Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies, Vol 20, No 1 (2005)

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The March 2004 General Elections in Malaysia: Looking Beyond the "Pak Lah" Factor

Francis Kok Wah Loh


The mainstream media typically gives credit to the “Pak Lah” factor in explaining the spectacular electoral victory of Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the March 2004 general elections. Abdullah Badawi, nicknamed Pak Lah, replaced Malaysia’s long-time leader Mahathir Mohamad as Malaysia’s new prime minister. Malaysia’s voters supposedly became impressed with Abdullah’s more endearing public image as well as his impressive reform initiatives. However, this only partially
explains the victory. More importantly, the BN always wins because it maintains undemocratic controls over Malaysia’s electoral politics through its possession of large amounts of capital, its more comprehensive electoral machine, and its control over the mainstream media. Moreover, the Mahathir government abused its powers by arresting prominent opposition leaders under suspicious charges, manipulating the courts, and amending the Election Act to terms favorable to the BN but detrimental to the opposition parties. The war on terrorism provided a further opportunity to advance the prestige of the BN as Mahathir emerged as an international symbol for moderate Islam as well as a leader of the Global South. Finally, the powerful new political culture which the author refers to as “developmentalism” also plays a prominent role in the Malaysian electorate’s decision to keep the BN in power. Malaysia’s recent economic growth and political stability has been perceived to result from the BN’s neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation, and attracting foreign investment. Because of the general improvement in living standards, Malaysians value the development and modernization of their country above ethnicism. Moreover, Malaysians cannot imagine having political stability without BN rule, and the opposition lacks experience in promoting development. Thus, a “self-policing” system has emerged that has led the Malaysian citizenry to rely on the BN for economic growth and stability.

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