The turmoil is over—for now, at least. Former Home Minister and president of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU) Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as prime minister after a failed coup, which led to a week of political turmoil in the country. On Monday evening, he announced his Cabinet line-up. This comes after rife speculation and uncertainty over who would helm ministries, with so-called lists of candidates floating around on social media. For better or for worse, Malaysians now have a new government in place.
Followers of Malaysia’s breaking news outlets and producers of hot takes might be forgiven for believing that the crisis was all down to personal feuds between political elites.
If only politicians aren’t so selfish, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
If only Muhyddin hadn’t betrayed Mahathir Mohamad.
If only Anwar Ibrahim hadn’t been so politically ambitious.
If only all these old men could retire and let the young turks take over.
These comments play out against narratives of heroic deeds and villainous backstabbing. On the eve of the crisis’ resolution, a local English daily’s analysis came with the headline, “Big Comeback for Muhyiddin Yassin”, while the New York Times ran with “Malaysia’s Premier, Mahathir Mohamad, is Ousted in a Surprising Turn”.
Such framing reduces complex events into a sensational soap opera. When we view politics as epic showdowns between personalities, we continuously make a choice to amplify easy-to-digest drama and ignore serious structural problems.
What’s the problem with personalising the crisis?
It’s a common tendency to pin both the cause and the solution of problems and issues on personalities, drawing attention away from underlying forces and structures.
Edward Said, a pioneer of postcolonial studies, pointed out this problem when commenting on the western media’s representation of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (which eventually led to the Gulf War): “Representation of the conflict in the West, by the first week of the crisis in August, had succeeded, first, in demonising Saddam; two, in personalising the crisis and eliminating Iraq as a nation, an economy, a people, a culture, a history; and third, completely occluding the role of the United States and its allies in the formation of the crisis.”
When we portray Malaysia’s political crisis as a struggle between a few greedy old men, we fail to consider the structural causes and potential resolutions necessary to explain and prevent such crises.
When we portray Malaysia’s political crisis as a struggle between a few greedy old men, we fail to consider the structural causes and potential resolutions necessary to explain and prevent such crises. This isn’t to suggest determinism or that individuals have no agency or responsibility over their own decisions, but to recognise that structures enable, condition, and encourage people to behave as they do.
Diagnosing the recent political crisis as a clash of personalities also led to a flawed prescription: A fetish for unity.
This fixation took two different forms: One is Mahathir’s proposal for a cross-partisan unity government; the other is the call by Muafakat Nasional (an alliance between the United Malays National Organisation [UMNO], and the Malaysian Islamic Party [PAS]) for Malay unity.
The first option involves the depoliticisation of political appointments. But how is it possible to expect political appointees to be “above politics” when politics is simply a process of determining who gets what, when, and how? When the questions being posed are inherently political, there’s no way to escape the fact.
If Mahathir’s proposal for a unity government had succeeded, it would have handed power to the prime minister to appoint whoever he likes to the Cabinet, with no reference to the outcome of the previous election. This would have given up transparency and accountability, neglecting the views of the voting public.
While a unity government isn’t without precedence elsewhere, it tends to be short-lived and usually takes place during a time of emergency, such as during wartime. The closest resemblance to a unity government in Malaysia was the creation of Barisan Nasional during Tun Abdul Razak’s tenure as Prime Minister. He absorbed all but five parties into a grand coalition—most notably by recruiting PAS, Gerakan, and People’s Progressive Party (all three were the previous Alliance’s main opponents in Kelantan, Penang and Perak respectively). By doing so, all state governments were ruled by the coalition, leaving no effective opposition in Parliament. It was also during Razak’s premiership that legislation that eroded democratic rights—such as the expansion of the Sedition Act and the gerrymandering of Kuala Lumpur—were passed.
At a time of political turmoil and horse-trading, the idea of a government that focuses less on party politics and more on gathering the best politicians and technocrats might be an alluring one. Mahathir’s suggestion gathered so much traction that even a former chairperson of an electoral reform movement subscribed to the idea. But this mistakenly pinpoints quarrelling politicians as the source of the problem, rather than merely a symptom. Political competition is an essential feature of a democracy. To achieve a healthier and more mature democracy, we have to carefully design the competition rather than absorb all competitors into one team.
Even if Mahathir’s plan for a unity government had succeeded, it’s unlikely that Malaysia would have achieved long-term political stability. How could a unity government have functioned in a non-partisan manner, when all politicians and parties involved know that they’d have to compete against one another in the next election?
As for the second call for unity: That of Malay unity, sometimes touted as unification of the Muslim community (penyatuan ummah). This vision has been realised through the alliance of three major Malay Muslim parties in the new Perikatan Nasional coalition: BERSATU, UMNO and PAS.
But this fixation on “unity fetish” is again based on a misdiagnosis of Malaysia’s political woes. It’s built on a belief that Malay political power is weakening as a result of personal conflict between Malay politicians or parties.
It might be true that there’s political fragmentation in Malaysia, and that horse-trading, party-hopping, and other political manoeuvres constantly occur in ways that have an impact on governance. But the blame can’t be pinned on individual politicians and parties alone. In fact, these troubles are due, in no small part, to Malaysia’s majoritarian first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system.
A fragmented party system within a first-past-the-post electoral system
Once set in place, the electoral system strongly influences politics in any given country, affecting the choices that parties and politicians make. This can become a circular problem, as those profiting from the status quo inhibit reforms to the system.
The political scientist Wong Chin Huat has already pointed the finger at the FPTP system in his analysis of the recent political kerfuffle. Indeed, some sources claimed that PPBM’s routing in the Tanjung Piai by-election triggered anxiety regarding the party’s prospect for survival in the next election. That by-election in the state of Johor, held on November 16, 2019, saw a candidate from BERSATU (then still a party within the Pakatan Harapan coalition) lose to a Malaysian Chinese Association candidate by a huge majority of over 15,000 votes. It was a rude awakening, particularly since the seat had previously been considered a part of BERSATU’s stronghold. The swing votes, coupled with the fact that voter turnout had declined by 10% from the 2018 general election, suggested a considerable drop in support for Pakatan Harapan. Muhyddin’s group in BERSATU saw the by-election defeat as a dire warning of what the future might look like if they continued their alliance with Pakatan Harapan.
Malaysia currently operates on a winner-takes-all electoral system. In an evenly fought three-cornered fight, up to 66.6% of voters’ preference won’t be reflected in the outcome—only the party with the highest percentage, not the majority, of the votes matters. In a straight contest, it doesn’t matter if you get 4.9% or 49% of the votes; losers don’t get anything.
On a national level, the disparity between being in government or on the opposition bench is huge.
On a national level, the disparity between being in government or on the opposition bench is huge. The opposition—and even the Parliament itself—are weak compared to the immense concentration of resources and power in the hands of the executive. Clientelism and patronage are the bread-and-butter of Malaysian politics. The prime minister has a large chest of spoils, such as appointments at the hundreds of government-linked companies and statutory bodies that come with many perks and privileges.
This is before taking into consideration the fact that Members of Parliament (MPs) in the opposition always receive substantially less allocation for constituency service than MPs in the ruling parties. In April 2019, Pakatan Harapan MPs received RM1.5 million (US$357,143) each as the annual allocation to help servicing their constituency while opposition MPs received RM100,000. During Barisan Nasional’s rule, there was no allocation for opposition MPs at all.
On top of that, opposition MPs also have no effective roles in Parliament, and have highly limited powers to influence legislation or block major appointments.
There are many competitors in the Malaysian political situation, but given the discrepancy in power and resources between government MPs and opposition MPs, everyone “loses” except for those who make it into the government. This is an untenable solution.
All of these factors combined have led to an aversion to being in the opposition, particularly for UMNO politicians accustomed to maintaining their influence through patronage. It also means that, once in power, winners—regardless of whichever coalition they’re in—are unwilling to empower the losers by changing the system to give the opposition and their MPs greater influence. And thus the cycle continues.
This creates a risky and volatile political landscape. The recent crisis is only one manifestation of this volatility—a sign of how Malaysia’s electoral system isn’t able to accommodate or manage the competition between parties.
Here’s what has been changing in the past decade: Malaysia’s political landscape has become increasingly fragmented. This is explained by the emergence of two splinter parties (BERSATU and Amanah) from UMNO and PAS respectively, adding to the already crowded competition for Malay votes. This is corroborated by an index (which operationalises fragmentation by measuring the effective number of parties) developed by Michael Gallagher:
When it comes to fragmentation and the proliferation of parties, Malaysia is scored unusually high compared to other countries with the FPTP electoral system, such as Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, Canada, Myanmar and India. Malaysia has the second most fragmented multi-party system in Southeast Asia, only behind Indonesia (which partly practices proportional representation).
Just as it’s easy to misdiagnose the political crisis as a clash of personalities, it’s also easy to put the blame on fragmentation and the problem of having too many competitors. But the reality is that the problem isn’t fragmentation per se, but the potent combination of fragmentation existing within a majoritarian FPTP electoral system.
Eradication of fragmentation isn’t a realistic prescription when democracy is, at least partly, about offering choices and making competition work for the good of society. Instead of focusing on reducing competition and providing false choices through calls for unity, an electoral system should strive to shape and aggregate voter preference in a representative way, as much as humanly possible, while producing a democratic outcome.
An untenable situation
The first-past-the-post system, adopted from the Westminster parliamentary system of the United Kingdom, is supposed to provide stability and curb fragmentation. But Malaysia has neither now. The problem is partly a mismatch between a fragmented party system and a majoritarian electoral system.
The combination makes the political situation volatile because there are many competitors living and playing this game in which they know so much is at stake, while the game disproportionately rewards the winner and penalises the rest/losers.
Hence, they take all measures—even if it means undercutting democratic norms—to ensure they aren’t on the losing side. Everyone wants to be the winner, never mind the cost to democracy and society.
There are many competitors in the Malaysian political situation, but given the discrepancy in power and resources between government MPs and opposition MPs, everyone “loses” except for those who make it into the government.
There’s some calm at the moment, but the situation is still volatile and vulnerable to collapse. Muhyiddin’s been able to stem Mahathir’s threat of calling for a vote of no confidence by postponing the next parliamentary session to May. But this isn’t a long-term solution; for that to come about, Malaysia requires deeper electoral and parliamentary reforms.
The FPTP system is too archaic to accommodate fragmented multi-party politics. There are alternatives such as Party-List Proportional Representation (Indonesia), Mixed Member Proportional (Germany), single transferable vote (Australian senate), and instant-runoff voting (Australian House of Representatives), that Malaysians could consider when looking for a fairer electoral system.
In academic literature, there is a longstanding debate between representativeness and accountability of an electoral system. A majoritarian system tends to produce a simple but unrepresentative outcome, whereas a proportional system generates a more representative but fragmented and complicated result.
In an article published by the American Journal of Political Science, John Karey and Simon Hix argued that a “low-magnitude proportional electoral system” offers the best compromise between majoritarian and proportional electoral systems. This is done by achieving proportionality while limiting fragmentation. They wrote, “electoral systems with small multimember districts—with median magnitude between four and eight seats, for example—tend to have highly representative parliaments and a moderate number of parties in parliament and in government.”
We may not know which alternatives may be best suited to Malaysian democracy, but what is clear is that the current system is no longer tenable.
 The strengthening of the Sedition Act was done when Razak was the director of the National Operations Council which ruled the country while Parliament was suspended. In his biography of Tun Razak, William Shaw wrote that under this amendment, “it became a punishable offence for anyone to attack in public, or to advocate the suspension, alteration or abolition of the powers and privileges of the Paramount Ruler or all or any of the Malay Sultans, the law appertaining to citizenship, the use of Malay as the sole national and official language, or the special rights enjoyed by the Malays and certain other indigenous peoples.”
Meanwhile, the gerrymandering of Kuala Lumpur refers to the constitutional amendment in 1973 which altered the boundaries of Selangor to create a new federal territory, Kuala Lumpur, which was to be governed directly by the federal government. This move had two political consequences: it gave BN a firm hold of the Selangor state government, which was on the verge of falling to opposition in the previous election (about half a dozen seats, belonging to the opposition, was willed into non-existence through the creation of this new federal territory) and it denied residents of Kuala Lumpur a second ballot (unlike most Malaysian voters who have two voting ballots for federal and state elections, voters in Kuala Lumpur only have one voting ballot for federal parliament and have no say in their own local administration.)
Ooi Kok Hin
Ooi Kok Hin is Monbukagakusho scholar and research student at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University and research affiliate at Penang Institute.