Winning the Election, Losing Malaysia

Letter From Kampar

Demonstrators hold signs as they attend a rally in protest of the this month's election results at a stadium in Kelana Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur May 8, 2013. (Courtesy Reuters)

He wouldn't give his full name or his age -- except to say that he had vivid childhood memories of Japan's World War II occupation of Malaysia -- but Lee, a Chinese-Malaysian shopkeeper in Kampar, a onetime tin-mining hub in the northwestern Malaysian state of Perak, didn't hold back. “Politics in this country is about this: money politics,” he said, using the local shorthand for corruption. “The BN” -- Barisan Nasional, or National Front -- “is clever at it, and that means it is difficult for the opposition to win in this country,” he added.

Sure enough, the parliamentary election held May 5 resulted in the BN coalition maintaining its nearly six-decade hold on power, which dates all the way back to Malaysia's independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. The BN fended off a strong showing by Pakatan Rakyat (PKR, or People's Alliance), the opposition coalition, which ran a campaign focusing on alleged government graft -- the “money politics” -- and the BN’s perceived ethnic favoritism toward the country's 60 percent Malay majority.

Although the BN, which is made up of 13 parties and led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, of the dominant United National Malays Organization (UMNO), will continue to helm the government, the PKR can count its showing as something of a victory. After all, the opposition coalition won 89 seats to the BN’s 133 -- far from a hung parliament, to be sure, but nonetheless the closest race in Malaysian history. And that only builds on the unprecedented inroads that the opposition made five years ago, when, for the first time, it denied the BN a two-thirds majority in parliament, which allows lawmakers to amend the country's constitution.

Given the Malaysian economy’s good performance (it has grown by about five percent in each of the last few years), the BN hoped --

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