Dissecting Mahathir’s grand design

Not many of us remembered that Barisan Nasional survived and thrived electorally for an extended period from 1991 to 2005 as a result of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s grand compromise in the form of Vision 2020.

Coercive tools and undemocratic means like security power to arrest legitimate political opponents without trial, legal and financial controls over mass media, and a distorted electoral system, have helped BN to remain in power, becoming the current longest serving elected government in the world.

The Alliance formula and the beginning of “Malay First” hegemony

BN’s predecessor the Alliance’s formula was to win half of the votes of all ethnic groups. Being the sole coalition with multi-ethnic representation at all levels, the strategy paid off well in 1959 and 1964.

But the Alliance also pursued a small-government-do-very-little approach, resulting in rising inequality. It eventually resulted in an increased support for the opposition among members of all ethnic groups, including Malays, in 1969.

Contrary to the popular belief that only Chinese supported the opposition in the 1969 election, the Malays played their part too. Dr. Mahathir lost his Kota Setar Selatan seat as well as the defeats of other UMNO bigwigs demonstrated that there were substantial Malay swing against the Alliance.

Post-1969, Tun Razak’s formula strived to achieve a 70 percent Malay electoral support for BN. Non-Malay support was considered non-essential in such formula. All policies under the new arrangement, symbolised by the New Economic Policy, were geared towards that goal.

The “Malay first” strategy served UMNO well until the 1990 general election when the Malay votes were split after the formation of Semangat 46, led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and other former senior UMNO leaders.

The Semangat 46-led opposition front almost won the day when BN managed to survive through a very cunning last-three-day manipulation of Tengku Razaleigh’s photo image with Kadazan headgear which resembled a Christian cross, suggesting to the Malay constituents that the opposition was about to sell out on Malay rights and dignities to foreign powers.

However, Malay votes for BN have not returned to the NEP-era level since then. Indeed, Malay votes for BN have further declined in every election since 1990, with the exception of the 2004 election, the first in the post-Mahathir era. (In 2004, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi won due to his promises of reforms.)

BN won the 1995 election with the all-time high of 65 percent popular votes despite suffering a mild decline in Malay support and continued to survive the 1999 election despite more than half of the Malays voting against BN; a reaction against the sacking and subsequent jailing of Anwar Ibrahim.

How did Dr Mahathir and Barisan Nasional survive since the 1990 election?

Vision 2020 and “Bangsa Malaysia”

Barely four months after the October 1990 election, Dr Mahathir unveiled his Vision 2020 and the concept of “Bangsa Malaysia” in February 1991 which set the tone for the next fourteen years until July 2005.

The strategy was to supplement the declining Malay base of UMNO with new-found Chinese middle class support by staring down the Malay right and cooling off racial temperatures. The major bones of contention among ethnic Chinese against UMNO between 1970 and 1990 were the lack of economic opportunities and cultural rights.

In the early 1990s, however, the economy was growing rapidly and life was good. Instead of curbing the cultural desire of ethnic Chinese, all rights were allowed as long as the price was paid.

For instance, higher education opportunities for ordinary ethnic Chinese were extremely lacking in the 1970s and 1980s. But in the 1990s when one was willing to pay for private education, hundreds of colleges were jostling for students.

Another example is Chinese language television broadcast time. In the 1970s and 1980s, not more than two hours of airtime were allocated for Chinese language broadcast on television. In the 1990s, if you could pay for satellite television, endless programmes await to tame the noisy middle class.

If you do not belong to the burgeoning middle class, or could not afford to pay for your children’s private education, or to pay for satellite television, don’t blame the government. It is your problem – either you are not lucky or you don’t work hard enough. After all, BN strategists were fully aware that the poorer components of both Malay and Chinese electorates would vote for PAS and DAP, respectively, anyway.

Imagined enemies and the short reign of Abdullah Badawi

During the 1970s and 1980s, a month would not pass without seeing some racial fanfare being played out in the media. But in the 1990s, whenever Dr Mahathir needed a whipping boy to consolidate his standing among the Malay base, it was always a choice among the British “colonisers”, the American “oppressors”, the Jewish “conspirators”, or the “arrogant” and “uncouth” Australians.

And, if Dr Mahathir needed an ethnic Chinese-looking enemy, the “surrogate” Chinese across the Causeway was there for him to attack. Images of UMNO Youth demonstrating in Johor Bahru against Singapore from this side of the Tebrau Straits vividly summed up the politics of the time perfectly – that UMNO did not have to change its methods, just look beyond our shores to see the “enemy”.

In 2004, Abdullah Badawi inherited Dr. Mahathir’s framework with an even more “Malaysian” or wasatiyyah (moderate) message. In his first National Day Address in August 2004, Abdullah said, “Kita semua adalah sama, kita semua rakyat Malaysia. Tidak ada individu di negara ini yang diiktiraf ‘lebih Malaysia’ dari individu lain.” (We are all the same, we are all Malaysians. No individual in this country is more Malaysian than others)

But something changed in 2005. The grand bargain ended abruptly in the last week of July of that year, something which I will discuss next week.

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