Looking for a Malaysian Trump

by Nicholas Wong

In Malaysia, Trump has been compared to Ibrahim Ali, an experienced practitioner of racialist politics. That’s a pretty superficial comparison.

It’s more useful to think of Trump in terms of how and why he won. Don’t believe the headlines. Trump didn’t pull off a landslide win ― he lost the popular vote by over two million ballots.

His Electoral College win isn’t bad (306/538), but lower than average historically. He also has historically low approval ratings ― his first presidential job approval ratings sat at about 45 per cent, the lowest of any new president all the way back to Harry Truman in 1945.

What Trump did was that he successfully ran an insurgent campaign inside the Republican party ― winning not by a landslide, but by taking advantage of a crowded field.

He then successfully co-opted Republican establishment support, which secured rank-and-file support for his insurgency.  He pulled out a minority victory by winning enough battleground states, and narrowly flipping three previously Democratic-voting states.

And he tapped  into campaign issues that resonated with the “right” voters ― immigration and border security, Islamic extremism, international trade deals.

And he did so with zero personal political experience. The rules Trump really broke were unwritten rules the political elite and pundit class took for granted. His weaknesses were strengths. Lousy speeches and outbursts weren’t “unpresidential”, they were conversationalist and relatable.

Zero political experience didn’t make him “unqualified”, it put him outside the “establishment.” His one-per center, government-lobbying background didn’t put him in the establishment, it was his management and business experience.

In this aspect, Trump isn’t new. Andrew Jackson had a “pugnacious temper — and a readiness to use a gun — that makes the hyperactive Trump look like a choir boy.”

Bill Clinton and John Kennedy were infamous womanisers – and Clinton has been accused of rape and sexual harassment. Mitt Romney ran on his background in business. And Ronald Reagan was a celebrity turned governor turned president.

The election of The Donald wasn’t an overwhelming, paradigm-changing win. It was a combination of smarts and luck that exploited a narrow path to victory ― but it did it well.

What would a Trump campaign look like in Malaysia?

So if anyone wanted to put the Trump playbook into action in Malaysia, how would they do it?

Malaysia’s opposition parties have the same problems Democrats face today ― they have popular national support, but their voters are concentrated in fewer, larger constituencies.

They both need stronger support from voters in the majority ethnic group (Malay/Bumiputera Malaysians and white Americans). So you can see the appeal of trying to replicate and co-opt the Trump playbook.

But Barisan Nasional has already been using it in recent elections. For the past two elections, the coalition has held on to power by relying on Malay and Bumiputera votes and playing up divisive racial and religious issues.

Worse, they’ve institutionalised their support ― through gerrymandering and malapportionment, control over traditional media, and weakening democratic institutions. In the US, at least, the judiciary is independent, traditional media aren’t government mouthpieces and electoral districting is harder to manipulate.

The Opposition has two choices then. They can “outsell” BN’s strategy by co-opting its message ― like a company undercutting prices by selling cheaper mp3 players to steal consumers.

This means campaigning on a platform of preserving Malay and Islamic supremacy, and trying to perpetuate the same siege mentality BN has been happy to encourage.

For obvious reasons, there are flaws to this strategy. PAS has long been running on an Islamic platform (in fact, Umno co-opted its sharper focus on Islam from PAS) to some success. And it’s definitely what Parti Pribumi Bersatu has been shooting for as an alternative to Umno.

But the institutionalised problems like media control and a lack of resources make it difficult for any party like Pribumi or PAS to really maximise this. It also risks alienating other opposition voters, many of whom no doubt want to move away from explicit racial politics.

The second choice is to steal voters sideways, through a “disruptive” campaign strategy ― the way iPods disrupted the traditional mp3 player industry. This means tapping into specific Malay and Bumiputera concerns the government hasn’t or can’t.

Rather than making corruption, civil liberties and anti-racist messaging the main thrust of its pitch to BN voters, a campaign that speaks to their more immediate socio-economic concerns may make more headway.

BN has couched it in terms of Malay economic strength, Bumiputera rights. But maybe personal concerns about poverty or inequality don’t have to be tied into race or politics.

Maybe it’s about questioning the government’s record on making trade deals and globalisation work for all Malaysians, instead of just the more affluent ones. Or questioning immigration policies that drive down working class wages. Or even tearing apart the government’s own betrayal of working and middle-class Malays in favour of 1 per cent crony, friends-of-government Malays.

This is nothing new to the Malaysian opposition. Many have already raised these exact points. These are not silver bullets. The same problems with Malaysian democracy remain ― even with the right message, will it get to voters in rural or inaccessible BN heartlands? Will they trust opposition leaders they’ve been less exposed to? Will it be enough to overcome gerrymandering? And even if it’s successful ― will the government invoke laws like the NSC Act, SOSMA and POTA to clamp down on unfavourable election results?

Beyond this problem, other questions remain. Is it just the message, or the messaging? Trump didn’t just raise issues, he delivered them in inflammatory, unapologetically crude ways sometimes. Is it possible to highlight issues with immigration policy without resorting to nativism or playing up xenophobia? Can you win votes that way?

Or is it about having personality ― the right leader to go with the right message? Barisan Nasional has already been playing by the Trump playbook. It also had its own Trump figure ― his name was Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (21 February 2017)

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