The Nation and its National Front

Today, I had an article published in Berita, the Newsletter of the Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei Studies Group in the US Association for Asian Studies. I’m not a current affairs reporter, nor do I focus on seat counts and swings. What I am interested in is the contest of narratives that has developed since 2008, and that takes a longer-term perspective.

Malaysia’s 2013 Election: The Nation and the National Front

Winning an election may still be one of life’s great thrills, but the afterglow is diminishing. (Naim 2013)

If ever an election victory could be interpreted as a humiliation by the winning side, then the Malaysian federal election, held in May this year, was profoundly humiliating for the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN).

BN won government for the thirteenth time, and extended its uninterrupted hold on federal government in Malaysia. It also continues to hold a majority of states in the federation. In this sense, BN’s political primacy—as the sole government Malaysia has ever known—remains in place, in the nation it argues its predecessors brought in to being in 1957 (Cheah Boon Kheng 2002; Hooker 2003).

Aside from remaining in government, however, BN has nevertheless had to reconcile itself to a new political environment, in which its domination of the architecture of ‘the national’ is no longer guaranteed. The polls and technics that group together within this new environment have generated much academic commentary since May. Yet one feature of this recent election that remains undiscussed is the extent to which it reveals that BN’s hold over narratives of the nation’s past, present and future has weakened considerably over the past decade. Indeed, the May election has revealed that BN is no longer assured that it can smoothly weave narratives of its own history together with those of the nation’s development (Hooker 2003:Chp 1).

This effect has exposed a heightened level of contestation about how the nation itself should be understood—indeed, how it should be constituted—and this contestation is played out in several key national spaces in which political debate is conducted. These spaces include the federal parliament, in which BN relies on an electoral gerrymander to retain sufficient seats to form government; and the public sphere, which is characterised by the rise of the digital media and the erosion of older print and broadcast mediascapes (Surin 2010; Yeoh Seng Guan 2010). As a result, absolute parliamentary numbers aside, both spaces are increasingly fragmented, and are no longer BN’s exclusive domain.

  • The rest of this article is available in Berita, where it was first published.

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