comes to education, jobs, financial assistance and religious policy. Abdullah told voters on election eve they could cause instability and chaos if they abandoned Barisan Nasional — an oft-repeated warning that is usually code for racial turmoil. [Source: Associated Press, March 10, 2008]

Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “A key issue in the elections was disillusionment among ethnic Chinese and Indians, who have long complained of discrimination, particularly an affirmative action system that gives the Muslim Malays preference in jobs, business and education. The program was designed in 1970 to help the majority Malays catch up with the wealthier Chinese. But minorities complain the system continues despite rising standards of livings for Malays. [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, March 8, 2008]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “The opposition parties unseated several political veterans by fielding fresh but inexperienced candidates, including a political science professor, a popular blogger and a human rights advocate. Opposition candidates did especially well in urban areas, winning 10 of the 11 seats in Kuala Lumpur, the commercial capital, and capturing the relatively prosperous and populous states of Selangor and Penang. The opposition also made inroads into the rural heartland. The Pan-Islamic Party, one of the three main opposition parties, strengthened its control over the northern state of Kelantan and won control over the states of Kedah and Perak. Losing control of those states is a blow for the governing coalition because states have jurisdiction over land allocation, local matters and Islamic laws. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, March 9, 2008]

“Voters showed their anger over a recent government crackdown against ethnic Indians by electing to a state legislature M. Manoharan, one of five advocates jailed after a street protest by Indians. It is unclear how Mr. Manoharan, who is being detained without a trial, will carry out his duties. The loss of Penang, which alone among Malaysia’s 13 states has a majority of Chinese voters, is a major blow to Mr. Abdullah, whose constituency is based there. The state is an industrial center, producing microchips, cellphones and computer parts in factories owned by Intel, Dell and Motorola, among many others. The departing chief minister, or governor, of Penang, Koh Tsu Koon, lost his seat on Saturday to a dissident university professor, P. Ramasamy. The leaders of the two ethnic Indians parties represented in the government also lost their seats, including the only ethnic Indian in the cabinet, Samy Vellu. Those losses call into question the future of the country’s race-based coalition, a system in place since independence in which each major ethnic group — Malays, Chinese and Indians — is represented by a political party. Opposition leaders have vowed to move Malaysia away from the system, with the National Justice Party of Mr. Anwar the loudest proponent of the change. “

Voter Irregularities in the 2008 Elections

The elections were tainted by allegations of vote-rigging. New York-based Human Rights Watch has also accused authorities of manipulating the electoral process with limits on free speech.Abdullah said after voting in his home town of Kepala Batas, in a rice-growing area of Penang, that the opposition was using charges of vote fraud as an excuse in case it fared badly. [Source: Associated Press, March 10, 2008 ^^]

Associated Press reported: “Opposition leaders have long complained that polls are also steered against them through the gerrymandering of constituencies, vote-buying and use of bogus voters. The government has repeatedly denied any irregularities. Anwar, the leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, said opposition parties could win a third of federal parliamentary seats despite the shenanigans."We will shake the government this time ... We will teach these cheaters a lesson," he said after voting in a Penang seat held by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. ^^

“PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat also accused Barisan of cheating, saying his supporters had found a member of the prime minister's main ruling party in possession of 28 identity cards. His party controls Kelantan, the only opposition-held state, and Barisan is going all out to win it back after 18 years of PAS rule.” ^^

Economic Impact of the 2008 Election in Malaysia

After the election the stock market plunged 9.5 percent, wiping out some $30 billion in market capitalization, the biggest single-day loss in the market's history. AFP reported: The opposition, “moved to reassure investors that it would implement 'business-friendly' policies.Economists said growth could be affected if the new coalitions running five states clash with the federal government over planned infrastructure mega-projects and funding allocated under a national development blueprint. But they said that while the stock market will remain under substantial short-term selling pressure, when the political dust settles it could reveal a brighter future under a revitalised government. [Source: AFP, March 11, 2008]

“A funds manager with an insurance firm said the changeover could derail contracts that have already been awarded, and jeopardise the government's stated plans to lure billions of dollars in investment to Malaysia's regions. 'The country's political risk premium has gone up a few notches because of the uncertainties. Land approvals are handled by the states. The fear is that projects could be scrapped,' he told reporters on condition of anonymity.

“Merrill Lynch described the results as 'a blessing in disguise for Malaysia in the long-term'. 'The current status quo has been shaken and the government may address some of its shortfalls which will eventually help the competitiveness of the country,' it said. “The country should be stable and we should be able to instill confidence among domestic and foreign investors.' Musa Hitam, a former deputy prime minister, said investors who were familiar with the administration that has presided for half a century were understandably spooked, but that change could be beneficial. 'Each group will be in healthy competition to prove they are better and this will lead to the creation of a better environment for foreign direct investment,' Musa was quoted saying in the New Straits Times.”

PAS Vice President Husam Musa told reporters on Tuesday the opposition intended "to create an investor-friendly atmosphere ... and that foreign investment and interests are guaranteed in the states where we are in power". New Penang state Chief Minister Lim said he would lobby the prime minister to use cash from state oil company Petronas to fund a new $940 million bridge project. The giant oil firm has long been a cash cow for National Front building projects, including the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. [Source: Niluksi Koswanage, Reuters, March 11, 2008]

Malaysian Opposition Rewards Voters with Cancelled Parking Fines, Free Water

Julia Zappei of Associated Press wrote: “The opposition coalition in Malaysia is rewarding voters in states where it recently won in general elections by canceling unpaid parking fines, providing free water and sponsoring a soccer game. "How better to show them that we care?" said Secretary-General Kamarudin Jaffar of the ethnic-Malay-based Pan Malaysian Islamic party, or PAS. The PAS and its two alliance partners—the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, or DAP, and the multiethnic People's Justice Party, or PKR—won the legislatures in four states in March 8 general elections. They also retained Kelantan, which has been under PAS control for more than 18 years. [Source: Julia Zappei, AP, March 20, 2008]

Kamarudin told The Associated Press on Wednesday that post-election goodies are being given in the new states the alliance won: Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor. In Penang and Perak, fines for illegal parking and running unlicensed street stalls have been canceled to "thank the people for their support," said Ngeh Koo Ham, deputy secretary general of the DAP. Many of the infractions occurred because the previous government failed to provide proper parking facilities or renew licenses of street hawkers, Ngeh said. "There have been many complaints about the old administration."

Meanwhile, the government of central Selangor state is considering reducing voters' water bills and giving a limited amount of free water each month, said Syed Husin Ali, deputy president of PKR. Selangor's government will not be canceling parking fines. A PAS official in Kedah said its state government will soon organize a free state-level soccer match. R. Perumal, a National Front lawmaker from southern Malacca State, slammed the opposition offers as a waste of state resources. "I don't think it's a good practice," Perumal said. "Where are they going to get the income?"

Malaysia Opposition Takes Aim at Affirmative Action

After the 2008 election, Penang's new chief minister, Lim Guan Eng, said he planned to do away with the affirmative action New Economic Policy, saying it "breeds cronyism, corruption and systemic inefficiency." The NEP gives privileges to Malays in jobs, education, business and religion. Even some Malay critics say it has been misused to benefit a well-connected Malay elite. [Source: Associated Press, March 14 2008]

Niluksi Koswanage of Reuters reported: “The newly elected opposition took power in Malaysia's industrial heartland and immediately said it would kill one of the nation's sacred cows — affirmative action for majority ethnic Malays. "We will run the government administration free from the New Economic Policy (NEP), Lim Guan Eng said. The four-decade NEP was meant to fight poverty by steering resources to indigenous people, including Malays, whose politicians dominate the ruling national coalition. They get preference in state contracts, jobs, university seats and financial aid. But many Malays say the plan has strayed from its original aim of fostering economic competition and is enriching a small elite, while rural Malays live hand-to-mouth in wooden huts. [Source: Niluksi Koswanage, Reuters, March 11, 2008 ]

“In Kuala Lumpur, de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also took aim at the "Bumiputra" (sons of the soil) policy. "We consider the NEP is obsolete," Anwar told reporters. "I always say the NEP benefits the few family members of the ruling establishment and their cronies. So we stop this practice of awarding tenders, projects and privatization to family-related companies and cronies only at states where we are in charge."Many in the country's large Chinese and Indian minorities have criticized the policy as unfair. It has also been widely criticized abroad and was a key stumbling block in five fruitless rounds of talks with the United States on a free trade deal.

“Anwar said the opposition's version of the program, which he called the Malaysia Economic Agenda, will protect the interests of "the Malays, the poor and the marginalized" but will be a "competitive, merit-based system". Acting Law Minister Nazri Aziz confirmed that opposition-ruled states did have the power to scrap the NEP. "Anything to do with federal government projects, which come under our jurisdiction, then the NEP applies. But if it's a state government jurisdiction, then it's up to them," he told Reuters.

Discord and Unity in the Opposition After the 2008 Election

Niluksi Koswanage of Reuters wrote: “The winning opposition parties face a delicate task. The Chinese-dominated DAP has long harbored deep suspicions about the Islamist agenda of PAS, which advocates Islamic law for Muslims, including punishments such as stoning and amputations. In their first test, DAP, PAS and People's Justice party were hammering out power-sharing arrangements on Tuesday in Kedah, Perak and central Selangor state. PAS kept power in Kelantan state and its government was to be sworn-in later on Tuesday. Niluksi Koswanage, Reuters, March 11, 2008]

A few days after the election, AFP reported: Malaysia’s fragile opposition alliance quarrelled over control of one of the states seized in weekend elections, forcing the swearing-in of the chief minister to be postponed.In their first open sign of discord, the three opposition parties disagreed over the selection of chief minister, due to be installed on Thursday, and the make-up of Perak's state cabinet. The Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) claimed most seats in the northern state but a candidate from the Islamic party PAS was chosen as chief minister in a power-sharing deal opposed by the third party Keadilan. 'There are some uncertainties as to whether the three parties... are able to work together to form a coalition, and form a stable government,' the royal palace said, according to the official Bernama news agency. [Source: AFP, March 13, 2008 -]

“The loose opposition alliance made huge strides in weekend elections, claiming one-third of parliamentary seats and four more states from the Barisan Nasional coalition. However, the disparate group of parties is struggling to put aside their ideological differences to form various coalitions in the newly claimed states. DAP would normally have the right to name Perak's chief minister, but state law says the candidate should be a Muslim Malay, so the opposition alliance left it to the state's sultan to decide between their three candidates. When he selected the PAS nominee, a senior DAP figure said he was 'shocked' at the decision and that the party's Perak assemblymen would not attend the swearing-in ceremony. -

“Meanwhile, in the industrialised state of Selangor, Keadilan's Khalid Ibrahim was installed as deputy chief minister but there was a row brewing over the selection of his deputy. Mr Khalid said his deputy did not have to be a Muslim, while the royal palace disagreed. Both PAS and DAP are believed to be vying for the role.'I think it will take a long time to resolve this. You must appreciate that we are in a monarchy system and that federated states... have their own conventions that need to be considered very carefully,' Mr Khalid told reporters. -

A few weeks after that Associated Press reported: “Malaysia's opposition parties agreed on to form a coalition in an effort to present themselves as a credible alternative for government. "In today's meeting, it was proposed to consolidate the cooperation among the three parties under the name Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact)," de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters, after a meeting with fellow party leaders. [Source: AP, April 1, 2008 \=]

“Malaysia's opposition has been weak and ideologically divided for many years, comprising two parties that appeal mainly to urban, liberal voters and an Islamist outfit that attracts mainly rural votes and wants to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state. The three parties tried before to form a coalition with a single policy platform, during an election campaign in 1999. But the pact fell apart two years later over the issue of Parti Islam se-Malaysia's (PAS) call for the creation of an Islamic state. \=\

“Anwar said the parties were still working on a common policy platform, and detailed policy steps would be hammered out at a meeting of parliamentary and state assembly deputies of all three parties on April 27.But he insisted PAS's stand on an Islamic state would not sink the new alliance, which also includes his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party) and the Democratic Action Party. "It is not an issue as far as we are concerned," Anwar said, flanked by leaders of both PAS and the Democratic Action Party. "If there are differences, we will try to respect those differences," PAS leader Hadi Awang said when asked if his party was giving up its Islamic state ambition to join the coalition. "We cannot force Islamic law on the people." \=\

In a recent Reuters interview, Anwar said PAS had agreed not to make an Islamic state a condition of its involvement in a governing alliance, assuming PAS was a junior partner. The failure of the opposition's previous coalition had convinced the parties to join hands on the basis of common principles Malaysians could support, said Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. "And if we hold to these principles, as the public very clearly expects, from the results of the March 8 elections, then I think a new political scenario will be formed," he said. \=\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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