Malaysia’s deep divides
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Malaysia’s deep divides

National elections on May 5 haven’t cooled political and racial tensions, writes Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen

Any hope that May 5 national elections in Malaysia would cool the political atmosphere appears to have been misguided, leaving a country entangled in deepening racial problems and creating the risk of a real threat to the legitimacy of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s reign.

While not calling for Najib’s removal, the prime minister’s most potent critic, former Premier Mahathir Mohamad, damned him with faint praise, telling Bloomberg News in an interview in Tokyo last week that the United Malays National Organization will continue to support him “because of a lack of an alternative.”

Najib himself appears to have gone quiet as figures close to Mahathir including his longtime ally Daim Zainuddin have gone public to say the prime minister’s closest political advisors should be sacked. Instead of even attempting to woo Chinese voters, Daim said in an interview with the Chinese News, “surely the Barisan Nasional knows that the Chinese majority areas were gone. Why waste time and money? As a strategy you should concentrate on those areas where you lost by slim majorities in 2006 and strengthen the seats you won in 2008.”

(READ MORE: Malaysia charges 4 more with sedition after polls)

In the same interview, Daim echoed criticisms that Najib’s forces had in some cases picked the wrong candidates for the race and accused the advisors of attempting to run the election as a popularity contest for Najib instead of a parliamentary race, although in public opinion polls, Najib consistently ran far ahead of his party, which is widely viewed as corrupt, racist and tired.

The Daim interview was picked up on a blog maintained by A. Kadir Jassin, editor in chief of Berita Publishing and a longtime close confidant of Mahathir.

“Daim let Najib have it,” an UMNO source told Asia Sentinel. “He should go if you ask me. I’d much rather have Muhyiddin. UMNO is particularly upset as we told Najib not to throw money at the Chinese as other constituencies needed the resources and the Chinese wouldn’t vote us anyway. So now he has to answer for it.”

The “Muhyiddin” in question is Muhyiddin Yassin, Najib’s deputy and a man who openly covets Najib’s job. A Malay nationalist, he is close to Mahathir. So far, he has maintained his silence on whether he intends to challenge the prime minister at UMNO’s annual general meeting, scheduled to be held in October although Najib appears to be trying to move it to a different time to give himself the best advantage.

Meanwhile, although many political analysts say the fact that Pakatan Rakyat won 50.87 percent of the vote to 47.38 percent for the Barisan was an indication of disenchantment with UMNO’s racial politics and corruption – and that urban Malays crossed over to the opposition, groups such as the Malay nationalist NGO Perkasa are demanding an even bigger share of the economic pie for ethnic Malays. Abdul Rahman, the acting Perkasa leader, said that because Malays make up 60 percent of the population, the organization would push for 60 percent of corporate equity and quotas for enrollment in public universities, double the current 30 percent, which Najib has been attempting to reduce or remove over the past four years, but has been thwarted.

The government, he told the news site Malaysian Insider, should be thankful to the Malays for delivering the electoral victory. He echoed Mahathir and other figures in asserting that the Chinese had shown disloyalty by deserting the Barisan.

On the other side, reformers such as Khairy Jamaluddin, the son in law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, have urged Najib to press ahead with the social and economic reforms he has attempted to put in place for the past three years in an effort to address the concerns of the young, urban voters who have crossed over to the opposition.

At the same time Najib is being whipsawed by the Pakatan Rakyat, with Anwar Ibrahim leading the charge, continuing with a series of massive rallies in virtually every major city across the country, alleging that the election was stolen through a long litany of electoral abuses including vote buying, phantom voters, intimidation, stolen ballot papers, malapportionment, gerrymandering and other manipulations.