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Looking ahead to 2018: Do or die battle for Najib and BN in ‘father of all elections’

SINGAPORE — Malaysia’s upcoming general election is a win or bust battle for Prime Minister Najib Razak as he attempts to reverse consecutive slides in the number of seats won by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, amid concerns among voters about bread and butter issues.

Malaysia’s upcoming general election is a win or bust battle for Prime Minister Najib Razak as he attempts to reverse consecutive slides in the number of seats won by BN,  amid concerns among voters about bread and butter issues. Photo: AFP

Malaysia’s upcoming general election is a win or bust battle for Prime Minister Najib Razak as he attempts to reverse consecutive slides in the number of seats won by BN, amid concerns among voters about bread and butter issues. Photo: AFP

As the year draws to a close, TODAY kicks off a series looking at key issues on the local and foreign front in the next 12 months. In Singapore, we look at what lies ahead in areas ranging from political succession, public transport, climate change and the terrorism threat, to electronic payment, the property market and sports. Beyond our shores, the focus will be on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations under Singapore’s chairmanship. In the eighth instalment of the series, we zoom in on the upcoming general election in Malaysia and the states which are likely to see the fiercest fights for votes.


SINGAPORE — Malaysia’s upcoming general election is a win or bust battle for Prime Minister Najib Razak as he attempts to reverse consecutive slides in the number of seats won by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, amid concerns among voters about bread and butter issues.

Mr Najib acknowledged the tough battle ahead when he described the national polls — due by August though some are speculating it will be called as early as after the Chinese New Year — as the “father of all elections” at the United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno) general assembly early this month (Dec).

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Success at the polls will be defined by whether BN can increase the 132 parliamentary seats it currently holds and prevent the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition from winning control of more states beyond the two it currently rules, say observers.

Anything short of that will see Mr Najib’s political future in jeopardy and he could possibly be ousted at Umno’s party polls next year.

While Umno agreed at its recent assembly that the post of party president will not be contested at the next polls, this was seen as an attempt by the party to close ranks ahead of the polls and the situation could easily change if the BN fares poorly in the election.

“A yardstick would be if he can maintain at least the same level of results as the last election. If he can’t, those in Umno may have an excuse to make a move against him,” said Dr Oh Ei Sun, the principal adviser to public policy think tank Pacific Research Centre and a former political aide to Mr Najib.


It’s been an uncomfortable few years for Mr Najib, with headlines swirling about a scandal over the finances of state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and public unhappiness over runaway inflation, stagnant wages and unaffordable homes.

But he seems to have weathered the storm.

Mr Najib — who became premier in 2009 — is arguably at his strongest politically now since BN’s narrow victory in the 2013 national polls, when it secured its lowest number of parliamentary seats and experienced its first-ever loss of the popular vote, stoking optimism then among opposition parties for the next election.

The feel-good feeling within the opposition camp has since fizzled after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed for sodomy in 2014. This was followed by the dissolution of opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition a year later over the push by then ally Parti Islam Se-Malaysia to implement Islamic criminal law or hudud in Kelantan.

A new pact — PH — was subsequently formed, comprising Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), PAS splinter party Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) and later, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which was set up by Mr Najib’s supporter-turned-critic, former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

“The upheavals within the opposition has caused their supporters to lose faith in them,” argued Mr Tan Keng Liang, the youth chief for Gerakan, a component party in BN, who predicted this will result in disillusioned voters abandoning the opposition.

Although state fund 1MDB is being investigated in at least six countries for money-laundering and misappropriation of funds, including an alleged US$681 million (S$916.42 million) transfer into the prime minister’s personal account, a Malaysian inquiry cleared Mr Najib of wrongdoing and the premier has not been identified as a target in any of the other multiple probes.

Despite PH’s efforts in painting Mr Najib as a kleptocrat and an international pariah, the issue does not appear to have gained any traction with most Malaysians.

“1MDB will not have as much of an impact because most feel that these scandals are beyond them. Their biggest concern is daily survival (due to) increased cost of living,” said Dr Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute on what voters in Kedah and Johor told her during her recent field work in the two states.

“While some are aware of the scandal, only a few said that this affected them, and only a handful said it would make them vote the other way,” she added.

“Some went so far as to say that this was all fake news. Others simply said they didn’t understand it and didn’t care.”

Employing bare-knuckle political skills, Mr Najib has sacked his critics including his (then) deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, stacked his Cabinet with loyalists, and secured the backing of powerful division chiefs in Umno.

Even a campaign by Dr Mahathir, who is currently leading the opposition to oust Mr Najib, has failed to undermine the prime minister’s position.

At the same time, PH has struggled to make a serious dent in BN’s rural support bases to which Mr Najib has pledged billions of ringgit in infrastructure, most recently during the 2018 Budget.

All these should see BN winning doing better than in the last two elections, some analysts say.

BN saw its number of seats drop from 198 to 140 in 2008 and further decline to 133 in 2013.

(BN subsequently won the Teluk Intan parliamentary seat in a by-election but lost two seats when former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and minister Shafie Apdal quit the coalition).

“The possibility of repeating BN’s 2008 performance of winning 140 seats is realistic. If Najib is able to win that number of seats, it will definitely silence his detractors and incapacitate the Opposition for at least another election,” said Mr Asrul Hadi Abdullah, an analyst with political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia.


For Mr Najib to secure a comprehensive victory, he will have to address Malaysians’ growing dissatisfaction over stagnant wages, home ownership, and the rising costs of living.

Inflation reached an eight-year high earlier in 2017 and voters are worried that the ringgit is not stretching as far as it used to.

There also remains widespread unhappiness over the Goods and Services Tax (GST) implemented in 2015.

PH is expected to capitalise on this in its campaign to whip up voters’ sentiments against the ruling coalition, as well as bring up issues like corruption and good governance.

“The challenge for PH is to convince Malaysians who are feeling the pinch that we are capable of resolving their problems,” said PKR vice-president Tian Chua.

“However, we also have a small advantage is that we have Dr Mahathir and Anwar with us and many rural folks and voters who are on the fence are hankering for the golden age of Malaysia where the economy was doing well during the two leaders’ tenure.”

Nevertheless, the alliance between Dr Mahathir and the opposition may be hard to accept for some voters, even among those who have traditionally been against BN.

Dr Mahathir remains a polarising figure for some who cannot accept that the former premier — who used to deride the opposition, especially the DAP — is now working hand in glove with them.

Others are dismissive of how opposition parties can now bring Dr Mahathir into their fold when they had consistently criticised his policies during his 22-year tenure as prime minister.

“The Mahathir factor is a double-edged sword. On one hand, his stature and eloquence could well win more support for PH, especially among the Malays but on the other hand, his presence could put off the Chinese in particular those who may not come out to vote, and this could make a difference in marginal seats controlled by PH,” said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“In other words, the over-emphasis on the Malay vote by PH could result in an erosion of support from the Chinese for PH.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Mr Rashaad Ali, a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ (RSIS) Malaysia Programme, warned that Dr Mahathir’s leadership of PH could easily drive voters to BN.

“Dr Mahathir’s position only reinforces the messaging from his detractors. He makes himself an easy target for BN and Umno supporters by opting to lead those he denigrated only a few elections ago.”

DAP’s Zairil Khir Johari however disagreed, noting that on the flipside, many who normally would not support PH will now do so because of the presence of Dr Mahathir in the opposition coalition.

“Could Dr Mahathir provide that much needed spark to our campaign? He could,” said the federal lawmaker.

“Are there risks? Sure. But without taking a risk, how do we forward our cause?”


The battle will be fought at the rural Malay heartlands, and this is reflected by how political debates in recent years have centred on race and religion.

For instance, besides pushing for hudud, PAS has argued for a ban on beer festivals and even suggested an all Malay-Muslim cabinet.

Umno leaders on the other hand have rolled out the red carpet for hardline Islamic preachers, denounced atheists and gays, while using rhetoric emphasising Malay identity and bumiputra privilege.

At the same time, the ruling party has singled out the DAP as the biggest threat to Malay political rule and painted Dr Mahathir as a traitor for working with his former political foes.

“The ethno-nationalist sentiments are still strong and active in Malaysian politics. These sentiments will be central to campaigning in the upcoming election... (and) likely to be amplified during the electoral campaigning,” said Iseas’ Dr Mustafa.

Another significant development is the warming of ties between former foes PAS and Umno.

In February this year, PAS’ senior leaders were present at a ceremony where Mr Najib sent an aid flotilla off to Myanmar to aid Rohingya refugees.

Putrajaya also backed a controversial Private Member’s Bill tabled by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang to amend the Syariah courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 aimed at enhancing the power of the Syariah courts. The Bill was allowed to be tabled in Parliament in April, but the debate was later deferred.

And on Dec 22, Umno and PAS rallied to protest against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“We have a good partnership with PAS as we share the same agenda — to uphold and defend Islam and the rights of the Malay community. Our closeness will enable us to clinch more seats in the coming polls,” said Mr Ali Mazat, an Umno assemblyman in Johor’s Bukit Permai district.

The warning ties between Umno and PAS have led to speculation that PAS could play a “spoiler” role by contesting as a third party at the general election in up to 120 rural Malay seats (out of a total of 222 parliamentary seats nationwide), which are targeted by Dr Mahathir’s PPBM and PAS splinter party, Amanah.

Malaysia uses a first-past-the-post electoral system and traditionally three-cornered fights have favoured BN.

“With the opposition vote split between PAS and PH, Umno will win the bulk of the Malay seats and the general election,” said Mr James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.

“In exchange, Umno will have to support Mr Hadi’s Private Member Bill, with PAS expecting the government to push for more Islamic policies.”

If Umno and PAS do strike up a deal, albeit an informal one, it will undermine PKR’s chances in many Malay-majority marginal seats.

The DAP will not be affected much as most of its seats are in Chinese majority areas.

This fits into Umno’s playbook that the opposition is being dominated by DAP, said Mr Adib Zalkapli, a political analyst at political risk advisory firm Vriens & Partners.

“It is important for the ruling coalition to show that the opposition does not have legitimate Malay representation,” he said.

“PAS’ withdrawal from the opposition alliance has reinforced the perception of the absence of Malay representation while Amanah and PPBM’s popularity has yet to be tested.”

In a nutshell, with the coming polls hinging on economic and Malay-Muslim issues and BN having the power of incumbency and full government resources at its disposal, PH faces an uphill battle to realise its dream of taking over Putrajaya.

“(The) big question is whether the overall split in the Malay vote and the messaging from the opposition rallying around an end to Najib’s administration is enough to topple BN,” said RSIS’ Mr Rashaad.

“My sense is that the opposition has not been able to take the opportunity to present themselves as a credible and worthy alternative to the Malaysian people,” he added.

“On the other hand, Umno-BN and Najib have consolidated their position... That’s why I believe a straightforward BN victory will be enough to constitute a success. Umno has endured what is arguably the worst period in their history, and a victory in the next election would be a hammer blow to the credentials of the opposition.”

Missed the earlier reports from our Looking Ahead to 2018 series? 

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