10 March 2008

Any lessons from the Malaysian general election for us?

The ruling Barisan Nasional's loss was greater than anyone expected. The key issues in Malaysia in the run-up to their 8 March election seemed to be unhappiness among the Chinese and Indian minorities. Is this pertinent to Singapore's domestic politics? Full essay.


yuen said...

>unhappiness among the Chinese and Indian minorities.

actually, I think that's the lesser factor, compared to division among the Malays themselves, with religious fundamentalists (PAS) and anti-establishment reformers (Anwar) combining with the ethnics

Anonymous said...

The people of Singapore should be doing what the people of Malaysia did.

Enough is enough, cast your protest votes and invite more opposition into the parliament so that there are some REAL valid checks and balances. Vote for the opposition to reign in the ruling party.

Those PAP MPs that appear to be speaking for the good of the people are just putting on a show. At the end of the day, as what Mahathir had said these ruling party members of parliament are "ahli bodek" only (apple polisher).

Finally, what is not reported in our local news media but repeatedly mentioned on some foreign media is that Badawi's ruling party can no longer "suka suka" change the constitution to their own benefit and advantage anymore.

Anonymous said...

From wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Malaysia#List_of_General_Elections_in_Malaya_and_Malaysia

The share of vote for the 2008 election is 52.2% vs 47.8% compared to 63.9% vs 36.1% in 2004

Anonymous said...

As long as the Chinese Singaporean Majority does not move it will be status quo in Singapore for a very very long time to come

Anonymous said...

As ever, your analysis, especially your argument that the setback of BN that hold most parallels for the Singapore experience -- i.e. the way the Malay votes -- is very apt.

You were right to elude to the fact that "bread-and-butter" issues were probably the biggest factor that may have explained the setback(1) of the BN. Not unlike our cousins up North, the "bread-and-butter" will most likely cause the PAP to suffer similar setback(1) here. But it is worth noting that "bread-and-butter" as seen here in Singapore may not be the same seen in the same light as in Malaysia.

Firstly, whilst bread-and-butter issue seen in terms of "elitism and cronyism" are very similar in both countries, the situation in Singapore, as I see it, is much more acute that in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, SME's are much more thriving than in Singapore. So if you, say member of an elite falls out of favour, with your circle of friends you have quite a thriving set of non-governmental entrepreneurial people to fall back on for support. This is not the case with Singapore. If you are out of the GLCs and their web of pseudo "private" SMEs, you have very little support. Given this situation, there is very little incentives for these independent-minded elites to want to cross-sword with the establishment.

I noted that in Malaysia, Penang, many non-bumis IT companies and including those run by Malays, who were not in the inner bumis elite circle, were openly willing support that oppositions. These companies were able to support each other by selling services to each other. That is not the case in Singapore.

Secondly, the Malaysia oppositions have visions of a economic systems that are in contrast to the incumbent BN. Ok, the oppositions' visions maybe different, PAS going for the islamic model, others going for a kind of free -- with a pinch of socialism -- market economy. So in a sense there is an alternative.

In Singapore, the oppositions are clueless. The Workers' party, for example, have not articulate any alternative but is likely to want to adhere to the PAP ideology. The SDP is too tied up with trying to change the fundamental mindset of the people, and the SDA is obsessed of one issue -- i.e. upgrading -- to the exclusion of any broad strategy.

In Malaysia, you have the form of an elite, Anwar, falling out of favour and coming out to articulate an alternative economic model. Even if the PAP were to spawn an Anwar, I doubt anyone would be brave enough to articulate a different economic model. In my opinion, I think the current model needs to be overhauled if the country is to survived in time to come.

My conclusion is that the only way Singapore will see any Political change or even bring upon a BN-like "setback" to the PAP is when -- and I say WHEN and not IF -- the current economic model fail.

As a Singaporean and having seen how well Malaysia's SME (including non-elite or crony Malay ones) compared to our almost non-existence ones, thrive despite the often very difficult hurdles, and now the potential for a historic political change, I would not be surprise that our cousin up north may even surpass us!

Note (1): I use the term "setback" as opposed to a historic change because it is too early to tell whether the presence of a strong opposition will take hold in Malaysia yet.

hugewhaleshark said...

Alex, I think another parallel, which probably applies to politics anywhere these days, is the prominence of the Internet in the latest Malaysian elections. Blogger Jeff Ooi ran and won a seat in Penang.

Views expressed on sites like Malaysiakini and Malaysiatoday played a major role. Singapore blogs are milder in comparison IMO, but online commentators like yourself and others like you could yet make a very serious difference.

anon said...

We are de-sensitized and under-seige to the Goliath might for so long and yes our northern neighbour need a Indian riot to shake them (chinese and malays included)out of their hypnotic trance.. Hopefully, short of an articulate Anwar in our mist, the hunger pangs, rising cost of living and frustrations with the great income divide can shake us out of our trance

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said
"As a Singaporean and having seen how well Malaysia's SME (including non-elite or crony Malay ones) compared to our almost non-existence ones, thrive despite the often very difficult hurdles, and now the potential for a historic political change, I would not be surprise that our cousin up north may even surpass us!"

The same situation can be applied to Taiwan. Under the Goliath of "Chiang Kai Shek", democracy was non-existent. With him & his cronies gone, Taiwan has emerged in the last decade as a very energizing place for the Opposition parties against what was once the Goliath, the KMT party.

Taiwanese are very passionate about their country and care deeply about how their country moves forward. They have told Chen Shiu Bin that he is ineffective as a leader in a democratic process. Their economy is very much driven by the SMEs who have made huge inroads around the world in the electronics & computer industries. Take a look at hitech county Hsinchu and you will know what I mean. Also look at SMEs who have made huge inroads into China, they don't need government initiatives or hand holding to carve out a bold & far reaching business dealings across vast China.

Singaporeans lack this gung ho approach to adapt & change in being entrepreneurial in the business world or in making decisions when it comes to political change. You see so many trade missions hiding under the Big government umbrella when they go abroad. They need so much hand holding that they quake in their shoes once the government tell them that they will lose their jobs if they vote for the Opposition.

Its time for the Opposition in Singapore to think long & hard on how to engage Singaporeans in a better economic plan. I don't want to wake up one day and find that each & every single job is filled by a fresh off the boat employee from overseas who cannot even speak simple English though its coming close to this stage in the next 5 years!

Anonymous said...

The GRC factor alone will make sure that the opposition cannot make a difference whether in the next election or the next. Then there is the exhorbitant election deposits to contend with, coupled with the baised vote buying strategy of upgrading, highly partisan community centres/clubs using taxpayers money to further the ruling party's own interest.

The 66.66% are hardcore supporters of the ruling party and are made up of bootlickers, largely uniformed and public service personnel who fear for their jobs, those who fear for their children's future should they vote opposiion because they know the vindictiveness of the powers that be. It will be difficult to break the mental hold on these people unlike the rural folks in Malaysia who are more independent of the Government's hold.

Anonymous said...

I would like to call upon the opposition parties in Singapore to think long term with proposition of economic plans and all for the sake of Singapore. Please put your ego and selfishness aside and combine your resources and form a coalition.

Please don't dig deeper in your well and jump out of it and save Singapore if you could.

Anonymous said...

Quote: "Singaporeans lack this gung ho approach to adapt & change in being entrepreneurial in the business world or in making decisions when it comes to political change."
I agree with your comments.
With respect to the government, I believe that their policy(ies) pertaining to scholarships and retaining the scholars in the SAF, SPF, Admin Service, govt affiliated entities are past its useful date.
As an alternative, and in order to generate a group of "gung ho", entrepreneurial, and risk taking (and hopefully a few smarter ones to be amongst this group), some form of govt bursary scheme may be retained to halp the bright students from poorer families.
I submit that in order for Singapore to continue to be among the leading countries in Asia (and not to be relegated), it is improtant to free the brighter and more talented individuals to be risk takers. In the past and at present, scholars' career and lives till death are almost guaranteed by the govt., and accordingly, the scholars have no incentive to take risk and/or venture out of their comfortable lives.
CK in Canada

Anonymous said...

Quote: "In my opinion, I think the current model needs to be overhauled if the country is to survived in time to come."
"In Singapore, the oppositions (sic) are clueless."
Your post is excellent.
I agree with your analyses and comments.
I do hope that Singapore will change to survive, to narrow the income disparity, and to be more democratic.
My comments with respect to Alex Au's article are:
1. We should never under-estimate the "people's power." In that light, with respect, I submit that if the govt of Singapore were to repeal the Internal Security Act as far as it pertains to detention of politicians without trial (not talking about terrorists and so called JI subversives), and the Group Representation Constituencies (and revert to single member constituencies), and assuming that there will be more passionate individuals who are willing to stand as non-PAP MP's, there is hope for Singapore's future.
Notwithstanding the PAP's self-renewal, I believe that the govt should do away with its numerous scholarships, and allow the brighter and hopefully more talented and/or more enterpreneurial in the future, to shape the business and political environment.
CK in Canada

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Anonymous (11 March 10:46) -

Taking up some of your points:

1. I do not believe that most of the 66.6% who voted for the PAP in the 2006 Singapore general election are "hardcore". I believe a significant number of them can be persuaded to look at alternatives.

2. Having spoken directly to the various leaders of political parties myself, my sense is that the election deposit, although unreasonably high, is not a major barrier to anyone standing for election. They tell me that the barrier lies more in people not wanting to come forward at all - an indication of which is the tendency of people writing comments as 'anonymous' ;)

3. The GRC system cuts both ways. If the PAP loses one GRC, they will lose 5 or 6 MPs, including quite likely a minister among them. In other words, it is a very brittle arrangement - a small crack and a big chunk falls away. First-past-the-post electoral systems have this brittle characteristic, and GRCs are super first-past-the-post, therefore super brittle.

For example, consider what happened in the Malaysian election. The BN's vote share fell 11 percentage points from 2004 to 2008, but its share of parliamentary seats fell nearly 30 percentage points.

As I have argued before, Singapore should adopt a proportional voting system for half the seats in Parliament, so that the House more fairly represents the people.

yuen said...

>Singapore should adopt a proportional voting system for half the seats in Parliament

I differ; I believe the pragmatic (i.e., acceptable to the establishment) solution is to have a separate upper house elected with proportionate representation, with the right to comment on, but not block, legislation passed by the lower house

this allows the small parties, even prominent individuals (Ngiam Tong Dow? Catherine Lim) to be represented in the senate, e.g., if there are 25 senators, then a party/individual with 4% support nation wide will get a senate seat, so that there is an official forum for alternative views to be expressed

the existence of a senate would actually benefit PAP, in that

a. it can send retired ministers to the senate, where they can continue to advise the government using their experience, without having to keep them in the cabinet itself

b. it can ask the voters to give it a clean sweep in the Lower House, because opposition already has senate represenation; there is less worry about "freak" loss of government

Robert L said...

Dear YB

You asked, "does the Malaysian experience provide any pointers for Singapore?"

Here's one I can immediately think of.

The Malaysian experience proves to us that there's nothing wrong with voting a Minister out of power. In Malaysia, many ministers fell like bowling pins. These are the ones who are hated by the electorate and deemed to be incompetent.

This same story can be applied to Singapore. There are many ministers who are hated, deemed to be incompetent. They can be voted out. Singapore voters no longer have to believe the tall tale that they have to vote for a candidate if a minister stands in their constituency.
This is a very important lesson to learn. I hope responsible bloggers would help to spread enlightenment.

veii said...

I believe that the Malaysian case discredits LKY's oft-repeated claim that Singapore needs to protect itself from a freak election result, since the transition has been largely peaceful and positive here in Malaysia, which has had a rather similar political profile to Singapore.

Also, it should warn PAP leaders that a tightly controlled press that is too adulatory may lull them into thinking that they can get away with arrogance and insensitivity. People do 'get it' no matter what the press says, and when they decide collectively, what you get is a 'freak election result'. Which isn't really a freak, since everyone has decided for himself/herself, and the outcome would be what they had wanted.

yuen said...

>Malaysian case discredits LKY's oft-repeated claim that Singapore needs to protect itself from a freak election result

I dont think so; Barisan has not lost national government, only various state governments; further, they lost because of a serious desire for change; it is quite different from what LKY had in mind: voters merely wanted to "teach government a lesson", but ended up causing it to lose majority

the real lesson from up north is that the state government votes provide a kind of half way step, to give a warning to the national government, and to try out the opposition parties, whether they can govern and not just criticize; it is more difficult to find a similar half way step here

KiWeTO said...


SG only has 1 layer of government. There is no federal layer of government that worries about the whole country's economy, foreign policy, armed response, and god knows whatever federal-level worries are. (JI terrorist threats are federal-level worries maybe?)

There's basically only 1 layer of government, and yes, it will be very interesting to see what happens if the continued dissatisfaction with the way economic policies continue to favour non-Singaporeans (NS is so sore a point for all SG males here!) and six brave fools willing to stump up and become the next "suicide" squad in AMK constituency.

It would be really a super fault-line crack if the PAP didn't just lose a minister in its next election, but THEIR minister. (then again, he might not be wanting to be PM next election, so who knows?)

That is perhaps the lesson we in Singapore can take away. Strong as the system oppresses the wannabes and idealists, and defends the incumbents, if the incumbent loses, it loses everything.


Anonymous said...

"First-past-the-post electoral systems have this brittle characteristic, and GRCs are super first-past-the-post, therefore super brittle."

This is also why the PAP will make sure they win at all cost, ahem ahem. And i do mean by any means necessary...

MIW's controls on our society and politics is not going to loosen up, it will tighten instead.

recruit ong

Anonymous said...

Malaysians must have received some help from some strange people, I just did some checking on the google stats and there is no way their lines could have accomodated so many hits! No way!

Anonymous said...

I have noticed that many commentaries in your current blog, contrasted the calibre of oppositions here and up North.

Whilst in a sense there is much to be said about the calibre of the local oppositions with respect to, as one of the commentaries puts it, "bread-and-butter" issues, it is worth noting that the PAP itself is hardly a bastion of bright sparks.

Since coming to power the PAP have stuck with the same policies albeit with some thematic changes. At the heart of the policy, it remains best summed up in these key points:

- (Over?) Reliance on foreign investments either in infrastructure or, more recently, the theme has shifted to foreign labour to drive the economy.

- (Over?) Accumulation of monetary reserved for its own sake or for the protection of the PAP establishment.

If political change were to come from within the PAP, the instigator will be hard pressed to move from these key policy point.

Chances are it will be a case of one faction fighting for more share than the other. An example emerged in the case of the dispute between Lee's daughter and Philip Yeo over research fundings. The probability of an Anwar-like figure coming out of the PAP is slim.

Personally I tend to agree with YB that the key to any political change is people coming out, not necessarily to stand for election but be prepared to vote for the opposition as it is. So the onus is more on the electorate rather than the opposition parties or changes to institutional arrangement. In other words, the key issue that needs addressing is a mindset change.

Incidentally, I would say SDP approach seemed to be the most appropriate at this stage. It seemed at least to be addressing the key issue.

Anyway, I digress.

At this stage of the Singapore electorate mindset, it is really hard to see how changes in the form that parallel what happen up North can occur.

The Singapore electorates, despite their complaints about the final details of economic policies, are still blinded to the PAP's broad policy. Even established figures such as Nigam Tong Dow and Catherine Lim have not yet articulate anything radical other than minor changes. None of these have even articulate a vision of what they would like -- i.e. recent Catherine's speech sung more praises of the PAP than anything else.

Given such a situation can anyone expect an Anwar-like figure to emerged as in the case up North? Will an Anwar-like figure in Singapore be brave enough to articulate (not yet talk about implementation) a different strategy before it is deemed "radical" by the Singaporean electorate?

Consider the case of Chee Soon Juan, what he is advocating (a rethink of the economic policy, not playing by the PAP rules or BN rules as in Malaysian "version", etc) is no significantly different from say Anwar, yet he is seen as "radical" by the Singaporean electorate. What chance is there for a Singaporean Anwar to make a dent? Zilch to low I would say.

Michael Tan - A "non-talent" Singaporean "exile" in KL because he has no degree and can't find work in Singapore!

Anonymous said...

As a Malaysian living in Singapore, I'd like to point out another difference that could determine the fate of both democracies - the nature of the grassroots.

A lot is said in many forums about 'the Opposition' and voting as a means to create change. There are a lot of calls for the government and the opposition to do this and that.

I can't comment too much about the nature of Singaporean political grassroots as I have only had the opportunity to meet and mingle with pro-PAP grassroots and non-political Singaporeans, but I am familiar with the Malaysian scene on both sides, with friends within the ruling party as well as being a supporter of an opposition party.

First and foremost, the political effort is not limited to the ballot box. Many ordinary Malaysians, even those affiliated with the government or GLCs, are now politically active (thanks to the campaigns to woo young and/or unregistered voters in the past few years). With the many government scandals seeing the light of day, many have begun to take a proactive role in influencing change - first and foremost by registering as a voter. Whether or not you're a card-carrying UMNO/MCA/MIC member, or you're a volunteer passing out flyers during your morning jog, Malaysians are in general, quite opinionated about our politics and quite a few of us actually do something about it. Political parties have seen changes in their demographics - PAS has seen many progressive reforms as more Malay professionals flock to PAS after the Reformasi in the late 90s, and more professionals across various races flock to PKR as 'a fresh start to the multiracial party experiment' (many still see DAP as representing predominantly Chinese interests). This change is a fundamental one, as it changes the dynamics of the parties of old.

Blogs, online news, specifically Malaysiakini, party websites (Harakah.net, DAPmalaysia.org, KMU, just to name a few) and other information and opinion 'spaces' like MalaysiaVotes, Merdeka Centre, Citizen Think Tank, all provide various audiences with very dynamic information - including very current updates of news you won't see highlighted in the mainstream media (MSM) - like the speed in which Malaysiakini provided real-time election results, often as much as 30 minutes or 1 hour ahead of MSMs. Merdeka Centre provides credible reports of opinion polls, and many other sites provide information as diverse as politician scorecards to political discussions in general.

As in the 1999 elections, online opinion helped shape offline opinion - in those days, I recalled how university students would bring back reams and reams of online article printouts to their not-so-internet-savvy parents and relatives, who would in turn, bring them to their own peer gatherings, either at the kopitiam or the mosque. Bear in mind that quite a few organisations that influenced this year's elections were formed out of the initiative of individuals, and some of these are even run on personal funding.

And then there's the Al-Jazeera effect. That's one cable news channel I'd love to see avaible in Singapore! Given this very colourful ecosystem of political discourse, the propaganda machine that used to dominate past elections was unable to cope this time around.

Street demonstrations played a major role in increasing public awareness of issues. HINDRAF forced Malaysians of all walks of life to ask the hard questions about where our Indian brothers and sisters really stood in terms of national development. A much bigger, and a better organised protest was BERSIH - one that called for electoral reforms. Groups mobilised hit numbers into the tens of thousands, and while it did not receive any coverage from the MSMs, nor the attention of the BN, it did highlight to the public that sheer volume is needed to overcome the inherent corruption of the democratic process (while we don't have anything like the GRC system, phantom voting is rampant, and gerrymandering takes the form of crazy variances in consituency sizes, as high as 300%!). Prior to the BERSIH rally were other rallies, those protesting fuel price hikes, toll fee hikes etc, which I believe, set the tone for the elections - one of bread and butter issues, and one that showed Malaysians that they were not suffering alone. Public opinion of street demonstrations has changed quite a bit over the last few years, with organisers becoming more proactive and professional in their handling of public safety, considering that the Malaysian police are more concerned with dispersing large crowds than ensuring that their safe. Personally, I've been to a few, and I am continuously impressed with the amount of (volunteer) effort that goes into ensuring that 1) the protest remains peaceful and 2) that the message is conveyed.

In terms of the strategy of the opposition, in past elections, it did not have the manpower nor the resources to contest many seats. It's logical to assume that if you only contest a handful of seats, your chances of winning enough to have any real impact is slim.

This year, the three 'Barisan Rakyat' (People's Front) coalition contested almost every seat, wooing everyone who has the willingness to make a change (remember the grassroots?) - from a HINDRAF leader still in detention, to the guy who taped the conversation that launched an inquiry into judicial independence (Lim Gwo Burne). Even a young blogger, who offered himself to PKR and then became Anwar Ibrahim's aide, was fielded. That gave the opposition an even higher chance of netting protest votes, even if the candidates were relatively green compared to the BN incumbents. With every seat contested, and rallies being held all over the country, the BN machinery, usually extremely effective, was stretched and thinly spread.

I also noticed that the Singaporean press has not made much mention of the giant leaps that all 3 opposition parties, in particular, DAP and PAS has made to come to this cooperation.

PAS and DAP are, at first glance, on opposite poles of the political spectrum and have had difficulty working together in the past. DAP is hard-core secular, and PAS is hard-core theocratic. The unique thing about their cooperation this time around, is PKR, and Anwar Ibrahim. For the first time in PAS' history, it dropped 'the formation of an Islamic state' from its manifesto, focusing instead on the universalities of their ambitions minus the religious labels, and hence, bringing them onto common ground with DAP. Likewise, DAP has been seen to compromise on various issues, choosing their battles carefully. One example is how Lim Kit Siang chose to retract his call for a boycott of the Perak MB's swearing-in ceremony, out of respect for the coalition and the decision of the Sultan of Perak. In short, there was a willingness to work together on both sides, with PKR acting as the bridge on the more contentious differences in the parties' ideologies. To put things in contrast, the PKR-DAP-PAS coalition was able to sort out their concerns over state exco issues in less than a week, while BN is still in the midst of a tug-of-war within itself, and with the Rulers (Sultan of Perlis and Terengganu).

Race plays a huge role in the lives of Malaysians. It's always discussed, always debated as much as it is genuinely celebrated. Multicultural life in Malaysia, despite the existence of an affirmative policy favouring Malays, is very very different from multicultural life in Singapore. I won't go too much into this, suffice to say that in the past few weeks, I've had to explain the difference between the term "Indian", "Malay" and "Muslim" as well as explain why I can't eat pork and the name of my cultural costume to a few Chinese Singaporeans.

I believe Malaysians this time around put aside all our differences and focussed on saving the country from being further plundered by UMNOputras - the name given to those Malay elites who have used the system to their own personal benefit, as well as the non-bumi component parties of BN (MCA and MIC) who have now been proven to have failed to protect the interests of the Chinese and Indian Malaysians.

Malaysians have an opposition which has been active for many many years, as well as activists from various NGOs, most of whom have been thrown into detention without trial, and have risen through the ranks to become the country's leaders - Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang are just three of the big names who have had to go through this political 'baptism by fire'. As frightening as it looks, while one would think that it would deter people from voicing their opinions on anything at all, I personally think it has been an inspiration to many young leaders, that those who had to spend years in the nightmare that is Kemunting, will come through stronger.

Yes, there are very fundamental differences between the politics in both countries, but dare I say that there are very real reasons for the local media spin on the Malaysian General Elections to be in a certain way...

For Singaporeans who wish to sincerely find a lesson in this for your own country, I would suggest that on your next trip across the causeway, stop and have a chat with complete strangers about the elections. Venture out of the Chinese-Singaporean>>Chinese-Malaysian comfort zone and speak to the old pakcik sipping his teh tarik or your favourite Indian cendol seller. You may find some universalities in their words...

Anonymous said...

If you want more details on past elections, you can get it here: http://pru12.spr.gov.my/spr/ on the Election Commission's site. I'm not sure how extensive their english translation is across the site, but it's got good info.

yuen said...

I still feel people are not paying enough attention to the division within the malay ranks: besides anwar, abdulla badawi also had to contend with mahathiir's nagging from the side

ethnic issues and opposition tactics are no doubt important, including divided views among the ruling party about how to handle these, but it looks to me the quarrel between abdulla badawi and mahathir are more on (a) mahathir's old economic initiatives like Proton (b) adbulla's more lenient attitude towards anwar

Anonymous said...


you are right, the division within UMNO (there is a difference between being Malay and being an UMNO member - there are millions of Malays who are have never been UMNO members) created the lack of cohesion on BN's part during the elections, and a lot of it stemmed from the PM's own leadership style (or lack of). He isn't dubbed the 'sleeping PM' for nothing...

yuen said...

>'sleeping PM'

this is a bit unfair; he had a weak hand from the time he became Mahathir's successor because of Anwar's unexpected fall and was not able to exercise strong leadership; it is however true that his lack of ruthlessness made it hard for him to cope: his leniency towards Anwar earned him no credit with the opposition, but annoyed part of his own camp; I think he also handled the issue of "princes" - his son in law, Mahathir's son, etc, poorly