By Jamari Mohtar
March 28, 2018
At this juncture, when announcement on the date of the 14th General Elections (GE14) is just a few weeks or months away, the pertinent question is no longer whether the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) will win. Rather, the issue now is whether BN will regain its two-thirds majority.
After losing the two-thirds majority in the previous two GEs, BN looks set to regain its two-thirds majority in GE14.
One indication of this is when we see the vehemence in which some foreign media revived the stale issue of 1MDB by casting aspersions on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak in their news report. Obviously they wouldn’t have done this if they expect BN to win with a razor-thin majority or better still, losing.
Since 2016 when former premier Tun Mahathir Mohamed left Umno and then formed a new party to fight Najib, Malaysians have been in an election mode, waiting for the mother of all elections to take place.
The tempo was raised several notches high when the Election Commission (EC) announced on March 9 its submission to Najib the final report on the delineation of electoral boundaries for parliamentary and state constituencies.
Soon after this announcement, which marked the first event to take place before an election can be called, three foreign media – the Australian, Economist and MSNBC – had fired their first salvo by spewing their venoms at Najib in what can be seen as an attempt to influence the outcome of GE 14, which must be called by August.
Between this first event and the announcement of Nomination Day and Polling Day by the EC, three more events would have to take place before election can be held. It would be very interesting to see whether the foreign media will create some pre-election ruckus at these three events. These events are:
- Acceptance of the recommendations of the EC report by Najib in its entirety or with further inputs from him. A media statement on this need not be issued. If issued, it would be interesting then to watch whether there would be any further salvos from the foreign media.
- The third event signalling election is nearer still would be when Najib tables the EC report to Parliament for debate and passage. The report does not require a two-thirds majority. As a simple majority would suffice, passage could be expected to be a smooth-sailing affair. The report, which is already in the hands of the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, is expected to be tabled in Parliament this week. Again, it would be interesting to watch whether there will be interference from the foreign media.
- The fourth event would cause decibels to rise further when the Malaysian King, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong announces the dissolution of Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister. By then it doesn’t matter whether the foreign media will interfere or not because the fury of the foreign media will be more than equally matched by the full fury of the government and the ruling BN election machineries.
Actually quite earlier on, many political watchers and analysts had already predicted on the inevitability of a Barisan’s victory. The only party, which is forecasting on an Opposition’s victory, is of course, the Opposition itself.
But as the adage goes, one week in politics is such a long time and between now and Polling Day, anything could happen to derail this predicted victory of BN. So it is of the utmost importance that BN does not get complacent, a point stressed repeatedly by its leaders.
Here are some factors that will clinch a Barisan’s two-third majority victory.
A newfound unity in the ruling coalition
Unity is the most critical and crucial factor, which is the clincher for a landslide victory. As one ustaz (religious teacher) told the writer: “Unity is paramount. You can have a solid candidate with good pedigree and credentials, solid manifesto and superior financial resources but without unity, everything will go down the drain.
“History has shown many instances of how a small group of people poorly equipped with weapons and without the proper training in battle but enormously equipped with the cohesive spirit of unity and solidarity coupled with a strong faith in victory, can defeat a huge and better equipped army, many times its size.”
Never before in so many years in the history of Umno is there such a solid unity and solidarity between its leaders and the rank and file on the one hand, and among its leaders and among its rank and file, on the other hand.
And this is achieved due to the political brinkmanship of Najib in disgorging the elements of disunity in Umno in the form of the 3Ms – Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Mukhriz.
When Najib sacked Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir as the Menteri Besar of Kedah in early 2016, on hindsight, this was a double whammy strategy as it led to Mukhriz’s father, Mahathir, to voluntarily sack himself from Umno.
Absent the main source of disunity in the party, Najib then went about to patiently and gradually build first, a strong and united Umno, and then an equally strong and united BN.
At every opportunity during party events, together with his deputy in Umno and BN – Datuk Zahid Hamidi – Najib impressed on the rank and file the danger of infighting within the party and coalition.
One classic example of Umno’s disunity in the past that is being oft repeated as lesson to learn at these party events was the costly defeat at the federal constituency of Sepang in Selangor during GE13.
The incumbent MP then who was heading the Umno division of Sepang became so power crazy that he engineered the removal of his division rivals, some of whom were sitting legislators of the Selangor State Assembly, such that they were not chosen as candidates at the state level for GE13.
Out of anger and spite, two of his rivals sabotaged Umno by contesting as Independents against him, giving rise to a comical situation in which the sole Opposition candidate from PAS was faced with three Umno candidates in a four-cornered fight.
Umno, as expected, not only lost the federal seat of Sepang, but also three state seats under that constituency, and the Opposition for the first time managed to win both the federal and state seats in Sepang, denting the hope of Umno to make a comeback in Selangor then.
Going forward to GE14, this will be a painful lesson that Selangor Umno will take to heart in its determination not to repeat the fiasco, as can be seen in the constant reminder of Najib and Zahid to all Umno members on the need to fight in battle array as if they were a solid cemented structure against the Opposition.
This newfound unity can also be seen in the component parties of BN. You don’t see public squabbles among members of the MCA or MIC, unlike in the past. This is not to say that squabbles did not exist but they were done behind closed doors, and were resolved very quickly, unlike the Opposition.
Whereas MCA and Gerakan used to squabble among themselves in BN in the past, there is now a concerted effort to move together in unison in exposing the hollowness of the Penang DAP and Selangor PKR state governments’ self touted Competency, Accountability and Transparency (CAT) policy.
The Penang “Tunnel Vision” scandal and the Selangor Ijok Land scandal which were whistle-blown by the combined efforts of MCA, Gerakan and Umno, had laid bare the mockery of this CAT policy such that it has earned the epithet of a “sissy and pussy meow” policy among some commentators in the social media.
Fighting fake news with an appeal to facts
In this era of post-truth world where truth is no longer determined by facts but by what those with the loudest voice say in the social media, BN is at a disadvantage, even though this loudest voice may originate from empty vessels.
This is because since the 1990s, mastery of social media belonged to the Opposition and at each GE then, they were able to make a dent on the votes garnered by BN, first by capturing Terengganu for the first time in 1999, and then Penang, Kedah, Selangor and Perak in 2008.
This time round BN has a full functioning and well-run Strategic Communications team led by Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan and Datuk Eric See-To.
The brain behind this team is Eric. Working independently with bloggers such as Lim Sian See and Raja Petra Kamarudin, their postings in their Facebook pages are well visited and shared by netizens such that they are causing the Opposition a run for their money.
A simple but powerful strategy employed by them in their social media strategy is to confront any allegations or fake news of the Opposition with an appeal to the facts.
When the Opposition raised questions on national debt, for instance, with the ulterior motive of reviving the stale 1MDB issue by selective use of statistics, Eric and Lim used facts to show:
- It’s the ability to pay that matters, as all nations have national debts;
- Percentage of the budget used to service debt and interest was worst during the Mahathir’s era – more than 30% vis-à-vis the current 12% during the Najib administration;
- Percentage of debt to GDP was worst during the Mahathir’s era at more than 100% of GDP compared to Najib’s self imposed limit of not more than 55% (currently 50.7%); and
- An admirable foreign reserve of about US$104 billion under Najib compared to a pittance of about US$20 billion under Mahathir.
In this regard, Najib has set a good precedent by being social media savvy in using the messaging app Telegram to disseminate what he and his administration had done, are and will be doing for the rakyat. To the best of my knowledge no politician has ever done this via Telegram including the social media savvy Donald Trump.
It’s the economy, stupid!
Time and again polls have shown that the performance of the economy is a big factor in winning election. Bill Clinton used it effectively with the mantra “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” against George HW Bush and went on to win the 1992 election.
When you have continuous quarterly economic growth that beats analysts’ expectation, when you have record-breaking FDI commitments – much to the envy of other countries – from a country whose economy is the second largest in the world, and when you manage to get a scoop in getting a global iconic entrepreneur or expert with a global brand name to advise you, and when all these are acknowledged by supra-national organisations like IMF, WTO and World Economic Forum, these are the indications showing the scale is already tipped in favour of the incumbent having a solid chance of a landslide win in GE 14.
Because this shows the swan song since 2015 of Oppositionists like Mahathir and Lim Kit Siang that Malaysia is on the brink of bankruptcy is humbug and fake news. It also shows the fundamentals of the economy are basically sound, despite the challenging global economic climate or whatever problems. Also it’s a testament that the economics-trained Najib runs the economy much better than the medical-trained Mahathir.
Finally, will reviving the issue of 1MDB put a spanner in the excellent works of BN to regain a two-third majority? I don’t think so because the issue was put to the test in 2016 in two by-elections at Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar.
BN especially Najib was at his most vulnerable then and the two constituencies affected were marginal ones in that the majority gained by BN in GE13 was razor-thin. But the people in these two constituencies despite the loud beatings of the drums on 1MDB by Mahathir and Kit Siang returned BN with a bigger majority.
Reviving the 1MDB issue again in GE14 is akin to reviving a failed strategy on the part of the Opposition. If one keeps on using repeatedly a failed strategy, and yet expecting a different outcome, isn’t that the definition of insanity?
Jamari Mohtar is a veteran journalist who used to live and work in Singapore. He has more than 20 years of experience in the media including stints as the Singapore Correspondent for Focus Malaysia, a Malaysia-based business weekly, and Roving Correspondent of Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia.