The May 1969 clashes…again reaffirmed the UMNO-MCA-MIC “historic bargain” as the cornerstone of the new Malaysian nation. Whether the “bargain” will continue to form the basis of Malaysian politics and society indefinitely in the future remains to be seen.
– Cheah Boon Kheng, Red Star Over Malaya
For over 60 years, Malaysians only knew one power-sharing formula: consociationalism, in which the elites from each ethnic group in a plural society are presumed to represent that ethnic group, and form a government by consensus-building. Writing in 1969 – the year Malaysia had a bloody ethnic riot – political scientist Arend Lijphart described consociational democracy as “government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy”.
Lijphart identified four devices of consociational democracy: government by grand coalition, mutual veto, proportionality, and segmental autonomy. The elites form a grand coalition by gathering political cooperation from the various significant groups in a fragmented, plural society. This coalition forms the foundation of a consociational arrangement. Mutual veto ensures protection from and for each group. Proportionality is reflected in a group’s representation in, or allocation of resources by, the government. And finally, segmental autonomy can be given to the variant groups either in terms of territorial governance or certain key areas of life (education, cultural identity, language, etc.). The grand coalition is the most important and distinguishable feature of consociational democracy, and the other three devices are supplementary.
Barisan Nasional (BN) embodied consociationalism. It was a grand coalition formed chiefly of three parties – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) – and it ruled the country with few serious threats to its hegemony. For the most part, each component political party in BN appealed to a specific electorate by ethnicity. For a long time, the grand coalition appeared to work. BN was the world’s longest continuously elected government (63 years from 1955 to 2018, if we include its predecessor, the Alliance, and the first pre-Independence General Election), until the General Election of the 9 May 2018, known as GE14.
In GE14, BN lost all but two state governments (Pahang, smack in the middle of the Peninsular, and tiny Perlis). UMNO lost power, and its coalition partners were annihilated from Parliament. The collapse didn’t stop at electoral setback: political parties gave up on the sinking ship, leaving the once 13-strong coalition with only three members. Departures included the once multiracial Gerakan and four Sarawak parties, the most significant being Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).
The Secretary-General of UMNO, Annuar Musa, recently called for the suspension of the BN coalition to explore other political partnerships, most likely with the Islamist party, PAS. MCA Deputy President (and its sole surviving Member of Parliament) Wee Ka Siong, said the Chinese party should no longer “live for others and bear the brunt [of criticism] for UMNO” and that “BN has ceased to exist except only in name”. UMNO Supreme Council member, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was more blunt. He declared that UMNO wished to go it alone and “BN is as good as gone”. UMNO President, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, admitted that BN will need to undergo “rebranding” after the “horrific defeat”.
Consociationalism as we know it is over. In this essay, I revisit this once seemingly irreplaceable “cornerstone” of Malaysian society to ask: what happened to consociationalism, how did it emerge and become the dominant power-sharing arrangement in Malaysia, and why did it collapse?
The emergence of consociationalism: Triumph of the elites
For a deeper examination of the historical context leading to the emergence and triumph of consociationalism in Malaysia, please refer to this accompanying article.
The Japanese Occupation (1942-45) set the stage for the birth of consociationalism. Ethnic relations were largely peaceful during the British colonial period. Despite growing native anxiety over rapid immigration, ethnic conflict were contained chiefly due to the colonial segregationist policies. The Japanese Occupation changed the nature of ethnic relations in Malaya and left a permanent scar in ethnic conflict.
The emergence and adoption, in the period after 1946, of a consensus-building, power-sharing formula that aimed at political stability, must be understood in the context of deadly ethnic conflict that had occurred in recent memory and left an indelible scar on ethnic relations.
At the same time the Japanese co-opted Malays into local administration and security forces, they committed massacres – murders, rapes, and brutality – towards the Chinese. This sets the stage for inter-ethnic clashes between the mostly Chinese ‘“resistance guerillas’” and the mostly Malay “co-opted collaborators.”In the political vacuum after the Japanese surrender, the social tension escalated into violent ethnic conflict. In terms of both scale (death tolls) and widespread (areas), the 1945-6 ethnic conflict was deadlier than than the May 13, 1969 ethnic riot.
Thus, the emergence and adoption, in the period after 1946, of a consensus-building, power-sharing formula that aimed at political stability, must be understood in the context of deadly ethnic conflict that had occurred in recent memory and left an indelible scar on ethnic relations.
Secondly, rivalries within the ethnic groups also contributed to the eventual adoption of the ethnic power-sharing formula. With the political victory of the elites in both major ethnic communities (Malay and Chinese), and their rivals repressed and isolated, the elites were able to claim legitimacy to represent their respective communities.
At the time, within each of the Malay and Chinese communities, political activity generally coalesced into two general opposing groups. In the Malay community, these were the traditional elite class of English-educated aristocrats on the one hand, and the leftist Malay nationalists on the other. Among the Chinese, they were the elite capitalist class of towkays(mostly merchants and financiers) on the one hand, and the resistance group Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) on the other.
In both cases, the elites emerged triumphant to claim legitimacy for political leadership. Many young Chinese identified with MPAJA during the brutal Japanese Occupation, but it was disbanded after the war. The leading left-wing party, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was accused of working to overthrow the government; the British declared “Emergency” in response and crippled the party. The Chinese capitalist class was able to fill in the political vacuum through the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), whose creation had been encouraged by British to counter the influence of MCP. MCA brought together three strands of elite Chinese: the merchants, the Chinese school intelligentsia, educationalists, and the affluent English-speaking Straits Chinese.
The Malay elites consisted of the traditional ruling class and aristocrats. Onn Jaafar, the founder of UMNO, was a scion of the most elite family in Johor. His father was the first Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Johor and the family has close associations with the Johor palace. Onn Jaafar was educated in England and at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), widely regarded then as the best school in the country. The second and third UMNO Presidents, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Abdul Razak Hussein, were a prince from Kedah and a Pahang aristocrat respectively. To date, of UMNO’s seven presidents, only two have come from an non-aristocratic background.
This class of traditional elites seized political leadership of the Malay community, mobilising Malay opposition to the Malayan Union and negotiating independence. The alternatives to Malay political leadership were, like their Chinese counterparts, repressed by the British. The anti-colonialist Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) aided the Japanese and gained stature as the de facto patron for the Malay community during the Japanese Occupation, but lost clout after the Japanese surrender. Some of their leaders went on to form Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), composed and supported (according to historian Ahmat Adam) mostly by people with peasant, non-aristocratic backgrounds, in contrast to UMNO. Like the MCP, they faced a British crackdown during the Emergency, giving gave the traditional elite in UMNO a monopoly of Malay political leadership.
The triumph of the elites paved the way for elite-initiated cooperation between the two ethnic communities. Consociationalism began in earnest in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal election and consolidated its position as the prefered power-sharing formula in the 1955 federal election. The ethnic-based Alliance coalition triumphed over the multiracial party led by Onn Jaafar (For details on this, see the accompanying article).
In the first half of the 1950s, consociationalism won the day over multiracial politics. The differences between the ethnic groups were preserved, and the electorate chose to be represented through the elites of their ethnic community.
Having survived the challenge from multiracialism in the 1950s, consociationalism had to contend with intense “outbidding” on ethnic issues in the late 1960s. For example, the 1967 legislation to make Malay the sole national language alienated non-Malay MCA supporters, who felt the Alliance was moving to the Malay right. Yet the Malay masses were frustrated by the Tunku administration’s gradualist approach, rather than drastic state intervention, to improve their material well-being.
The legitimacy of the elites’ claims to community leadership was seriously eroded by their performance. The Chinese party commanded only 13.5% of the total votes and 13 out of 33 contested seats.UMNO too suffered;the Alliance received only 54.2% of the Malay votes, down from 67.2% in 1964. This does not suggest less popularity among Malays than non-Malays, but the fact that the vote swing occurred within both communities indicated that Consociationalism was in crisis.
The second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, diffused the crisis through carrots and sticks. He doubled down on the Alliance consociational coalition by co-opting several opposition parties, and also ethnic parties from Sabah and Sarawak, into a new coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN). His administration also passed a slew of legislation criminalising any act, speech or publication on fundamental issues such as Bumiputera special rights, non-Malay citizenship, the position of Islam and Malay as the sole national language, and affirmative action. By doing so, Razak curtailed the democratic rights of citizens and their elected representatives to debate and question government policies and legislation on these important political issues. Yet he was able to cement the ethnic elites’ loosening grip on their political leadership over their community. His actions also shielded his radical affirmative action plan, the New Economic Plan (NEP), from critics.
The balance of power in BN’s consociationalism after 1969 was tilted to UMNO as the dominant component party, in contrast to the Alliance’s consociationalism where power was more evenly distributed. As an example, the powerful portfolio of Ministry of Finance was never again given to MCA after the second Razak cabinet. Another important development was that UMNO was no longer financially reliant on MCA for election operatives and expenses.
The “mutual veto” device identified by Lijphart was greatly eroded. The grand coalition, however, survived and expanded. Consociationalism continued a largely uninterrupted domination over Malaysian politics until 2008.
Cracks in the wall: 2008, 2013 and 2018
March 8, 2008 was a watershed moment in Malaysian history, at least equal to the 1969 election in significance. Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its two-thirds majority and ceded power in five states, including the two most industrialised and richest states, Selangor and Penang. There was some fear of rioting, which had marked the last political upheaval of this scale. But that was averted when the political parties wisely eschewed a victory parade and some elite leaders made a clear concession speech, including appeals for peaceful transition.
The 2008 election was a breakdown in the political order, but not tantamount to crisis as in 1969. There was no suspension of Parliament, no riot or emergency (such as that which had led to the formation of the National Operations Council in 1969), no new nationalist programme or consolidation of power through a new grand coalition (as with BN’s formation in 1973). The wounded regime would drag on for another ten years. Many accounts of this election agree that at the time, UMNO’s dominance in BN had reached an unchecked level, allowing the party to get away with overt racism, their non-Malay allies notwithstanding. BN’s consociationalism functioned less as equal power-sharing than as “an electoral one-party state”.
This dominance and aggression amplified the contradiction within the model of consociationalism. As the ethnic Malay party appealed to its base, it threatened the base of its non-Malay allies.
Nothing captured the folly of this arrogance more than the UMNO General Assembly in 2005. In the midst of fiery speeches by UMNO delegates defending “the Malay agenda”, then BN and UMNO Youth Chief, Hishammuddin Hussein Onn, waved the kerisdagger (a symbol of Malay heritage) – an act captured by television and the infant blogosphere. While theoretically defensible as a proud display of heritage, in that context, during that period, it was a deeply political act, strengthening the perception that the non-Malay BN parties could not check the advance of an increasingly aggressive and rightward-turning UMNO. The mainstream media scurried to carry out damage control, and Hishammuddin later apologised. But it was too late. The image had deeply affected non-Malays.
Perhaps the 2004 General Election had given UMNO a feeling of invincibility. There, the party had won 110 seats (out of 219), enough to form a government by itself. This dominance and aggression amplified the contradiction within the model of consociationalism. As the ethnic Malay party appealed to its base, it threatened the base of its non-Malay allies.
Thus, in 2008, the non-Malay electorate punished an aggressive UMNO by rejecting its non-Malay allies: MCA, Gerakan, and MIC. Except in some marginal seats, this would not hurt UMNO’s base, only their allies. UMNO saw the continuous rejection of their non-Malay allies as an ungrateful abandonment by non-Malay voters who, despite receiving government concessions and goodies from the UMNO-led government, tried to vote them out of power in droves. This sentiment was further amplified by Najib Razak’s failed overture to court the non-Malay votes from 2009 to 2013.
When he took over the premiership in April 2009, Najib launched a national unity initiative, 1Malaysia. Various government departments and programmes were launched, including a full-fledged public relations campaign with its own logo, clips worn by all civil servants, salutations, and even an official song. For a while, the racial overtones that had begulfed BN seemed to be water under the bridge. To help MCA court Chinese voters, Najib visited Chinese radio stations and appeared in Chinese New Year videos. He briefly toyed with the idea of reviewing pro-Malay affirmative action and liberalising the Bumiputera quota. But these gestures ended on the night of the 13thGeneral Election in 2013.
After the result was announced, a visibly disappointed Najib told the media that it was a “Chinese tsunami”.The next day, the UMNO-owned Utusan daily charged on the front page: “Apa lagi Cina mahu?” (“What More Could The Chinese Want?”)
Stung by what they perceived as a harsh rejection, UMNO changed tack. Najib no longer tried as hard to court non-Malay votes. Instead, he went to the conservative Malays, even dangling RUU 355 in front of the Islamist party PAS – this bill, if passed, would have allowed the Kelantan state government to implement hudud law, jeopardising Najib’s non-Malay allies. He enacted a slew of pro-Bumiputera programmes, including a new dedicated unit to oversee a pro-Bumiputera agenda.
Downward spiral and captive community
How can these events be understood in terms of the model of consociational democracy? This model emphasises the role of social (ethnic) elites. The events surrounding the 2008 election demonstrate what happened when one or more of the elites lost their legitimacy as representatives of their ethnic group.
First came a downward spiral of destruction from within. It started with the leadership of the dominant party failing to restrain the more militant and extremist elements in their party from overtly aggressive behaviours that alienated the bases of their allies. This caused the non-Malay parties in BN to lose electorally. Their resulting weakened representation and lack of legitimacy further reduced their bargaining power within the BN coalition – which in turn increased the perception of their inertia and meekness in the eyes of the non-Malay electorate. Finally, the dominant party ignored the fate of their minority allies, pursuing risky political behaviours that jeopardised the interests of their allies. This downward spiral might have also occurred in 1969, if not for Razak’s crucial intervention after the riot, which presented him with the opportunity to consolidate power.
Second, the elites held their communities captive, subjecting them to threats of punitive material deprivation by the government. The historical May 13 riot was brandished as a warning of the potential consequences of destabilised consociationalism. The MCA under the leadership of Chua Soi Lek also threatened to refuse government appointments if the party did not win enough seats. After MCA’s dismal performance in the 2013 election, Chua followed up on this by refusing to take up any cabinet posts. For the first time, no ethnic Chinese from MCA was a member of the cabinet. (Only one minister, Paul Low, a senatorial appointment from Transparency International, was ethnically Chinese.)
This demonstrated how, in consociationalism, an ethnic group is held captive by tying their fate with that of the elite’s. Should they vote for any candidate other than the ethnic elites ‘assigned’ to represent them in the ruling coalition, they risk being left out of – and penalised by – that ruling coalition in government. Rather than treating elections as a performance evaluation for the rulers and an expression of popular will, consociationalism can penalise the community which shows its dissatisfaction with the elite rule.
Without power to hold the coalition together – which it just about did after 2008, despite a crippling result – this may be the end of BN. In the 2018 election, BN lost almost the entire peninsular, and MCA won only one parliamentary seat, with a thin majority. All but three parties have abandoned the coalition. In the Balakong by-election, MCA announced a unilateral decision to contest under the party logo (not BN’s) for the first time ever (and they still lost). If we have seen the last of BN, what might emerge in its place?
After consociationalism: deliberative democracy and new power-sharing
The end of BN rule is an end of an era. The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government is made up of four parties – Bersatu, PKR, DAP, and Amanah – with an ally in Warisan in Sabah. But does PH represent a new form of power-sharing – hopefully, through deliberative democracy – or merely a new form of consociationalism?
PH cannot be said to be consociationalist in the sense of power-sharing between elites from each major ethnic group. Three of its constituent parties are Malay-Muslim majority (one is exclusively Bumiputera, and another limits full membership rights to Muslims). Unlike BN, the four parties do not strictly split their electorate appeals according to an ethnic division of labour. They are not free from ethnic politics and elitism – identity politics still feature, and many of the leaders are elites splintered from the previous establishment. However, PH retains some elements of consociational democracy, such as a grand coalition (though not as encompassing as Barisan Nasional previously, which included local ethnic parties in East Malaysia) and proportionality (the non-Malay representation in PKR and DAP). But the significant breakthrough is that political representation in PH is not defined and allocated through ethnic elites.
How the opposition parties regroup in the new political landscape will determine the type and territories of contestation in the 15thGeneral Election, due by 2023. As always, Malay politics will be the centre of any coalitional politics. Even prior to PH, the various attempts to form coalitions between opposition parties – Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah in 1990 and Barisan Alternatif in 1999 – were also led by Malay parties. The current opposition in Parliament are likewise Malay-Muslims from UMNO and PAS. It seems probable that they will continue their cooperation, given their overlapping interests and the electoral incentives to ensure a straight fight in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.
This is likely to occasion what political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat called Malay-Muslim Nationalism (MMN), a convergence of two strands of nationalism as championed by PAS (Muslim nationalism) and UMNO (Malay nationalism). If so, identity politics will dominate for the next five years. In the first three months of PH rule, this has already been the case, with major controversies including the appointments of a non-Malay Christian as Attorney General and the first non-Muslim Chief Justice, as well as a PH minister’s remark that allegedly implied Malays too are “pendatang” (immigrants). The government’s proposal to recognise the UEC (an examination system administered by private independent Chinese schools) caused the first student-led protest in post-BN rule. A week later, at a mass demonstration of several thousands, called Himpunan Kebangkitan Ummah (Gathering for Muslim Revival), organisers claimed that the interests of Malay-Muslims are in danger.
The impact of MMN on coalitional politics is clear: Malay-Muslims must be the paramount political class, and any others relegated to a secondary class. PAS President, Hadi Awang, has articulated this most explicitly, saying that only people who adopt the national ideology and faith (Islam) shall decide national policies. As any Non-Malay parties that join this opposition bloc will need to concede to these MMN-influenced demands, it is difficult to see how they can be popular with the non-Malay electorate.
Several factors affect whether this comes to pass. First, the fragile health of Hadi Awang. PAS under his leadership is unlikely to form a political pact with any parties that are in a political alliance with DAP, leaving only UMNO as the biggest potential partner. But if Hadi exits the political landscape before the next election, it may open up new possibilities of alliance.
Second, there are the positions of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, the designated Prime Minister-in-waiting. Mahathir’s age acts as a natural term-limit to the premiership. The impending transition of power will affect the position of Mahathir’s party, the two-year-old Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which has only slightly more than a quarter of the seats in Parliament held by Anwar’s party (13 against 50). PPBM’s top two leaders, Mahathir and Muhyddin Yassin (who is recovering from an operation to remove a tumour and chemotherapy) are vulnerable and it has no obvious successor.
The current cabinet is quite evenly distributed among the four PH parties, but this may change when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives way to Anwar. The head of the executive will then come from PKR, which also has the most legislative seats (by contrast, Mahathir’s Bersatu has the second fewest among PH parties). PKR has made it clear that they should be granted more cabinet ministers too.
PKR is a multiracial party which relies on non-Malay support in mixed seats. If Anwar courts the Malay right to consolidate power, his party will suffer electorally. At the same time, Anwar needs to maintain a sufficient threshold of Malay support in the face of the MMN challenges. This delicate balance might deter the new government from implementing truly significant breakaways from the past – the reconstruction of New Economic Policy, university quotas and ethnic-based admission, a complete ban on child marriage, curtailing the power and size of an excessively large Islamic bureaucracy, and moral policing (in September, two women were publicly caned in Terengganu for “attempting to have lesbian sex”).
In contrast to the overcrowding of political parties competing for Malay electorate, there is little viable challenge to DAP (and to a certain degree, PKR) for the non-Malay electorate. This unhealthy lack of competition may replicate the non-Malay dilemma under BN’s consociationalism. This segment of the electorate may be unsatisfied with the government of the day, but find that any alternative party is aligned to the even more unattractive MMN. The return of local elections, promised by PH, is a welcome step to usher a healthy level of competition in a functioning democracy, so that new political parties can emerge at the local level. The present barrier of entry is too high and smaller (local or regional) parties, like Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), find it hard to survive and have any meaningful impact under the FPTP system. The proposed Electoral Reform Committee is thus a welcome and crucial intervention.
The story of consociationalism is a story of Malaysia, a plural society forging paths ahead while dealing with ethnic differences. Consociationalism stabilised a plural society to render it governable and – with one or two exceptions – contained ethnic conflict from escalating into violent outbreak. But it is also closely tied to anti-democratic practices and consequences. The demise of Barisan Nasional’s ethnic-elite consociationalism may be celebrated as an end to elite-based ethnic politics, but history and events elsewhere counsel caution in approaching the vacuum that has been created. The heralding of racial progress in America and Indonesia following the first African American president and the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta respectively proved to be premature. Malaysia may have brought down the rule of an ethno-elite cartel, but the people of Malaysia must be vigilant to guard its democratic progress against potential backlash. They must also continue to demand accountability and transparency from their leaders to shape a Malaysia that is truly representative of the will of the people and which protects the basic democratic rights of its diverse citizenry.
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 Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s family, while not related to the palace, is a privileged one. His grandfather was a prominent religious leader and nationalist, notably being a founding member of the Islamist party, PAS. Current UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s family migrated from Indonesia, while former president and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s family was of common background (His father was a school headmaster).
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 After Liow Tiong Lai won the MCA presidency from Chua in 2014, there was a cabinet reshuffle in June 2014 to allow for the return of MCA into the cabinet. Liow was appointed Minister of Transport from then till GE14.
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