Malaysia Election Obscures Growing Schisms

(Bloomberg View) -- Malaysia's ruling party is likely to win next month's election, as it has every vote since independence from Great Britain in 1957. Don't let that deceive you: This time is not business as usual.

Yes, it appears that Prime Minister Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional bloc will remain in power. But that masks deep divisions in the country. To win, it has gerrymandered the electoral map and cracked down on the press under the guise of protecting the public from "fake news." This is overkill; Malaysia's media has been timid for years. That's partly why a scandal over the finances of the state investment firm 1MDB hasn't been much of a scandal there.

Unlike others in the region, Malaysia in some ways hasn't recovered from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The result is political retardation and an economy that's distorted by preferences for powerful Malays (members of the majority ethnic group).

This cronyism leads to economic mediocrity. It skews government priorities toward the wants of provincial areas and against the needs and aspirations of urban Malaysians, where the Chinese and Indian communities are concentrated. The ruling bloc has also courted some supporters by winking toward fundamentalist Islamism.

What does this have to do with the Asian financial crisis? While Malaysia did suffer a severe recession, its entire political and economic order didn't collapse as did Indonesia's and, to a degree, South Korea's. That also means the system wasn't repaired with a more democratic flavor.

Malaysia did undergo upheaval, but it was a split among established leaders, not a loss of power. The deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was ousted in 1998, and urged his supporters to the streets. It looked as though Malaysia was on the cusp of a "people power" moment. Then Anwar was jailed and no revolution came about.

To hold power since then, leaders of Barisan Nasional have had to stress their fealty to the Malay base. That explains the doubling down on gerrymanders, an unwieldy ethnically biased safety net and media restrictions.

The government's desperation and the enthusiasm of an opposition bloc suggest Malaysia may yet veer toward democracy. For all the state's efforts to hamper the opposition, the government had a fright at the previous election in 2013. It lost the popular vote for the first time, and only the gerrymander saved Najib.

An opposition win would certainly be a shock. Financial markets seem ill prepared for it. The business model of the economy, which has been based around one-party rule, would be upset.

Malaysia isn't a dictatorship, but institutions have ossified, as they do during prolonged periods of uninterrupted rule. A change in leadership, unlikely as that seems, is long overdue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss writes and edits articles on economics for Bloomberg View. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

  1. Several leaders have taken a crack at trying to dismantle this preferential system. The need for UMNO the Malay party at the heart of the Barisan Nasional coalition to rely on core supporters means it never really happens.

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