An Interview with Professor Meredith Weiss

An Interview with Professor Meredith Weiss

On May 9 2018, Malaysia held its 14th general election. The election culminated in the landmark defeat of the then-ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), which had governed Malaysia, and its predecessor state, Malaya, since the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1957. The Fletcher Forum recently spoke with Professor Meredith Weiss from the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at SUNY Albany about the historic occasion and the changes she expects to see in Malaysia moving forward.

Fletcher Forum (FF): Could you begin by laying out why the recent Malaysian general elections was so historic for the country?

Meredith Weiss (MW): Malaysia has had one of the world’s longest lasting, single-party dominance political systems. What that means is that one party, or one political coalition in the case of Malaysia, has governed for longer than is the case in almost anywhere else in the world. Mexico had also for a long time had a similar system, and of course there’s Singapore, which gained independence later than Malaysia so technically, it has had a shorter period of governance under the People’s Action Party (PAP). The Malaysian election was particularly significant in comparative terms mostly for ending that dominance.

In the political science literature, Malaysia is considered to be a competitive electoral authoritarian state, which is to say that elections matter and those who seek power compete for power through elections. There are opposition parties who fight and see elections as the best way of getting into power. They may win some seats - the state level in Malaysia has often been described as a sort of safety valve where opposition parties can win at that level. However, they have never been able to win at the federal level because of a combination of the more authoritarian features of this system such as the malapportionment, the gerrymandering, and the curbs on civil liberties and the media.

The former governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has also had genuine popularity and political legitimacy by bringing development and protecting communal rights. So this isn’t a flat out authoritarian system. Those who refer to former Prime Minister Najib or, before him, Mahathir as dictators are overstating the case. At the same time, it’s not a liberal democracy either and it has made no pretense of being a liberal democracy. In fact, I’m not sure that this change in government will necessarily usher in liberal democracy. If it does, it’ll take some time.

FF: You mentioned that Malaysia is typically considered a competitive electoral authoritarian state, and you also mentioned that the former governing coalition had actual legitimacy for a very long time. Given these conditions, how was this victory achieved?

MW: Some of that legitimacy and some of that popular support had been slipping. In the 2013 elections, the opposition won a majority of the popular vote. So we saw, in 2013, that it already seemed like popular support had declined quite a bit for the BN coalition. Even before that, in 2008, there had been a so-called “tsunami election” when the then-opposition made unusual electoral headway.

There are a couple of different ways that we can interpret this. One is that the goals BN propounded were no longer the goals the people sought.  At an earlier period in Malaysian history, there was much greater stratification and alignment of income or class as well as occupational category with ethnicity. Malaysia is now about 70 percent urban. People are much more mixed and there is a multiracial middle class. For many, goals based on communal rights may no longer have been their core objective.

In addition, there is a second dynamic whereby even if the objectives that BN claim to support and the promises they made still seemed attractive, its own liabilities were working against it - and by that I largely mean the corruption. So, for instance, the 1MDB scandal. Leading up to the elections, many, if not most, observers assumed that 1MDB would not make a huge impact on the election. It especially wouldn’t convert those who weren’t already supporting the Opposition, and part of that is because it’s such a huge and complex financial mess that is really hard to translate into something that people think their vote could fix or that it was something relevant to their own lives. I think once the Opposition figured out a way to translate that more into household economics and make the information accessible, it helped to further erode BN’s legitimacy.

FF: You have written extensively on social movements in Malaysia. How would you compare the role of civil society activism in the recent elections to the elections in 2013, or even elections prior to that?

MW: In some ways, it’s a continuation of what we’ve already seen but there are also some differences. Some of the key changes had to do with the increasing advent of new media platforms such as online blogs and social media, which were frequently under the domain of civil society such as student groups. This phase started around the Reformasi movement in 1998, and it reflected the increasing integration of civil society with opposition politics.

There was a little bit of a diminution in the growth of alternative media around the early-2000s, but by about 2007, we saw a new phase within politicized and often partisan civil society engagement that involved mass mobilizations happening in overlapping communities. This had to do with the formation of Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) and the involvement of the Malaysian Bar Council in political activism. But most importantly, we had the Bersih movement demanding clean and fair elections, which persisted over the years since it began in 2007. Whether one thinks these protests have been a success or not, part of what they’ve managed to do is drum up a lot of interest in elections and motivate younger people to vote, which they tend not to do.

I think the new phase for civil societal engagement has to do with these fairly professionalized groups of often young people using great computer wizardry and the Internet to set up a range of online platforms that help people connect in different ways. This phase really stepped up around the 2013 elections and then picked up even more this time. For instance, there was the creation of websites to track irregularities in ballot counting and of movements through social media to help Malaysians abroad fly their ballots home for the elections or to organize carpools for Malaysians around the country to go back to their hometowns and vote. These are creative uses of different tactics that often take advantage of Internet-based tools to try and bring new ideas from civil society to the electoral process.

FF: One criticism that has often been lobbed against the Bersih movement in the past is that it is often very much urban-focused, and doesn’t really listen to people in the rural areas and their concerns. Going off the idea of using social media to mobilize voters, do you think this new form of civil society activism or engagement has managed to bridge that divide a little bit more?

MW: It’s hard to say. Malaysians’ use of social media is among the highest in the world and it’s not just in urban areas. Most people have access to the Internet, whether through a smartphone or something else. The estimates are near 100 percent, which means that there is Internet signal and coverage even in the most rural areas. So in that sense, in a place like Malaysia, moving to virtual platforms offers the possibility of bridging that activist divide. However, in places where you really don’t have that sort of widespread access to the Internet, it would probably magnify rather than undercut an urban bias to activism.

I think the other aspect that tends to be overlooked in Malaysia in critiques of the urban bias of civil society is the extent to which religious organizations, particularly Islamist organizations but also Christian and others, have really mobilized. The new part of that has been the increasing movement towards partisan politics, which has become less hesitant and less low key over the last couple of elections. These organizations have helped to mobilize electorally, in both urban and rural areas, and sometimes in really functional ways.

For instance, there are organizations such as the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) that will train people who want to run in office and give them the skills they need to contest - both men and women, and whatever party they might want to run for. Though these groups were not necessarily part of the Bersih movement, I see them as part of a larger enterprise of gearing up civil society and activists to make people care about participating politically and to think about coming up with better measures for evaluating electoral politics.

FF: What are some of the biggest changes that you anticipate in the next 5 years for Malaysia?

MW: The single biggest change I see, and the only one that I would say is pretty much certain at this point is the revamping and restoring of civil liberties. I think we will see greater rights and freedom of speech, association, the press and so forth that could make a really big difference. A more open political climate changes the odds for political parties, but it also will simply constitute a real change for Malaysia.

Another important change to watch, though I’m not sure how far it will go, has to do with the nature of political Islam in Malaysia. Over the last several years in particular, there has been a strategic flirtation between PAS, Malaysia’s largest Islamist political party, and UMNO, the largest party in the BN coalition, through policy items such as hudud law being held up as a carrot that UMNO would constantly wave and pull away. PAS no longer has that leverage.

I think that this sense of “spiraling Islamization” will taper off at this point but that could change as the next election looms. PAS remains a player, at least in the northeast, and if, for instance, PAS and UMNO or some other organization join forces, we could see a specifically Malay and Muslim unity government or coalition that promotes a specific set of Islamist policies. This can be difficult for many to contest, just because of the sense of who has standing, legitimacy and religious authority. Taking these issues off the table for a few years might clear the air a bit.

FF: How can or should Malaysia’s new political leaders capitalize on the momentum of hope, change and progress that is symbolized by their success in the recent elections?

MW: There are some instructive lessons from their experience at the state level. Cutting off avenues for consultation and inclusivity may be tempting at times when you have really assertive voices pushing you on their issues, which might be one of 600 issues you have to deal with. At the same time, putting in place mechanisms for consultation and more active participation could really help to bring those voices into the process to give people more of a sense of buy in.

I think this crazy Tabung Harapan crowdfunding endeavor signals that Malaysians want to take part, they want to share this sense of hope and excitement. The new government can really capitalize on that by now, while spirits are high, really developing institutionalized mechanisms, not for co-optation but for listening, so they’re not just pushing ahead without thinking about expert feedback or opinion.

The next most important thing would be to go ahead and change bad laws, open up civil liberties, reinstitute local elections and do all of these things they’ve talked about doing for a long time. Enacting these changes sooner rather than later would keep the momentum going and also make it harder to reverse course because you would then have pressure from all corners. Beyond that, just don’t screw up.

Image: Hari Malaysia 2011

Courtesy of esharkj / Flickr

About the Interviewee

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Meredith L. Weiss is Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. She has published widely on political mobilization and contention, the politics of identity and development, and electoral politics in Southeast Asia, with particular focus on Malaysia and Singapore.

Her books include Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (2011) and Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (2006), as well as a number of edited volumes, most recently, Political Participation in Asia: Defining and Deploying Political Space (with Eva Hansson, 2018).

A forthcoming book explores the resilience of electoral-authoritarian politics in Malaysia and Singapore; other current projects include a collaborative study of “money politics” in Southeast Asia and a co-edited volume on Malaysia’s 2018 general elections. 

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