Malaysian opposition presents younger array of leaders, amid unhealthy political culture

First published on Channel NewsAsia on 3 March 2018, here.

Commentary: Malaysian opposition presents younger array of leaders, amid unhealthy political culture

Tricia Yeoh

Where political culture traditionally favours seniority and age, the opposition has demonstrated efforts to groom and expose younger politicians, says one expert from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian parliament will automatically dissolve on Jun 24, and elections must be held by August 2018 at the very latest.

But speculation is rife that elections will be held in early May, before fasting month begins on May 16.

As the hype towards the 14th general election grows, the primary question on voters’ minds is who will take over as the next Prime Minister and form the next array of the country’s future leaders?

The opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan in December 2017 made its startling announcement that the Prime Minister-in-waiting is none other than Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

This has sparked huge debate among analysts and critics, chief among which is the criticism that Mahathir was in fact the leader who created many structural flaws that have allowed current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to remain in power despite corruption allegations .


Another more sobering critique is that this reflects the dearth of new leadership among a coalition that claims it represents the future.

In the event of a national opposition win, Dr Mahathir’s appointment as Prime Minister is expected to only be transitory until Anwar Ibrahim – likely to be released from prison in June 2018 but who will be unable to contest in the upcoming elections – is given a royal pardon, in the hopes this leads to his eventual appointment as the subsequent Prime Minister.

The resulting narrative is that the same two faces that occupied the number one and two top positions in the Barisan government in 1998 may yet again lead the nation.

This has not helped the public perception that younger opposition politicians do not have opportunities to advance the political ranks of leadership as rapidly as they should.

Those who take this view may have expected opposition leaders such as Azmin Ali, Selangor Chief Minister, to have been named a potential Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister candidate. Azmin has led the state of Selangor relatively successfully since September 2014.

The situation looks more dismal if one examines the incumbent Barisan Nasional parties. The political leadership in UMNO is in the hands of Prime Minister Najib Razak, but the question surely should be: Who is next in line after Najib?

Other prominent UMNO leaders like Deputy President Zahid Hamidi and Najib’s cousin Hishammuddin Hussein have been active in politics for the last four to five decades. Other reform-minded leaders like International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed and Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh are turning 68 and 63 respectively this year, and the former has been rumoured to retire from federal politics soon.

The only other younger prominent personalities within UMNO are Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law to former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and present Youth and Sports Minister, as well as possibly Sabah-born Rahman Dahlan, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Apart from these figures, one is hard-pressed to identify national leaders with the necessary calibre and experience to form a strong team for Malaysia as it heads towards 2020, the target year for the country to achieve developed nation status.

Other Barisan component parties do not boast an array of new leaders either, not least due to their poor performance in the last election. MCA’s senior representatives on the Cabinet, Liow Tiong Lai and Wee Ka Siong are hardly new faces, whilst MIC only has a sole representative 64-year-old Subramaniam Sathasivam.


The opposition’s resort to old-timers filling the top two posts has fueled the observation that other significant personalities in the coalition are similarly long-time politicians including Parti Bersatu’s Muhyiddin Yassin (former Deputy Prime Minister), Mukhriz Mahathir (Dr Mahathir’s son and former Kedah Chief Minister) and DAP’s Lim Guan Eng (current Penang Chief Minister).

But the opposition promises a wider array of younger leaders.

The Pakatan coalition offers a significantly larger number of younger leaders compared to the incumbent Barisan Nasional parties. Keadilan’s Nurul Izzah Anwar and Rafizi Ramli, and DAP’s Liew Chin Tong, Tony Pua and Ong Kian Ming are just a few.

One of the advantages the opposition has is that it leads two prominent state governments. Selangor and Penang are two of the richest, most urbanised and industralised states in the country.

Younger personalities have been able to take advantage of this by being placed in leadership positions there, and gain the necessary experience and credibility – especially crucial in the opposition’s claims of being reform-minded, where experiments can be first carried out at a smaller scale.

Although Barisan parties have their youth wings, young Pakatan leaders are given opportunities to shine. 39-year old Hannah Yeoh is the youngest and the first female state legislative assembly speaker in the country, while 36-year old Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad is a member of the state executive council, both appointed by the Selangor state government.

Even younger is 32-year old Dr Afif Bahardin in the Penang state executive council.

In comparison, Barisan, leading 10 other states in the country, has not equally placed their young politicians in leadership positions, nor projected them forward as public personas to the same degree.


Some of the younger opposition leaders named have demonstrated their mettle on public policy issues. Many have been prolific writers, thinkers and proactive opinion shapers.

Through the presentation of op-eds, papers and books, public engagement, and visible interactions with local, independent think tanks and civil society groups, they have shown more thought leadership on critical issues compared to their Barisan counterparts. With former IDEAS CEO Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Bersih champions Ambiga Sreenevasan and Maria Chin Abdullah rumoured to be joining Pakatan Harapan in the coming weeks, this will be even more evident.

The trouble on the Barisan’s side stems from political inertia – when a coalition is in power for an indefinite period with no significant challenge, there tends to be a lack of competition of ideas on public policy.

There is minimal policy debate within the ranks of UMNO. Because it has held power for so long, most policy thinking and analysis are contained within the executive arm of government, whether from ministers themselves or in discussions among civil servants, political appointees and aides, or external consultants.

The resulting perception is that policymaking remains the domain of elites, even as most Malaysians are gravely concerned about day-to-day issues like the cost of living.

Unless politicians are appointed into the executive, and only senior politicians have such opportunities, younger Barisan politicians find their policy exposure and ability to demonstrate their worth to the ranks of their parties unfortunately limited.

Consequently, can we really blame the Malaysian public for wondering if they are fit to lead?


There are also other factors at play in Malaysia, a traditionally hierarchical society, where positions are given based on tenure and age. The unsaid rule is one needs to therefore bide his time before being rewarded with a substantive post.

The party structure, especially in a party as conservative as UMNO, is not inherently geared towards meritocracy. And if it is not careful, Bersatu – Dr Mahathir’s party now part of the opposition coalition that consists of many former UMNO members – may end up inheriting the same archaic political culture.

To groom the next generation of leaders in public policymaking and politics, older politicians must be willing to train and provide leadership positions to younger members.

This must be done early; such that younger leaders will have both the time and space to develop the necessary required skills.

The examples set by the Selangor and Penang state governments are good, but are not enough. New faces should be brought in at the local council levels, groomed upward at the state and national levels, and given more prominent leadership positions if they have proven their worth.

Policy debate must be rigorously encouraged at the party and coalition levels; yet not enough of this is being done by either side.

Finally, older leaders must be willing to step aside for new blood when the time is right. This is arguably the hardest thing to do, if political parties are pre-occupied with winning just this one election.

Tricia Yeoh is chief operating officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

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