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Malaysia: Barisan Nasional Coming Apart at the Seams?

Unless Prime Minister Najib Razak promotes a more inclusive vision of the country, it seems increasingly likely that the more progressive People’s Justice Party will defeat his National Front at the next election.


Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is attempting to steer his country through a difficult period of economic reform, while keeping his party’s hold on leadership intact. That can be a hard task anywhere, but particularly at present in Malaysia, where polarising government policy threatens to rupture the country’s ethnic and religious harmony. The National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN) is rapidly losing ground to the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or PKR) and the Prime Minister’s popularity is plummeting. A controversial upcoming by-election in the wealthy industrial state of Selangor has commentators suggesting that the PKR leadership is ready to raise the stakes.


General elections in 2008 and 2013 saw the BN returned to power, but by much narrower margins than in previous years. Many ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as a significant number of Malays, are growing intolerant of the inequality stemming from institutionalised pro-Malay favouritism. They have turned to the PKR, with its focus on anti-corruption measures and social justice, in the hope of achieving equality in business and education. Now, faced with a rapidly depleting support base, Najib is clinging to the ethnic Malay vote. Consequently, he is yielding to hard-line right wingers within United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest party in the ruling coalition.

This has only served to further upset Malaysia’s delicate ethnic balance. In October last year, a court ruled that only Muslims were allowed to use the word “Allah”, despite its common use as a proper noun. In January, the first major repercussions of the ruling were seen in Selangor, when 321 Bibles were seized from a Christian group. The government remained silent on the issue, presumably to appease the predominantly Muslim ethnic Malays, which only confirmed to minorities that the BN was willing to encroach on their rights for political gain.

Tension was exacerbated when Teresa Kok of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), released a satirical Chinese New Year video that was perceived as critical of the government and Malaysian royal family. Islamist NGOs responded by offering a monetary reward to anybody who would slap Kok. Protests against the video have continued, with hardliners splashing Kok’s house with red paint and leaving a chicken carcass on the doorstep on
19 February.

Ben Suffian, head of the Merdeka Centre in Kuala Lumpur, has suggested that conservatives within UMNO are exploiting religious tension to turn attention away from the economic reforms, which have threatened to undermine the party’s support among rural Malays.[1] Undoubtedly, Malaysia’s economic situation has not made it easy for Najib.

Thanks to its considerable oil wealth, the Malaysian economy has remained relatively stable, despite significant fuel and food subsidies. But, with oil reserves running out and the cost of economic development rising, debt has risen to over 53 per cent of GDP.[2] In a move lauded by the International Monetary Fund, Najib has introduced a six per cent sales tax, cut fuel and sugar subsidies, and placed a limit on civil service perks. Although he has attempted to mitigate hardship by providing assistance to lower-income Malaysians and cutting personal income tax, many are still blaming Najib for the strain posed by the rising cost of living.

Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the PKR, has acknowledged the validity of the principles underlying economic reform, but stated that the government moved too quickly and, in doing so, made life difficult for much of the population. Certainly, dissatisfaction with the government is reflected in recent opinion polls. According to leaked reports, support from Chinese Malaysians is down to eight per cent and the rate of approval among Indian voters has dropped from 45 to 30 per cent. Most concerning for the BN, however, is that ethnic Malay support is now hovering around 50 per cent.[3]

Now, it seems that the PKR is moving to take advantage of the government’s plummeting popularity. With the sudden resignation of the PKR representative in the seat of Kajang, Selangor, a by-election has been scheduled for March. Given that the PKR won the seat in a landslide against a Chinese member of BN in the last election, Anwar, who will contest the seat this time, remains the favourite. The suspicion is that he will then replace Khalid Ibrahim as Chief Minister of Selangor, a position that would afford him the opportunity to prove his legitimacy to the Malaysian population. If Anwar can successfully navigate ethnic divides in Selangor and promote an inclusive and open vision of Malaysia, Najib may find himself unseated from the Prime Ministership.

Weaning the country off an extensive subsidy programme will pose a challenge to whatever party is in power, but exploiting racial divisions to shore up support could be disastrous for the National Front. If Najib really wants to act in the national interest and retain power, he must embrace inclusivity, support minority rights and fight corruption. It may already be too late, however. Anwar’s reputation as both an administrator and communicator is on the rise and increasing support for his party is a trend likely to continue. At this stage, it looks as though UMNO’s ‘perpetual electoral success, albeit in coalition, since independence from Britain’ is getting closer than ever to drawing to a close.

Isabella Borshoff
Research Assistant
Indian Ocean Programme

[1] Grant, J., ‘Knives Out for Malaysia PM Najib Razak’, Financial Times, 5 February 2014. <>.

[2] Grant, J,. ‘Najib Razak Cuts Subsidies in Effort to Plug Malaysia Deficit’, Financial Times, 31 December 2013. <>.

[3] ‘Malaysia’s Ruling Party in Crisis: Approval Ratings Plummet,’ ValueWalk, 19 February 2014.   <>.


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