The recent Malaysia Elections clocked many firsts for several reasons.
For one, these elections, touted as one of the most hotly-contested elections in the country since its independence from colonial rule, saw a record voter turnout of close to 85 percent.
This was an increase of almost 9 percent, or over 3 million voters!
Next, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) coalition, led by Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, won the popular vote with 53 percent of valid votes despite losing two states and falling far short of the seat majority needed to form the federal government.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), a confederation of sectarian parties headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, retained power by the skin of their teeth, losing a further seven seats to PR from the 2008 elections and with several cabinet ministers being beaten at the polls.
The nation’s electoral process was also called into question, with voters quickly taking to social media and even starting an online petition against the government with accusations of vote-buying and balloting fraud during power outages at the counting centres.
With the dust settling and many Malaysians still mulling over the legitimacy of the election result, labour issues may have been a major factor costing BN the popular vote they previously enjoyed.
Disgruntled workers and employers
For one, even with a fairly low unemployment rate of 3 percent as at February this year, and even with the introduction of minimum wage legislation with effect from 1st January 2013, Malaysians by and large are disenchanted with the system.
Ahead of the elections, Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) secretary-general N. Gopal made clear nine labour demands that he hoped the government would fulfill after taking office.
This included guaranteeing job security, a tighter policy on hiring foreign workers and discriminatory practices by employers. He added that even with minimum wage in place, employers were postponing the implementation of a minimum wage policy and using cheap foreign labour instead.
The minimum wage policy had also fired up a debate in the past year with opposite camps saying that it was still too low for city-dwellers and too high in states like Sabah and Sarawak which would see a jump in wages of 40 to 90 percent, thereby hurting businesses in the process.
Did Malaysians working in Singapore turn the tide?
Malaysians working in Singapore, numbering a whopping 400,000 of mostly Chinese descent, have generally been frustrated with the government for the rising cost of living and significantly lower wages as compared to neighbouring Singapore.
This could have been a factor in the PR’s breakthough in Johor, which has long been known to be a BN bastion. The Kluang federal seat, for example, fell to the opposition.
The elected candidate, Mr. Liew Chin Tong, said in an interview just one day before elections that some 20 percent of voters in that constituency work in Singapore, and that these voters may carry him into parliament. His prophecy was indeed fulfilled having won the seat, and emphatically with a 10 percent margin of victory.
Unequal access to opportunities
The East Asia Forum wrote about how Malaysia had achieved wage levels high enough such that the country could no longer compete with manufacturing nations in the international market, yet lack the skills and system to secure a place among advanced nations – thereby falling into a “middle-income trap”.
In spite of that, the author mentioned how Malaysia could well be on its way towards that goal; according to the World Economic Forum, Malaysia is ranked 21st out of 142 economies in its world competitiveness rankings, climbing five places from 2010.
That being said, Malaysia’s success is tainted by complaints of unequal access to economic opportunities for minorities as a result of the Bumiputera policy. This could explain why there are as many as 400,000 Malaysians, mainly of Chinese ethnicity, who choose to cross the border into Singapore to make a living.
It may also not come as a surprise that states with higher concentrations of ethnic Chinese – namely Selangor and Penang – voted strongly in favour of the Opposition, prompting PM Najib to attribute the dismal results for his coalition to what he has now infamously coined as the “Chinese tsunami”.
In what was perhaps a warning of what was to come on Election Night, on Labour Day, 700 workers from 21 unions participated in a peaceful rally to push for labour reforms. MTUC President Mohd Khalid Atan talked of “exploitation” in the workforce and that many labour issues still persisted. The workers may have just spoken.