Malaysia’s nationalist UMNO party said its rivals are driving a “campaign of fear” against the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in the lead-up to Saturday’s elections and this could cost Malaysians.
Speaking to CNBC on Friday, UMNO’s information chief and former economic director at the prime minister’s department, Shahril Hamdan acknowledged there are “issues” with the integrity of the Malaysian political system.
However, he said those problems also applied to all other parties and coalitions, not just Barisan. UMNO is part of the Barisan Nasional coalition.
Convicted former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who was president of UMNO and chairman of Barisan Nasional until 2018, has been sentenced to 12 years in jail over his involvement with the multi-billion dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
“There is a campaign of fear that anything but Barisan is still a better option for Malaysians,” Shahril said.
“I’m not at all denying that there are issues around integrity in our political system and this applies to all political parties.”
“But the narratives that our opponents take — obviously because of the 1MDB scandal a couple of years ago, and that’s something that we have to acknowledge — is to say Barisan might be more competent … but Barisan is supposedly just too dirty to deal with.”
“Just demonizing others, saying that you just can’t vote for this particular coalition Barisan because a couple of people are facing court cases, I think there’s an extremely unfair and incomplete way of offering your [sic] future to the people.”
Corruption allegations against Najib led to the the long-standing ruling coalition Barisan Nasional being ousted from power in the last election in 2018, ending its 60-year political dominance in the Southeast Asian country.
The latest published polls by opinion research firm Merdeka Centre suggest that Barisan and the opposition party Pakatan Harapan might be neck-and-neck in the election, although the most likely outcome is that there would be no single coalition with a majority.
Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, chairman of Pakatan Harapan campaigning on Thursday.
Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images
Shahril also said that unlike the time when senior statesman Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister, Najib and other members of Barisan continue to be persecuted for their dealings with 1MDB.
Mahathir told CNBC in an interview last month politicians in Malaysia were corrupt “right through.” The political strongman is known for firing his deputy Anwar Ibrahim in the 1990s, who was later controversially charged and jailed for sodomy.
Anwar, as leader of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, is seeking the Malaysian leadership in this election.
“Top leaders in our party are still facing court cases; now could you have said that for the time when Mahathir was prime minister? I’m not so sure,” Shahril said.
“So there’s the question of making the public understand that … we’ve always respected the division power between the three branches of government, we have not interfered with cases, that’s something that we’re proud to say is the new image of Barisan.”
Also speaking to CNBC on Friday, Anwar said Malaysians — particularly those in the “heartland” or rural areas, where Barisan has a dominance — will not only care about economic matters like cost of living, but also about corruption.
Research shows winning the Malay or heartland vote usually comes down to issues such as good infrastructure, education and efficient administration of matters concerning Islam, while issues such as corruption are not as important.
“One should not be too condescending to assume that the rural folks don’t care about corruption because [it’s] affecting their lives, affecting food prices, affecting the quality of education in this country,” Anwar told “Street Signs Asia.”
Even leaders in other parties have refused to declare sides, suggesting “there was a lot to hide,” he added.
Leader of the youth-based political party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) Syed Saddiq, lent his support to Anwar despite not being in the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
“I believe that Datuk Sri Anwar Ibrahim is the man for the job to save Malaysia,” Syed told CNBC on Friday.
“He’s the institution-centered leader, which focuses on building great institutions instead of personalities to ensure that Malaysia can become a developed country.”
Over 21 million Malaysians are eligible to vote — up from 18 million in 2018 after the Malaysian parliament approved a bill to reduce the voting age to 18 years from 21.
The youth vote may be significant on Saturday, with 18 to 21 year-old’s making up about one fifth of voters.
“It is my job as the president of MUDA … to ensure that we do a very good job to win the youth vote … it’s about turbocharging our country forward and becoming the leader in Southeast Asia,” he told “Street Signs Asia.”