Middle Malaysia is elusive but it is clear that whichever coalition that is able to win across the traditional fault lines of race, religion and regions takes Federal power.
Barisan Nasional is now the world’s oldest elected government still in office. Its predecessor, the Alliance party, first won the Federal election for self-government in 1955.
BN’s longevity in government can be attributed to successful manipulation of the carrot and stick. Carrots range from contracts for big tycoons to rural patronage for the Umno base while the sticks are really big – dissenters can be put behind bars without trial for years while the mass media are muzzled.
But there is something deeper: there is no alternative.
Or more precisely, the ultimate use of the carrot and stick is to ensure that no BN-clone is allowed to exist.
Instead of fighting a single opposition, BN perpetuated a structure which has two flanks — PAS for the Muslims and DAP for the non-Malays — and styled itself as the indispensable pseudo “centrist” coalition that caters for the interests across racial, religious and regional boundaries.
Without a clean and fair electoral system and an unbiased mass media, the moment a moderate centrist coalition emerges it is destroyed without mercy.
Elections in 1964, 1974, 1982, 1995, and 2004 saw a general swing of all ethnic groups in favour of Barisan Nasional for various reasons. Elections in 1978 and 1986 witnessed Barisan Nasional winning across the races but losing heavily among ethnic Chinese voters.
A general anti-establishment swing across races in various degrees towards the Opposition occurred in elections in 1959, 1969, 1990, 2008 while the 1999 election was an oddity with Malays swinging massively towards the Opposition while more than 50 per cent of the supposedly more anti-establishment voted for the ruling coalition out of fear of the Islamic state claim and copycat violence a la Indonesia’s anti-Suharto days.
The de facto centre plus two flanks structure was almost broken in the 1990 general election until the final days of campaign when BN depicted Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as a traitor to the Malays for wearing a Kadazan headgear with a symbol that looks like a cross. At the time, the majority of the ethnic Chinese and nearly half of the Malays were psychologically ready for a change of government.
Since the 2008 general election, BN’s formula to win the next election is not to recognise the two-party reality that it received only 51 per cent of popular votes. In fact, only 49 per cent in peninsular Malaysia voted for BN.
Instead, apart from starving the Opposition of material resources and fair mass media coverage, the strategy is three-pronged – to destroy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s credibility as the alternative prime minister at all costs, to lure PAS’ leaders into the Malay/Muslim exclusivist discourse and to paint DAP as an extremist villain.
It is no small feat that for the last three-and-a-half years since the formation of Pakatan Rakyat as a consequence of the March 2008 election, it has so far been able to hold Middle Malaysia.
The alternative media channels are more mature compared to two decades ago while 70 per cent of Malaysians are now living in the urban areas which allow greater exposure and access to alternative views. In 1980, only 35 per cent of the population live in urban areas.
Umno has also effectively ceded Middle Malaysia to the Opposition since the waving of the keris by Hishammuddin Hussein in July 2005. Its right wing is now dictating policies.
And, to the credit of Pakatan Rakyat, it has stayed in Middle Malaysia all this while.