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How did Malaysia lose its spring? A systemic explanation

COMMENT | This article offers you no insider’s story, conspiracy theory or moral judgement of personalities. Surely you can find them elsewhere.

Besides character flaws and social division, are there systemic factors that explain the messy and dramatic collapse of Malaysia’s first non-Umno-led government in just 22 months?

The end of Malaysia’s democratic spring has four fault lines - between Mahathir and Anwar, Anwar and Azmin, Bersatu and PKR, the Malay parties and DAP – and a plague of party hopping.

Why did they happen? By systemic factors, do I mean the Westminster parliamentary system? If so, why don’t we see the same level of power struggle and mess in the UK or other Commonwealth countries?

The Mahathir-Anwar Conflict

Beyond a clash of personality and ambition between the former mentor and protégé is the over-concentration of executive power in the office of prime minister which has no term limit.

In the original Westminster model, a prime minister is not only the “first-amongst-equal” member of the cabinet but also elected by all parliamentarians from his/her party. The person may even be challenged by cabinet members who resign to trigger a contest. And the losers do not get penalised for “betrayal”.

In contrast, Malaysia’s PM until 2018 was always Umno president, who was elected by party delegates but in turn, decided the final list of parliamentary candidates. This makes PM the boss and not just the most senior peer of parliamentarians, which explains why the PM seldom attended parliamentary meetings.

Such tremendous power naturally produced many aspirants, who could still be patient if there was a term limit. Without a term limit, power struggles became inevitable. Unsurprisingly, as the only post-1969 Umno premier who served more than two terms, Mahathir clashed with two of his four deputies in the 23 years.

If realised, Mahathir idea’s forming a non-partisan cabinet will only make the PM more powerful, much like a republic’s president with personal mandate who can pick anyone for his/her cabinet. Funny enough, opinion leaders who hate power struggle do support this idea which will only promise more of that.

The Anwar-Azmin Conflict

While the president or secretary-general of other parties does not have a PM’s expansive power as Umno president did, they still have one very important power, the power to nominate candidates.

In the UK, the headquarters of major parties only decide criteria for candidates and the national shortlist of all qualified aspirants, but the choice from amongst interested aspirants is normally made by each party’s divisions.

Hence, a popular MP can always keep his/her seat even if he/she is disliked by the party leader. The most telling case is perhaps Jeremy Corbyn (photo), Labour’s current leader.

As a government backbencher, he defied his party whip for 428 times from 1997 to 2010, or 33 times a year on average. 

Corbyn was never sacked or denied candidacy. And when one is politically safe as a dissident, one is not compelled to organise factional warfare for survival.

Now, recall in GE14 how the warring PKR factions aligned to Azmin Ali and Rafizi Ramli tried to kill off candidates –including incumbents - from the opposing camps and replace them with their own loyalists. Now, is it hard to understand why the Anwar-Azmin clash is inevitable?

So, why can’t Malaysian parties decentralise candidacy nomination? They can’t because they form coalitions and every component party can only compete for a limited number of seats, while political talents may come from divisions which cannot contest the local constituencies.

So, in the name of party interests, candidacy is controlled by top party leaders who are also in-charge of seat negotiation with allies. Now, can you expect party leaders – who are only human – not to favour their loyalists over rebels?

The Bersatu-PKR conflict

The Mahathir-Anwar clash is not just personal, but also between the two parties that want to dominate the PH coalition. This never happened in BN because there was no rival to Umno.

The tension between Bersatu and PKR is due more to competition for survival than differences in ideology. Bersatu was Pakatan Harapan's second smallest party in seats but controlled the top job. Will Bersatu survive if the next PM comes from the coalition’s largest party?

Clearly, the simple solution here is a friendly match between the two allies. But this is simply not possible with FPTP (first past the post). Seats in a coalition are allocated almost permanently based on two factors - previous contestation record (normally incumbents get to keep their constituencies) and ethnic composition of the electorate.

Unless the Parliament adds more seats, Bersatu would be confined to contesting 53 seats in GE15 versus PKR’s 73. Amongst these 53 seats, many are Umno and PAS strongholds that give Bersatu a slim chance. This explains why Bersatu prefers to co-opt defectors from Umno.

Now, could the Bersatu-PKR rivalry ease when defection increases Bersatu’s chance to vie for dominance?

The Malay Parties-DAP conflict

Why do Umno, PAS and even some Bersatu politicians love to hate DAP (read: Chinese)? Beyond cultural clash and interpersonal relations, there is an underlying factor where Malays heartland voters are punished by FPTP for having too many choices - Umno, PAS and Bersatu.

FPTP curbs fragmentation by punishing losers. The percentage of losers (“wasted votes”) shrink when the contest becomes less competitive and have fewer parties.

In an evenly fought three-corner, 66 percent of voters may be denied representation. The maximum size of wasted votes will drop to 49 percent in a straight-fight and zero percent if everyone votes for the same party. In other words, there is a trade-off between choices and representation.

Because the Malay heartland was contested by three parties, 70 percent of PAS voters and nearly 60 percent of Umno’s and Bersatu’s voters in West Malaysia failed to elect their representatives. Umno and PAS voters may not have heard of “wasted votes” but they would likely feel the disadvantage of not having their own MP to get government aid and buy the “DAP/Chinese dominance” horror story.

Now, guess what was the percentage of wasted votes for DAP? Less than two percent. Thanks to Chinese voters’ solid backing, DAP only lost two out of 35 West Malaysian parliamentary constituencies, Ayer Itam and Cameron Highlands.

Make no mistake, this resentment of intra-ethnic division is neither exclusively Malay nor new. In the 1990s, Chinese voters often lamented that the splitting of Chinese votes between MCA, Gerakan and DAP had weakened them.


An anti-hopping law could certainly have prevented the mess. But such law has its own flaws too. If a lawmaker can lose his/her job after being sacked from the party, then we will never have Corbyns who defy a party’s order to follow their conscience. Do we want lawmakers to toe the party’s lines all the time?

Party-hopping is not just about undisciplined lawmakers, but also weak parties. While PAS and DAP (both in opposition for decades) have highly ideological or cohesive electoral bases that deter defection, other parties including Umno and PKR are susceptible.

Under FPTP, Malaysians vote only for individuals and not parties, hence no incentives for most parties to develop product differentiation in policies or programmes. They rather campaign on constituency service or local development – it pays to be with the government.

On the other hand, if our mandate is for a party and not individual lawmakers, then those lawmakers elected on a party’s mandate have no reason to take their seats with them when crossing parties.

The wrong electoral system?

As you could see, other than the absence of term limit for PM and anti-hopping law, all other factors point back to FPTP.

Even for the UK and US, the flaws of FPTP are obvious. But the problem is even more serious for Malaysia as FPTP works better in homogenous societies while Malaysia has a clear communal divide.

Every now and then, you will hear arguments that only FPTP promotes stability or suits Malaysia. It’s not rocket science. You should examine the evidence and make your judgement.

WONG CHIN HUAT is an Essex-trained political scientist working on political institutions and group conflicts. He currently leads the clusters on electoral system and constituency delimitation in the government’s Electoral Reform Committee (ERC). Mindful of humans’ self-interest motivation while pursuing a better world, he is a principled opportunist.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.