[Editor’s Note: This is the second entry in our symposium on “Constitutional Implications of the Malaysian Tsunami.” The introduction to the symposium is available here.]
—Donald L. Horowitz, Duke University
In the early 1950s, as Malaya was approaching independence, the British decided to conduct the first elections ever held in the country at the town council level, starting with Kuala Lumpur. Not long before, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) had had a leadership crisis. Its founding president, Dato’ Onn bin Ja’afar, had resigned when the party failed to agree to accept non-Malay members and decided to continue as a Malay-only organization. Onn had gone on to found the multiethnic Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) to contest the local elections. The IMP looked to be a formidable competitor to UMNO in Malaya’s towns, most of them with non-Malay—especially Chinese—majorities. The leadership of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), founded a few years earlier, was favorable to the IMP, but the MCA leader in Kuala Lumpur, H.S. Lee, decided to join with UMNO’s leader in KL to form the UMNO-MCA Alliance, which, by pooling Malay and Chinese votes, managed to defeat Onn’s IMP and went on to do so in one council election after another all over the country.
The Alliance became a permanent preelectoral coalition that, with the later addition of the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), went on to sweep all but one of the 52 seats contested at the 1955 national elections that preceded independence. By pooling the votes of Malays, then barely half the population but at the time a greater fraction of the voting population, with the votes of Chinese and Indians, the coalition overwhelmed the opposition. Even after more non-Malays became citizens, the Alliance also won the first post-independence election in 1959. In each case, it put up a single slate of candidates in single-member constituencies across the country. With the aid of some parties in Sabah and Sarawak after those Borneo states joined with Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963, the Alliance—later called the Barisan Nasional or BN—won the next dozen general elections as well. In 2018, however, it lost to a competing coalition, the Pakatan Harapan (or Coalition of Hope), which practiced the interethnic vote pooling pioneered by the Alliance. Embedded in this practice are some questions of constitutional and electoral-system design.
By 2018, many forces had undermined the Barisan’s winning formula of pooling the votes of Malaysia’s various ethnic groups and had especially eroded the support of Chinese and Indians. Even as early as 1959, when many Chinese had just become citizens, the then-prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, effectively sent many new citizens off to Chinese opposition parties by abruptly failing to meet some claims advanced by the MCA. A decade later, when Chinese opposition parties celebrated certain state-level victories at the polls, they touched off a violent Malay reaction that produced a 21-month suspension of parliament and a new program of preferences for Malays in business, education, and employment. That program, in turn, drove more non-Malays to the opposition, further weakening the contribution the MCA and MIC could make to the ruling coalition in succeeding elections.