What began as disgust in GE12 was transformed into a singular movement for change. But this desire for change may not have involved the rural folk to the same degree, says Soon Chuan Yean.
At GE 13, the incumbent ruling party coalition Barisan Nasional/BN retained Putrajaya, winning a total of 133 out of 222 parliamentary seats while Pakatan Rakyat/PR won 89 seats, an increase of seven seats from 2008.
The outcome of the GE does not give the upper hand to either of the coalitions to claim itself as the major winner. Though BN retained its rule and retained Terengganu and captured Kedah from PR, it lost a few parliamentary seats in Sarawak and Sabah.
Several of BN federal ministers and chief ministers also lost, among them Malacca’s Ali Rustam and Johor’s Abdul Ghani Othman. The BN’s popular vote also fell from 50.3 per cent in 2008 to 48.6 per cent in 2013.
Neither is PR comfortable with the outcome as it has not been able to “ubah” (change). It failed to capture Terengganu and lost Kedah to BN despite making inroads into the BN strongholds of Johor, Sabah, and Sarawak. Pas was the most affected among the PR coalition parties: it bagged only 22 seats. Several of its main political figures such as deputy president Mohamad Sabu and vice president Husam Musa was also defeated on polling day.
With this outcome, Najib Razak lamented that the GE result was caught by a “Chinese tsunami,” and that it is time for a “national reconciliation”. The Kedah Chief Minister, Mukhriz followed suit by saying that “racial polarisation” needs to be looked into seriously. Perak BN chief Zambry Abd Kadir, noted that the anti-establishment sentiment caused BN to lose Chinese Malaysian votes, implying that the main support for BN predominantly came from the Malays. MCA President Dr Chua Soi Lek remarked that the GE outcome revealed a two-race system.
Are we witnessing the return of racial politics? Not quite. Lim Kit Siang, the DAP supremo, who had just won at Gelang Patah against Johor’s former chief minister, Abdul Ghani Patail, stated that his win depended on some 40 per cent of Malay voters in the constituency. Various analyses have come out to indicate that the GE outcome does not reflect a “Chinese tsunami”.
Some have suggested that Malaysian politics is moving away from racial politics and towards political ideologies – and this calls for further democratisation. In general, the closest in explaining this GE outcome is the rural-urban divide.
Rural/Urban binary, class divide, and neo-liberalism
So how do we explain the result of the GE 13? Is the rural-urban divide a reflection of a class divide? In Thailand, scholars have argued that the political conflict is due to Thaksin’s pro-poor policies and the class divide between the Bangkok urbanised middle class and the provincial poor lower class.
If we adopt such a view and juxtapose it to Malaysia’s GE 13, we may say that Najib’s “economic transformation” plus Umno’s local machinery work in the rural areas – bread and butter issues – are the main concerns among the rural poor. Thus, there is this division between the urban middle class, who do not subscribe to these “bread and butter” issues per se, and the rural-cum-lower class, who do.
But rather than perceiving political conflict using class terminogy, another school of thought goes beyond the class explanation. What brought about the anti-Thaksin movement was his “post neo-liberalism” orientation, in attempting to portray himself as a pro-poor politician while developing a pro-business (capitalist) political environment. Both the middle class and the urban poor were anti-Thaksin. This view expands its analysis to include neo-liberal economic policies, which are an ongoing trend around the globe.
Malaysia is among the global players in the quest to liberalise and open up its economy to facilitate capital accumulation for the MNCs (multinational corporations) as well as local capitalists at the expense of the petty bourgeoisie, traditional businesses, labour workers and farmers, even the indigenous people.
In Malaysia, despite our economic growth, we continue to experience unemployment, rising cost of living in urban areas, rise of petty criminal acts, insecurity surrounding private property, domestic violence against women and children, corruption, and so on. From the electoral results and vote distribution. One can argue that the urban swing towards the PR might have been on account of its welfarist economic model, which is more humane and people friendly might.
Malaysia is not experiencing a class division between the rural poor and urban middle class. The nation may share the experiences of the pro-business environment and its consequences for the non-elites, like in Thailand. Judging from the outcome of GE13, it is class-based as far as occupations and demography (urban-rural divide space) are concerned.
Suffice to say that there is a different orientation between the rural and urban people. But both groups’ dissatisfaction and desire for change (or status quo) are not shaped entirely by capitalist suppression in its classical sense nor do they create a bourgeoisie-proletarian divide so clearly that a revolution to capture the state is necessary.
A vote against BN is a vote to give PR the chance to become a new government for change. A vote for BN is a vote to retain the status quo with PR yet to generate its own design of legitimacy. The Marxist idea of class-consciousness does not dominate the understanding of the dynamicism of Malaysian voters.
Fragmented visions and uniformity of issues
There is a ferment of fragmented visions and this fragmentation is being unified into several issues in rural and urban areas. This may explain the rural-urban divide; yet it is non-class based. In addition, I would also like to add to another possible line of inquiry that may help us to understand the political attitudes and orientation of the rural voters, namely a “vacuum” of political ethos that we are yet to find out.
I am borrowing “Fragmented Visions” from a book edited by Francis Loh, claiming that Malaysia is divided not merely via ethnicity, but more so is fragmented into different visions of society. For examples, there are different Chinese groups claiming different desires for an ideal society. Among the religious groups, there occurs the Al-Arqam version of Islam, the Umno vs Pas Islam, and even the Sisters-In-Islam version of Islam. This book was edited in 1991 and Malaysia has undergone many changes and challenges. But the “fragmented” component of the book’s analysis stands today. Only, rather than seeing the middle classes as fragmented, we are increasingly observing the solidarity of these middle-range groups hand in hand with the lower-range groups. They have united to struggle against issues such as Lynas in Gebeng and cyanide mining in Raub (environmental); for women’s rights (gender), a clean and fair electoral system (political system); against corruption (governance); for students’ rights (youth), free media, act against the ISA and police brutality (coercive laws); the traffic problem; for preserving our heritage and culture; etc and the list goes on.
We are increasingly seeing many movements such as Bersih 2.0 and 3.0, Lynas marches, the Kuantan gathering, Hindraf, women’s walks against violence, the Pudu/MRT marches, gatherings among Felda folks, and many other smaller ones that are overshadowed by the gigantic movements like Bersih. The old ghost of ethno-religious ideology has been slowly replaced by these new visions that are very much urban-based (middle-range income and lower-middle income groups), peninsular Malaysia issues.
How then does the new unison of visions develop into movements? These visions are a reflection of the 2008 feeling of “muntah” (vomit) and “meluat” (disgust). Philip Khoo’s analysis of such feelings rightly identifies many voters’ frustrations and their desire to teach the BN a lesson. Philip explained that the voters were fed up and felt like puking (muntah) due to the arrogance, negligence, and disgraceful conduct of the BN politicians. The voters did not intend to vote out the BN but to teach them a lesson.
The major difference between GE12 and GE13 is the magnification of these feelings caused by the continued frustration of the unchanged corrupt electoral system (the phantom votes). Add to this the corrupt practices among politicians (such as the lembu issue), the Perkasa-like racial statements, the police reaction to rallies, the silence of politicians on issues such as Altantuya and Lynas. All this shaped the transformation of these “meluat” and “muntah” feelings into an imagination for change – a new ethos.
The early 1990s fragmentation has now been unified (among the urbanites) into several issues with a uniform aim – a quest for a new legitimacy in government. But the change is limited to urban constituencies, whereas the rural voters have not entirely shared the new ethos of the urbanites.
In the Philippines, the political structures remain controlled by the political elites, but in recent time, scholars have argued that to understand the Philippine political dynamics, we have to go beyond “bread and butter” issues. Studies about Philippine politics require an understanding of class divisions.
Joseph “Erap” Estrada’s triumph as President in 1998 and his subsequent downfall in 2001 was the first indication of the emergence of a class divide in the Philippine polity. A scholar of Philippine politics, Mark Thompson has argued that Nonoy Aquino’s win in the 2010 presidential election is a reflection of the “bourgeois triumph of democracy” over the masses.
Another scholar, Michael Pinches has further claimed that there is a “contest of ethos” emerging between the two classes, the former’s ethos is professionalism, efficiency, clean government, economic growth based on the interests of business (capital), while the latter’s ethos is about respect and dignity, equality, and justice.
Arguable the outcome of GE 13 may not yet reflect a class divide such as that found in the Philippines. But we can learn from the Philippine’s experiences of an emerging difference of ethos within the polity.
More likely, it is an emerging ethos that is based in the rural sector which we are yet to comprehend. We may assert that the rural people’s (not necessarily the “lower class” or “the poorest”) political ideas and orientations may pertain to “bread and butter”, “hutang budi”, or land issues.
But there are other rationalities that we are yet to explore and understand. Besides issues concerning democratisation, transparency, governance, professionalism, meritocracy, and globalism, there is political legitimacy that pertains to paying dignity and respect to local people, the capability/capacities (or strengths) of politicians and political party to deliver on promises, the intimidation and fear tactics, the unfamiliar faces vis-à-vis popularity of the candidates, languages and religious orientations; and regional differences.
Politics is not always about elections. Electoral politics can be shaped by contemporary emotional upheavals of ad hoc political campaigns and events. The understanding of political ethos has to go beyond elections and enter into the everyday lives of ordinary people located in a variety of spheres – demographic, geographic, and cultural.
It is about time for us to (re)think the rural/semi-rural ethos. What are their ethos and their concerns that the so-called “modern mind” urbanites have long overlooked? Rather than thinking along the lines of “bourgeois ethos” and the need to “educate” or “civilise” the rural/poor, urbanites must engage with the rural folk and develop the necessary machinery and networks for consistent dialogue.
Arguably, the Malaysian political structure has gone beyond ethnicity but increasingly manifests a rural-urban differentiation of ethos instead of class divisions. But such a division does not mean a bourgeoisie-proletariat binary charactered by a “class consciousness”, or that the people are ready to revolt against the state.
The division can perhaps be explained by the different ethos that are yet to be understood, analysed, along with an ethnography especially concerning the rural spectrum. The “meluat” and “muntah” commotion has been transformed into a singular imagination for change. Such an imagination may not have involved the rural folks as much as it did their urban counterparts.