Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

In Malaysia, a May Day pay raise, but no victory for democratic reformers

The protesters of the Malaysia's Bersih democracy reform movement appear to have pushed Malaysia into announcing its first ever minimum wage. Electoral reform is something else again.

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    Workers march on a street during a May Day rally to call for a minimum wage law in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday.
    Lai Seng Sin/AP
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Malaysia's unpopular Prime Minister Najib Razak has had a rough week.

Tens of thousands of protesters from the Bersih reform movement went back to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, where they were greeted with riot police, tear gas, and more than 500 arrests. And Mr. Najib's approval rating took a hit after the last crackdown on protesters from the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih.

Now, two days after the street battles in Kuala Lumpur, Najib's government has made a major gesture toward political popularity. For May Day, he announced Malaysia will institute its first ever minimum wage: A monthly salary of 900 ringgit ($300). A pay raise for Malaysia's poorest isn't what Bersih is after, but Najib is betting it will prove popular at the ballot box. Najib said when making the announcement that a government survey had found one-third of Malaysia's workers earn less than 700 ringgit a month.

The trouble appeared to start after protesters pushed through barriers erected to keep them out of Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in the capital, and the riot police responded with force.

The rally was a platform for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to speak to vast crowds expressing dissatisfaction with Malaysia's tightly controlled political process, amid indications the country might hold early elections in June.

The coalition is now demanding an overhaul of Malaysian electoral rules they say have given Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) a lock on political control since independence and the creation of the modern state in 1963 and led to a feudal brand of politics, with spoils sharing among the ethnic parties that back the organization. The country maintains a long-standing policy of economically favoring ethnic Malays over the country's sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Rising living standards

Malaysia has achieved stunning economic growth since independence, and steadily rising living standards for its people.

But while elections have been dutifully held (the next general elections will be Malaysia's 13th), the government has long had control over the outcomes, with tight controls on the press, independent political organization, and the counting of the ballots themselves.

Malaysia ranks 122 out of 179 nations on Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index (just behind Venezuela and Zimbabwe). The country has seen rampant gerrymandering of electoral districts and allegations in the 2008 elections that the National Front might be voting the cemetery given the electoral rolls had more than 9,000 people over 100 on them.

Ahead of the last elections, Human Rights Watch charged that "the authorities’ manipulation of the electoral process appears aimed to ensure that the ruling coalition maintains its two-thirds parliamentary majority." It also charges that "police have repeatedly blocked attempts by opposition parties to hold election rallies by refusing to issue the permits required for any gathering of four or more people."

Bersih, then as now, was calling for electoral reform ahead of the election. But the movement had largely gone dormant until the Arab uprisings that began in early 2011 caught the imagination of the Malaysian public.

The National Front is an umbrella for a group of ethnically and regionally-focused parties, with the United Malays National Orginization (UMNO) chief among them, with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress its principal partners.

But Malaysia's growing middle class has increasingly strained the old ways of doing political business in the former British colony.

In the last elections in 2008, the National Front won 63 percent of the seats. That was a 58 seat decline from the previous election, and marked the first time that the Front hadn't won two-thirds of the seats since the '60s.

Almost all of the lost seats went to the People's Alliance, an amalgam of three opposition groups that will almost certainly be led at the next election by Anwar, a former UMNO stalwart who fell out with the party in the late 1990s and spent six years in jail on sodomy charges for his pains.

Anwar is a far more charismatic political figure than Najib, and the government is clearly worried. Members of UMNO declared that Anwar had "hijacked" Bersih for his own political ends, and that it was his presence at the event that stirred the violence over the weekend. The pro-government New Straits Times has carried headlines in the past few days like "MCA Youth: Anwar, Azmin should own up to turning gathering into a riot," and "A show of hooliganism." Azmin Ali is the deputy leader of Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR).


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