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Understanding the 2004 Election Results

Looking beyond the Pak Lah factor

by Francis Loh
Aliran Monthly 2004:3

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elections (3K)
The BN continues to benefit from the Mahathir legacy
In the 11th General Election, which was held on 21 March 2004, the Barisan Nasional (BN) scored a spectacular victory, polling 63.8% of the popular vote (up from 56% in 1999). In Malaysia’s first-past-the-post (or simple majority) electoral system, this translated into 198 of the 219 parliament seats, or 90.4% of all the seats in parliament. This is the ruling party’s highest ever domination of parliament.

A comparison of the results of the 2004 and the 1999 general provides insight into this victory. For analytical purposes let us distinguish the peninsula from the Sabah and Sarawak seats. It is further useful to divide the peninsula seats into three major types: generally rural large Malay-majority seats (with more than 70 percent Malay voters); urban large Chinese-majority seats (with more than 70 percent Chinese voters) and semi-urban mixed seats (wherein no particular ethnic group constitutes more than 70 percent of the voters).

In 1999, BN won 102 out of the 144 parliamentary seats in the peninsula, and 148 out of the 193 parliamentary seats throughout the country. The results belied the fact that the BN, essentially UMNO, had performed poorly in the Malay heartland states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. PAS had won all eight parliamentary seats in Tereng-ganu and 13 of 14 seats at stake in Kelantan. PAS also performed very well in the contest for state seats and emerged as the ruling party in Kelantan and Terengganu states. In Kedah, Mahathir’s home state, PAS even bested UMNO, winning 8 out of 15 parliamentary seats, although UMNO gained more state seats than PAS and so won the right to form the state government.

In fact, BN/UMNO had only polled 48.5 percent of the popular vote in the large Malay majority constituencies and won only 22 of the 52 large Malay-majority seats contested. Its performance in the Chinese majority seats was also poor. The BN polled 48.0 of the popular vote in these seats and only won 4 of the 10 seats. The BN’s victory was only secured because it performed spectacularly in the semi-urban mixed constituencies where it captured 76 of 82 seats and polled 60 percent of the popular vote in these mixed constituencies. As well, the BN won all 28 seats in Sarawak and 17 of 21 seats in Sabah (including Labuan).

Performance of BN in 1999 and 2004 general elections by constituency type
                           1999 2004
 No of seatsWon% of votesNo of seatsWon% of votes
Malay majority (more than 70% Malays)
Chinese majority (more than 70% Chinese) 10448.012246.5
Peninsula Total144102 16514663.8
Sabah (inc Labuan) 211859.72625Na
TOTAL193148 219198 

In 2004, the BN claimed 25 of the 26 seats in Sabah (including Labuan) and 27 of the 28 seats in Sarawak. It also won 146 of the 165 seats in the Peninsula. Again, the BN performed very well in the semi-urban mixed seats winning 91 of 93 seats. More importantly, it also performed very well in the Malay heartland states where the rural large Malay-majority seats are to be found. It won all 8 parliamentary seats in Terengganu; all 3 seats in Perlis; 8 of 14 seats in Kelantan; and 14 of the 15 seats in Kedah. More than that, the BN recaptured Terengganu state when it won 28 out of 32 state seats, while it narrowly conceded Kelantan state to PAS when it gained 21 to PAS’s 24 state seats. The BN further performed very well in the contest for state seats in Kedah (winning 31 of 36 seats) and in Perlis (winning 14 of 15 seats). The total number of PAS MPs dropped from 27 in 1999 to only 7 following the 2004 election. Meanwhile, Parti Keadilan, which previously held 5 parliamentary seats ended up with only one seat. Of the opposition parties, only DAP managed to hold its own. It performed well in the urban Chinese majority seats winning 12 parliamentary seats, including Kuching in Sarawak (up from 10 in1999). The final seat went to an independent who defeated the BN candidate in Sandakan, Sabah.

Hence, Abdullah secured the mandate from both non-Malay as well as Malay voters. He had proved himself more popular than Mahathir who had lost the popular Malay vote to the opposition in 1999, and needed BN victories in Sabah and Sarawak, and the popular support of non-Malays in Chinese-majority and mixed constituencies to defeat the opposition. How does one account for this spectacular BN victory in 2004?

The "Pak Lah factor"

Many analysts have cited the “Pak Lah factor”. Apparently, it was the person of the new prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that had made the difference. In less than five months, after assuming power in November 1, 2003, Abdullah, it is suggested, has been able to stamp his own mark and to distinguish himself from Dr Mahathir Mohamad who had dominated the political scene for 22 long years.

Indeed, Abdullah did introduce important changes in the short time that he had been in office. It has become clearer what he meant when he proclaimed that he would focus on the “software part” rather than the “hardware part of development” and on developing a “first-class mentality” among Malaysians to accompany the “first-class infrastructure” Mahathir left behind. These changes pertained to “improving governance”, “fighting corruption”, restoring “safety and security”, “improving the delivery of services by the civil service” and what might be termed a “work with me” style of politics.

Some of these issues are discussed in an accompanying article by Wong Kok Keong in this issue of the AM. Wong shows that this Pak Lah factor was carefully constructed and packaged to appeal to the old and young. In fact, it was not only image. With these changes, Abdullah, in fact, had refused to concede the higher moral ground to the opposition; corruption, for instance, could not be made into an electoral issue. He refused to cede religious authority to Pas either. An alternative version of a progressive, tolerant and modern Islam, what he called “Islam Hadhari”, was offered.

start_quote (1K) Indeed, this 2003 delineation exercise was probably the most comprehensive that has been conducted. It is not surprising therefore that so many irregularities have been reported this time. end_quote (1K)
To a large extent, the Pak Lah factor adds up to things that Mahathir did not stand for. And if this is so, the Pak Lah factor amounts to an indictment of Mahathir. Pak Lah’s finest hour was apparently gained in projecting himself as the mirror opposite of what Mahathir stood for.

The BN control of the broadcast as well as the print media ensured that this image of Pak Lah was projected effectively, yet without openly castigating his predecessor.

That said, it was not simply the Pak Lah factor and Abdullah’s new initiatives in the past five months that account for the BN’s spectacular victory. No doubt, there were continuities from the past which also benefited the BN. We refer to the usual 3-M’s: the money that the BN parties and candidates so easily availed themselves of; the control of the electronic and print media; and the BN’s usual abuse of the government machinery even while it was merely a caretaker government. There was more.

Changing the rules and the boundaries

With its two-thirds majority in the last Parliament, the Mahathir’s government had passed amendments to the Election Act and Election Offences Act in April 2002. In the 2003 delineation exercise, the Elections Commission (SPR), which has lost all semblance of its original autonomy, had also added 26 new parliamentary seats and 63 state seats especially in the states where the BN had performed very well in 1999. Most of these seats were semi-urban mixed seats. These includ 5 parliamentary seats in Sabah; 6 in Johore; 5 in Selangor; 3 in Pahang; and 2 in Penang. No additional parliamentary seats were added to Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah where PAS had scored huge successes in 1999. In the event, the BN won 25 of the 26 new seats. The exception was the victory of Karpal Singh in Bukit Gelugor.

The 2004 delineation exercise also involved substantive redrawing of the electoral boundaries in all states which had additional seats as well as in the Kedah and Terengganu where there were no additional seats. This redrawing, no doubt, benefit the BN more than the opposition. Indeed, this 2003 delineation exercise was probably the most comprehensive that has been conducted. It is not surprising therefore that so many irregularities have been reported this time. (see accompanying article by Ramdas Tikamdas)

ISA, detention and convictions

It should also be remembered that the Mahathir’s BN government had used the ISA, other coercive laws and the courts to curb the opposition in the period between the 1999 and 2004 elections. Some of the most charismatic leaders of Parti Keadilan and the reformasi movement – Ezam Mohamed Nor, Tian Chua, Saari Sungib, Lokman Noor Adam, Dr Badrulamin Bahron, Hishamuddin Rais (and for a while Raja Petra and Gobalakrishnan too) were detained under the ISA on trumped up charges of threatening national security. Vice-President Mohd Azmin Ali was taken to court and finally sentenced to 18 months jail for perjury in 2001. Deputy Wanita chief Irene Fernandez was also taken to court and sentenced to 12 months jail for publishing allegedly false news. Ezam, the Youth leader, already detained under the ISA, was taken to court on a charge of disclosing official secrets and subsequently sentenced to two years jail. Ezam, Azmin and Fernandez, as well as Lim Guan Eng of the DAP, were all ruled ineligible to contest the 2004 election on the grounds of their conviction.

Nor should we forget that the natural leader of Parti Keadilan, Anwar Ibrahim, had his appeals against his conviction by Justice Augustine Paul in April 1999, rejected by the Appeals, and then the Federal Court. Anwar’s appeal was based on exposing the intrigue, the selective admission of evidence, and summary rejection of critical defence witnesses by the Judge, but alas, to no avail. In this regard, numerous Malaysian as well as international bodies, including the International Court of Justice, the International Bar Association, the President of the European Union, Amnesty International, Asia Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights, etc., had voiced their criticisms of the Court’s decision to set aside Anwar’s appeal, the convictions of Fernandez and other Keadilan leaders, and the use of the ISA generally to detain critics without trial. It was evident that the Malaysian Judiciary had lost its independence and become beholden to the Executive. This, too, Abdullah has inherited.

The above events indicate how the Mahathir’s BN government had abused its powers to reshape the electoral process, to detain and outlaw exciting opposition leaders, and to muzzle and constrain the opposition parties. Abdullah benefited from this Mahathir legacy which helps to explain the BN’s clear victory in the 2004 polls

The Opposition

However, the opposition itself must also be held accountable for its defeat. There have arisen much anxieties among Muslims as well as non-Muslims as a result of PAS’s undue focus on introducing Hudud and Qisas laws, and Islamic rule generally in Terengganu. This was a principal reason causing the withdrawal of the DAP from the opposition coalition. Additionally, the BN-owned or controlled mass media has systematically projected PAS as discriminatory towards women, and fixated with segregation of the sexes, and curbing so-called unIslamic forms of dress and entertainment. PAS’s lack of consultation and rejection of criticisms vis-à-vis these policies were also often highlighted, leaving the impression that the party was even more authoritarian than UMNO and the other BN parties. The sudden death of PAS leader Fadzil Noor, popularly regarded as more approachable and open-minded, and his replacement with Abdul Hadi Awang, considered more aloof and close-minded, reinforced these negative impressions of PAS.


There was yet another Mahathir legacy which has facilitated the BN’s victory. This is the emergence of the new political culture of “developmentalism”, which in turn has resulted in a reorientation of the meaning of politics among Malaysians.

“Developmentalism” first emerged in the midst of the economic growth and new opportunities during the early 1990s, associated with the new neo-liberal policies of deregulation and privatisation. This new political culture valorizes rapid economic growth, the resultant consumerist habits, and the political stability offered by BN rule even when authoritarian means are resorted to. Since no other party has ever ruled Malaysia, many ordinary Malaysians including the middle-classes cannot imagine that political stability can be maintained in multi-ethnic Malaysia without BN rule. A “self-policing” system in support of BN rule – which is believed to be essential for maintaining political stability, (which then attracts foreign investments and allows economic growth to occur), and ultimately for the enjoyment of higher standards of living and consumption – has kicked in.

Developmentalism, therefore, is the cultural consequence of the developmental state when citizens, especially the middle-classes, begin to enjoy improved living conditions as a result of the economic growth the state has brought about. Developmentalism increasingly displaced the ethnic political discourse and practice in the 1990s. It is primarily this discourse of developmentalism, not that of ethnicism, which now sets limits to the discourse of democracy.

A re-definition of the role of political parties, and even of the meaning of politics has further accompanied this developmentalism. During this period of economic progress, the BN component parties not only avoided debate over policies, especially when they involved “sensitive issues”, but also de-emphasised political education and mobilization. Instead, “developmentalism” extended its way into the everyday lives of ordinary people through the delivery of public works and services.

In other words, the BN parties transformed themselves into extensions and instruments of the state not merely to assist in the maintenance of the status quo, but to assist in the delivery of public works and services. Additionally, the Chinese-based BN parties like the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) even established its own college viz. the Kolej Tunku Abdul Rahman. The MCA’s Langkawi Project further caters to the educational needs of primary school children Additionally, Kojadi, the MCA’s savings co-operative provides low-interest loans for the children of co-operative, members to attend universities and colleges.

The BN political parties also established so-called “service centres” and complaints bureaux throughout the country. These are partially financed by the constituency development funds allocated by the government only to elected politicians belonging to the BN. Poorer Malaysians, in particular, have resorted to them, instead of the relevant government agencies, in order to resolve their everyday problems and needs, whether these are of a personal nature or catering for the local community.

Finally, the BN parties themselves have ventured into business activities and forged close ties with other captains of industry and commerce. Together with them and their associations like the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and other industry-specific bodies like the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, the BN parties have initiated various projects in support of the BN government’s post-NEP economic policies, which have been friendlier to the private sector in general and beneficial to Chinese business interests in particular. In summary therefore, the BN political parties have assumed very different roles. Ironically, they seem to be encouraging their members to withdraw from popular political participation.

It is this desire to have economic growth and developmentalism, therefore, and the related offshoot of the delivery of services and goods by the BN parties down to the local level – in the process redefining the meaning of politics - that account for the continued support for the BN. The opposition parties do not offer an alternative development strategy. Yet, more and more Malaysians are imbued with developmentalism and increasingly ask what development projects or services the political parties can provide them.


The BN has won a spectacular victory. Most significant of all is its victory in the Malay heartland states. No doubt, the Pak Lah factor helps to explain this victory. However, it should not be forgotten that the BN continues to benefit from the Mahathir legacy. On the one hand, the SPR, coercive laws, and the judicial system continued to be used to stymie the opposition such that Malaysian elections, though generally free are never fair. On the other hand, there has also emerged a culture of developmen-talism. The Malaysian electorate desire rapid economic growth, which they associate with the BN. Unless the opposition is able to come up with an alternative development plan, it appears that the BN will always emerge victorious, sometimes spectacularly as in 2004, sometimes less spectacularly as in 1999.

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