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Special Briefings: Beyond 21 March 2004 Malaysian Elections: Trends and Issues relating to the "New" Abdullah Badawi Malaysia

April 2004
Simon SC Tay


Perhaps no country matters more to Singapore than Malaysia. When we surveyed political developments in that country some three years ago, five possible sensitivities were noted in the wake of the 1997 crisis and the acrimony between then Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir, and his sacked deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

These included: (1) a change in the role of Islam, with the rise of PAS and its more strident form of religious strictures; (2) changes in the roles of racial parties in the Barisan Nasional (BN), whereby Malay support for UMNO was lessened and chinese support increased; (3) concerns over cronyism and corruption affecting the appeal and effectiveness of UMNO; and (4) the question of Dr. Mahathir's legacy.

Our report then argued that "if UMNO and the ruling BN coalition hope to recover and retain power, fundamental changes are necessary."

In this issue of Special Briefings, we look at Malaysia again in the aftermath of its 2004 General Elections.

BN and UMNO have won a huge victory, winning over 90% of the seats in the National Parliament. This is beyond the levels of support that they have won before, even under Dr. Mahathir. They have also regained Trengganu and made large in roads into PAS controlled Kelantan.

Beyond the results, we consider again these four areas: Islam; the Malay and minority votes; corruption and the Mahathir legacy. Our analysis is that in each of these, significant efforts have been made to win over voters, paving the way for the victory by UMNO and BN. Much of this will be to both Malaysians as well as to others in Singapore.

The promise of progressive and moderate platform of "hadhari" Islam has gained ground over PAS's more fundamentalist practices. UMNO has decisively regained the support of the middle ground Malay and swing voters, with the chinese returning to either MCA or Gerakan, part of the BN, or indeed the DAP, which is now again the main opposition party in place of PAS. On corruption, the months leading up to the election witnessed the first clear steps and priorities to deal with the issue.  A more transparent and level playing field in Malaysia is promised. As for Dr. Mahathir's legacy, in many ways, it seems that UMNO benefited from a greater distance from this charismatic but controversial leader, and from the Anwar issue.

Uniting progress in these four areas is one single factor: Abdullah Badawi, the new Prime Minister. The veteran politician has had a dream run-up to the election, making many of the right steps and promises. His Islamic credentials, moderate style, reputation for being clean and honest and steps against corruption have been the single most important factor in the 2004 elections. And with this victory, Prime Minister Badawi has secured perhaps the strongest possible mandate to carry out the changes that he thinks are necessary for party, government and country.

The SIIA offers this Special Briefings to provide more information and analysis behind this conclusion. The factors behind the swing to UMNO and Badawi, and the promises he has made, are examined.

Looking ahead, the SIIA will in future months continue to look closely at Malaysia. We will provide our members with closed door and candid dialogues on what will happen next. The first of these sessions, with an UMNO insider, has already examined the internal perspective on UMNO's big win and the limits and challenges that Prime Minister Badawi must now face, even with this victory in hand. Further sessions being planned will consider specific issues such as the anti-corruption effort. For while the BN, UMNO and Prime Minister Badawi celebrate the 2004 victory, there remains much work to be done and more political challenges to be met.


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