By Blake Berger
The “million dollar” question in Malaysia these days is when Prime Minister Najib Razak will call parliamentary elections. The pending elections have the potential to be a watershed moment in Malaysia.
In 2008, the ruling coalition Barisan National (BN) for the first time since independence in 1957 lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. Not long after that, Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, was pressed to step down. Najib would certainly like to better the 2008 results to cement his grip on power. Some speculate that he could face challenges from within his party if he doesn’t top Abdullah’s showing.
For much of last year pundits predicted Najib would call elections early in 2012. However, recent events ranging from a series of political scandals to a flurry of new government programs suggest that he won’t call the elections for at least the next six to eight months. Najib doesn’t have to call the elections before March 2013.
Protests about patronage politics has risen to the forefront as revelations unfold in the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal involving Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Shahrizat Abdul Jalil. Her husband is the chief executive officer and their three sons hold executive positions in the NFC. The family is accused of misappropriating $83 million in government loans directed towards the development of a cattle-rearing and farming project. Media reports in Malaysia suggest that the funds have been used alternatively to purchase up-scale apartments in Kuala Lumpur, parcels of land, and a $180,000 Mercedes Benz. Despite calls from both ruling coalition leaders and opposition parties for her to step down, Shahrizat clings to her post.
This is not the only corruption scandal to taint the image of the ruling coalition. In December 2011, former chief minister from the ruling coalition for the state of Selangor, Khir Toyo, was sentenced to a year in jail on corruption charges. With the spotlight on patronage politics, the scandals have fueled increasing criticism of the prime minister’s leadership. Najib needs the furor over corruption to tamp down before he calls elections.
Further suggestions that the elections aren’t pending came from Najib’s January 13 interview with the Wall Street Journal during which he said that the government still had to deliver on its promises of reforms, and implied that the elections would be held only once the people have benefited from them. Since the prime minister’s comments, he has announced a series of programs and initiatives. In January, Najib unveiled the 2012 budget and the 1Malaysia People’s Assistance (BR1M) scheme, which allocated roughly $7.3 billion in subsides for the poor. He also assembled a committee to review the civil servant salary and bonus structure and suggested that the government was willing to increase both.
In recent weeks, Najib has announced a series of economic and social programs that seek to deliver on the government’s reform and economic plan. The prime minister, through the Economic Transformation Program (ETP) and affiliated projects, announced on February 17, that new projects would create an estimated 150,000 jobs in the state of Sabah.
On the same day, Human Resource Minister S. Subramaniam implied that a decision on the minimum wage legislation would be delivered in March. If approved, the minimum wage would range roughly from $266 to $330 and would affect an estimated 33 percent of workers in the Malaysian private sector. The prime minister has also implemented a program giving undocumented Indian Malaysians citizenship papers and launched a social media strategy to reach out to youth and the Chinese community.
Najib will need to wait for public anger about corruption and abuse of power to subside and the benefits of the recent programs to begin to kick in before dissolving Parliament. These signs taken together suggest its unlikely that Najib will call the elections until late 2012.
Blake Berger is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia program covering Malaysia.