Mahathir’s New Party

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks at a ‘Save Malaysia’ rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 28 March 2016. Photo: EPA/AHMAD YUSNI, selected by Southeast Asia Globe.

I’ve made some comments in the Southeast Asia Globe on Mahathir’s new political party. My comments were:

According to Amrita Malhi, a researcher on Malaysia based at the University of Adelaide, the new party was established to oppose UMNO and current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is facing allegations that more than $1 billion from state development fund 1MDB was transferred into his personal bank accounts.

“[Mahathir] believes that Najib is using money allegedly siphoned out of 1MDB to pay both his allies and many voters to continue to support him,” she said. “As Mahathir has determined that he cannot possibly outspend Najib, he is moving to convince disillusioned UMNO members to leave and join his new party instead.”

Malhi added that some UMNO party members admire Mahathir and are growing increasingly disillusioned with Najib.

“They feel awkward about defending him, especially before international audiences,” she said, “even while Najib’s allies continue to defend him before the Malaysian public.”

Migrant Workers Also Have Politics

A group of people thought to be migrant workers, holding up Barisan Nasional flags. Stock image selected by New Mandala.

The 2013 Malaysian election was characterised by repeated claims that tens of thousands of migrant workers would be mobilised to vote in support of the government coalition. As truth claims, such statements did not hold up. Yet my view is that they should be evaluated not as truth claims, but as a highly effective ‘get out the vote’ campaign. As these statements circulated, they drove up voter attendance at polling places, because they connected two important issues that many Malaysians hold grave doubts about, and harnessed those doubts to mobilise voters. These issues are the conduct of elections and the use of migrant workers. Anyway, I decided to talk to a migrant worker about the election, and New Mandala published the interview.

How would a foreign worker vote, anyway?

In Taman Desa, in Teresa Kok’s (Democratic Action Party/DAP) electorate of Seputeh, I asked a Bangladeshi worker about Malaysian politics. Why not, after all? These workers have invested their labour, their lives, and their aspirations in Malaysia, just as much as past generations of foreign workers have. Unlike the foreign workers of today, those of the past are familiar. They became Malayans. Their descendants are now Malaysians.

Rumours and leaks are circulating like wildfire that legions of foreign workers are being mobilised and transported by air to vote for BN in tomorrow’s election. Organisations like Anyone/Anything But UMNO (ABU) are preparing to monitor polling stations tomorrow, and one of their aims is to identify these workers and discourage them from voting. Read more

Imagining a Nation After its National Front

A supporter holds an opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia flag on election nomination day in Pekan, Pahang state. Photo: Lai Seng Sin/ AP

I was in Malaysia during its 2013 election, a historic event that has since unleashed a major restructure of Malaysian politics. I’m putting up a series of posts from 2013 to provide a bit of depth to what’s going on now in 2016, beginning with this one from Inside Story, where I tried to imagine what a post-racial Malaysia might look like, while also attending a funeral and watching an election campaign. The full text is below, and the link to the original article is at the bottom.


Can Malaysia find life after the National Front?

4 MAY 2013

A historic election campaign reopened old questions about what kind of nation Malaysia should be, writes Amrita Malhi in Kuala Lumpur

When Balbir Kaur arrived in Malaya, the country’s ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese, Indians and “Others” – were already said to be living racially bounded lives. The educated Malay elite was part of a broader Malay nationalist group, the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, which had emerged from the struggle over competing visions of a postcolonial Malaya in the heady days of the 1940s. One option, Britain’s Malayan Union proposal, saw Malaya as a nation-state in which citizens would have the same status, regardless of their racial origin. But this proposal was abandoned the late 1940s as UMNO rose above the various organisations jockeying for leadership of the national struggle. All pro-independence groupings to the left of UMNO were banned, and the colonial authorities had set about eradicating the Malayan Communist Party, whose politics were Malay nationalism’s strongest competitor. Read more

Barisan Nasional and PAS in the 1990s

The edited volume, Malaysia: Islam, Society and Politics.

In 2003, I published a book chapter based on my Honours thesis in a festschrift for Clive Kessler, edited by Virginia Hooker and Norani Othman, called Malaysia: Islam, Society and Politics. In it, I argued that the contest between the Barisan Nasional government and PAS throughout the 1990s was based in two competing discourses around how Islam should be understood. On one side was the critique of development and unfettered market capitalism espoused by PAS, usually described as a ‘traditionalist’ Muslim party. On the other stood the pro-market and strongly developmentalist Barisan Nasional, led at the time by Mahathir Mohamad, who was often characterised as a ‘modernist’ or ‘moderniser’.

A preview is available on Google Books.

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