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Malaysia: Coalition Partners Ready to Desert UMNO Over ‘Racial Remarks’

Hadi Azmi and Radzi Razak
Kuala Lumpur
2019-03-04
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The Malaysian parliament, seen here during the Oct. 15, 2018, swearing in of Anwar Ibrahim, has seen 39 members of Barisan Nasional leave the coalition since its stunning electoral defeat in May 2018.
The Malaysian parliament, seen here during the Oct. 15, 2018, swearing in of Anwar Ibrahim, has seen 39 members of Barisan Nasional leave the coalition since its stunning electoral defeat in May 2018.
AP

Updated at 4:23 p.m. ET on 2019-03-05

Ten months after its first-ever electoral defeat, Malaysia’s oldest political coalition lurched further toward potential collapse Monday as leaders of two key component parties called for it to be dissolved or restructured.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) were founding members of the Barisan Nasional coalition, alongside the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). But in recent months that alliance has been undermined, its leaders said.

“MCA and MIC being representatives of their respective communities, acknowledge that the metamorphosis of BN to its present form has been rejected by their communities and are therefore calling for its dissolution or restructuring,” a joint statement said.

BN, established in 1973, suffered its first electoral defeat in May 2018, leading to the end of its unbroken six-decade rule and the departure of 10 of its 13 coalition members. The upstart Pakatan Harapan coalition scored a stunning upset and returned former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had left BN, to power.

BN won just 79 of 222 parliament seats in May, but that number has since shrunk to 40 as 22 MPs representing the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak left the coalition and 17 UMNO MPs defected.

UMNO now holds 37 seats in parliament, while BN, MCA and MIC have one each – falling far short of the 112 needed to control the government.

‘Racial remarks’

In their statement, the MCA and MIC leaders said their parties did not recognize the “illegal” appointment in October 2018 of hardline UMNO Supreme Council member Nazri Aziz as BN’s secretary general.

They said Nazri’s “repeated racial remarks” and UMNO’s silence on the matter had “cracked the foundation of mutual respect that BN stood for all this while.”

Speaking ahead of a by-election in Semenyih, Selangor late last month, Nazri reportedly accused the current government of failing to defend the rights of Malays, who make up 61 percent of 33 million Malaysians.

“It is the duty of every prime minister and the government to defend the (Malay) privilege. However, the government is weak,” Malaysiakini reported Nazri as saying at a lecture on Feb. 23.

“Many things that never happened before are happening now – [look at the appointment of the] attorney-general, chief justice and finance minister,” Malaysiakini reported the former tourism minister as saying.

He appeared to be referring to Attorney General Tommy Thomas, an ethnic Indian Christian, and Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian.

“The uncalled for racial remarks by the Datuk Seri Nazri in Semenyih have further damaged the ties between the three founding parties,” the joint MCA/MIC statement said.

‘This might not be the end’

Acting UMNO president Mohamad Hassan said the coalition would hear the grievances.

“The BN Supreme Council will call for a meeting at the nearest possible time and discuss the matter in detail,” he told BenarNews.

Hassan, who was elected as UMNO’s vice president following the general election defeat, became acting president in December when Ahmad Zahid Hamidi took leave in response to the exodus of party members.

Prior to the election loss, Zahid had served as deputy to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Like Najib, Zahid faces multiple charges of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.

The U.S. justice department alleges that high-level government officials and associates embezzled and laundered almost $4.5 billion (18.7 billion ringgit) from the 1MDB state fund through real estate and other assets, between 2009 and 2014.

Nazri told BenarNews that he welcomed the MCA and MIC departures as it would be their own demise.

“Both parties have only one seat each, they need BN more than BN needs them,” he said.

He added the parties should just leave like other members and not waste time with calling for a discussion.

Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political analyst with the Academy of Malay Studies at Universiti Malaya, said UMNO might benefit from the latest defections, as it could cooperate with Malay Muslim-based Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) for control of Malay voters.

“With MCA and MIC out of the way, there is no stopping other parties from joining BN, and this might not be the end of BN just yet,” added Awang Azman.

The most recent reports show Pakatan Harapan, with its Sabah-based allies Warisan and UPKO,  holding 135 seats in parliament, followed by BN and its allies with 40, the Sarawak Union Party with 19, the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), with 18, and the United Sabah Party with three. Seven members are independent.

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Barisan Nasional was founded in 1957.

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