Republication by Channel News Asia

An attendant wearing a cap in the colours of the Malaysian national flag waits for customers at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur on April 4, 2016. (Photo: AFP/MANAN VATSYAYANA)

Commentary: Beneath the cycle of Malaysian voter excitement and exhaustion, a contest brews

An op-ed that I wrote for The Interpreter, Lowy Institute on 14 February has been republished by Channel News Asia.

Lowy Institute Op-Ed: Malaysia’s Exhausted Voters

Lightning strikes the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur in April 2017 (Photo: Sitoo/Flickr)

I wrote an op-ed for The Interpreter on how exhausted Malaysian voters seem to feel from hearing the endless tactical talk that surrounds contemporary elections. I have a sense that scratching the surface, however, shows just how aware many Malaysians are that this is an important election, with high stakes, in which both sides of politics are well out of their comfort zones.

The full op-ed can be found below.

Malaysia’s election – electric and exhausting

In media studios, food courts, street stalls, and offices, I watch Malaysian political observers and insiders perform the same routine.

First, they sigh and look bored with the coming general election, due sometime before August. They talk of the lack of debate and point to a group of young people on Twitter, now called the #undirosak movement after politicians and the media amplified their voices, who call on voters to protest by lodging spoiled ballot papers.

This went on all last week. Some are annoyed that years spent building an electoral alternative to the Barisan Nasional government now appear wasted, after 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad changed sides and seemingly captured the opposition. Negotiations continue, but his party now seems set to run the largest number of candidates in the electoral coalition called the Pakatan Harapan.

Then they begin recounting the various futures the election result might bring, becoming increasingly animated as they go on. There are as many different versions of this conversation as there are speakers, but in short, seats might fall; voter blocs might split or swing; states might change governments; voters on either side may or may not come out to vote; internal faction fights might cause leadership spills; royal families might intervene, or perhaps back the wrong team; and the Borneo states might side with whichever grouping wins the most seats on the Peninsula.

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Searching for the old Mahathir-Anwar glory days?

The federal Opposition’s election campaign will likely be about returning to the good times when many sense the economy was better and there was easy interaction among multiracial Malaysians. (Photo: Shafwan Zaidon).

Today I was quoted in an article in The Malay Mail Online by Ida Lim covering a forum, “GE14: The polls, the money, the stakes”, which was hosted yesterday by the Australian National University (ANU)’s Malaysia Institute and Gerakbudaya. I discuss how the Opposition’s strategy is to focus on the “glory days of the Mahathir-Anwar team” during Malaysia’s financial boom of the 1990s, and on promoting the narrative of past multiracial harmony.


Mahathir renews old alliance with Anwar in bid for PM

At 92, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is again vying for the country’s top job. Photo: Reuters, Lai Seng Sin

The Conversation has published an op-ed I wrote discussing the unprecedented political development of Mahathir Mohamad becoming leader of the coalition of opposition parties against Najib Razak. Mahathir’s rise to leadership puts him on the same side as his former political enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently serving a jail term and will likely seek a royal pardon in June to readmit himself to political life.

This is an abridged version of a longer piece published by Inside Story.

Mahathir Mohamad crops up again in bid to lead Malaysia – with Anwar on the same side

“On January 8, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad announced his intention to contest the next general election, due sometime before August this year.

In an unprecedented political turnaround, Mahathir is now leader of the alliance of opposition parties bidding to oust the incumbent, Najib Razak. Mahathir handpicked Najib in 2009 to head his former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the coalition it has led since the 1970s, Barisan Nasional.

To add further intrigue, Mahathir now appears to be on a unity ticket with his old enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, for control of the country.

Mahathir, who first rose through UMNO ranks to become prime minister in 1981, is 92. His decision to stand again has raised questions about the state of politics in this young nation, whose median age is 28. Malaysian and international media outlets alike have carried comments along the lines that nominating somebody so old is a “laughable” choice.

Yet the key to this decision is not in the nation’s age profile but the calculus of building electoral coalitions in a diverse nation bearing the scars of political battles fought since 1998.

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Radio Interview: Political Dynamics of the 14th Malaysian General Election

Today I visited the independent Malaysian radio station BFM 89.9, along with Kean Wong, Contributing Editor on the Malaysian election campaign at New Mandala, to give an interview on the political tactics of both sides during the GE14 and point out which issues people should be paying attention to. The full podcast can be heard through their website, linked above.

Essay in Griffith Review 55 Now Unlocked: Intercultural Futures

Griffith Review has unlocked an essay of mine that it first published in 2017, discussing the South Australian state government’s desire to internationalise SA – both economically and culturally – by stepping up its engagement with Asia. It also explores how well-intentioned, but ultimately clumsy, attempts to be more ‘intercultural’ reveal the government’s lack of cultural fluency and an unhelpful and patronising tendency towards ethnic reductionism.

Intercultural Futures: The Fraught Politics of Multiculturalism

‘SO WHAT? THERE’S no story here,’ the marketing consultant snapped down the phone. ‘I mean, bloody hell, the premier’s forever banging on about Asia, and everybody’s heard it all before.’

Welcome to South Australia, a state working hard to internationalise itself so that it might survive its painful economic ‘transition’ now underway. As part of this effort, Premier Jay Weatherill is, indeed, forever banging on about Asia.

Like other state and federal leaders, Weatherill has made it part of his job to talk up Asian engagement in a way that reflects the region’s transformation over the past forty years. As a result, the word ‘Asia’ now carries new meanings in Australian public debate, shifting from simply a place where cheap goods and workers can be accessed to a place where the world’s new rich also happen to live, ready to buy our stuff and invest in our economy. On a national scale, our economy is already so deeply enmeshed with Asia that the region can no longer really be thought of as ‘foreign’, thanks to increased trade, investment and migration to Australia.

The marketing consultant had obviously written up this sort of thing too many times before. Still, I needed her to do it again. I was convening an event called InterculturAdelaide, a policy outreach day in the Ninth International Convention of Asia Scholars that Adelaide hosted in 2015. I was serving on the conference organising committee as secretary of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

The government of South Australia had provided strong support for the event, via direct grants and indirect subsidies, and even some help with marketing. The premier spoke on the keynote panel I hosted, and issued a call for South Australians to move beyond a basic passive tolerance for cultural diversity to embrace ‘interculturality’. ‘Citizens of an intercultural society,’ Weatherill said, ‘would be open and outward looking in their orientation to the world.’ They would aim to ‘truly understand different cultures and beliefs’, including with the peoples and cultures of Asia in particular, and ‘seek to engage with these cultures on various levels’. This engagement would underpin not only our successful pursuit of economic goals, but also allow us to develop an ‘ethos’ guiding positive relationships with each other.

The premier, along with others on the state’s political scene, is serious about encouraging such forms of engagement. Nevertheless, a certain economic reductionism can often creep in to the South Australian discussion about Asia – especially in its corporate and bureaucratic registers. This reductionism is directly related to the state’s economic problems, which, for decades, have been accompanied by a demonstrable demographic decline. As part of its campaign to internationalise, South Australia is looking for more new migrants, drawing in part on its international student pool, and is prepared to offer sponsorship in order to retain them. As a result, the fastest-growing migrant groups in this state are Asian, and SA has begun to display a pattern of cultural diversity – along with an increasingly Asian profile – that is broadly similar to that of the nation as a whole.

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Political Turnarounds and the Battle for the “Real” Malaysia

Unlikely allies: longstanding opposition figure Wan Azizah (left) with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (second from right) after Malaysia’s opposition named Mahathir as its candidate for prime minister (Photo: Fazry Ismail/EPA).

Today Inside Story published an essay of mine on the rise of Mahathir Mohamad to leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition opposition parties at the age of 92. I discuss Malaysia’s current political faultlines and why Mahathir is now allying himself with former nemesis Anwar Ibrahim.

The battle for the “real” Malaysia

“It’s hard to think of a more surprising political turnaround. This week former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that he will contest this year’s general election as leader of an alliance of opposition parties committed to ousting the government of Najib Razak. It was Mahathir who chose Najib back in 2009 to lead his former party, UMNO, and the coalition it has headed since the 1970s, Barisan Nasional. In taking the candidacy, the former PM allies himself with his one-time colleague and later nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, whom he famously sacked from the deputy prime ministership in 1998.

Mahathir, who rose through UMNO’s ranks to become prime minister in 1981, is ninety-two years old. His decision to stand this year has raised questions about the state of politics in a nation where the median age is only twenty-eight. Malaysian and international media outlets alike have reflected the view that Mahathir’s selection to lead the coalition is “laughable.”

For answers to this apparent paradox, though, look not to the nation’s age profile but to the calculus of building electoral coalitions in a diverse nation that still bears the scars of the political battles of the past two decades. Look also to Mahathir’s singular success in building coalitions over even more decades, using a combination of Malay nationalism, an Islamist ethic favouring entrepreneurship and capitalist development, and selective minority representation. In combination with favours for allies and civil and judicial pressure on opponents, his use of these themes has been masterful.

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Installing Mahathir is an intentional political strategy

ABC News interview: discussing Mahathir Mohamad’s bid for PM at 92 years of age and the calculations informing this choice (Photo: ABC News Twitter).

Today I gave an interview to ABC News on the current state of politics in Malaysia. I told the ABC’s Del Irani that Installing Mahathir as a Pakatan figurehead is a move full of intent, aimed at rewinding Malaysian politics back to the 1990s days of the ‘real’ Barisan Nasional – led by Mahathir and Anwar – and organised as a multi-racial coalition, not a seemingly Malay Muslim bloc.

The decision aims to neutralise voter concerns in two directions; on the one hand it reassures Malay Muslims that there is no threat against them from either minorities or Islamists in the form of PAS; and on the other, it reassures liberal and non-Muslims that there remains a political bulwark against stronger Islamisation in the future.

I also touch on Mahathir’s age and the party’s plans for succession, and the remarkable history of the Anwar and Mahathir relationship.

What is Dr Mahathir’s anti-Najib strategy?

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad talks to journalists in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya, earlier this month. Ahmad Yusni/EPA, selected by Inside Story. 

Today, the excellent website Inside Story published my latest essay on the strategy and tactics of Dr Mahathir’s entry into Pakatan Harapan. I discuss the way the opposition parties wish to convert FELDA’s problems into a mini-1MDB crisis for rural voters in critical seats.



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