BR1M, vote-buying and pro-poor populism
8 min read

BR1M, vote-buying and pro-poor populism

BR1M, vote-buying and pro-poor populism

At the launch of Barisan Nasional’s manifesto for GE14, after a state-by-state breakdown of BN’s policy proposals and developmental promises Najib declared a special announcement on BR1M,

Disebabkan ekonomi kita semakin baik, dan kedudukan kewangan semakin kukuh, hasil kutipan GST pun bertambah, yang di kutuk-kutuk oleh pembangkang, maka kerajaan Barisan Nasional dapat berkongsi nikmat ini  kepada rakyat

 [As our economy gets better, and the financial position is getting stronger, GST revenue increases (which is criticized by the opposition). Then the Barisan Nasional government can share this favour to the people.]

This favour took the form of a doubling of BR1M handouts and a one-off expansion of BR1M’s categories for those earning between RM4,000-5,000, and for those parents with children enrolling in university.

For many such as Bersih and C4, this announcement continues the tradition of the political use of public goods for electoral gain and the clientelistic nature of Malaysian party politics in which issues of economic distribution and patronage have superceded democratic decision making, and therefore links up the cash-handout BR1M with vote-buying. Such a narrative has been prominent in political debate, with Mahathir Mohamad most prominently referring to BR1M as ‘dedak’ (animal feed) and a form of corruption, in the academic literature, linking BR1M to patronage, money politics, ‘goodies’ and the commercialization of elections, and in popular commentaries, represented perhaps best by the cartoons of Zunar where BR1M regularly appears as the tool used to trick or con (money-hungry) voters into supporting BN.

Yet whilst the announcement of BR1M increases appears as a simple cash-inducement to vote BN, the differences between BR1M and other forms of cash-handouts perhaps calls for a more critical understanding of concepts such as money politics, vote-buying, clientelism and the figure of the ‘client’  within Malaysian politics. This will allow us both to better understand the effectiveness of BR1M as a political tool, and to move beyond a conceptualization of BR1M recipients as just easily bought.


Clientelism and cash-transfers

Not only in Malaysia, but also in other countries where conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) have emerged as important to electoral politics, has there emerged a debate on the relationship between cash-transfers, money politics and clientelism.  Much of the problem has centred around the problem of identifying a coherence between traditional definitions of clientelism and the very nature of CCTs and UCTs. James Scott would define the patron-client relationship along three axes, firstly the inequality of power and wealth between patron and client, secondly the face-to-face nature of the relationship and thirdly the flexible nature of the relationship (its ability to across all areas of society). More recently Susan Stokes has argued for a more concrete definition of clientelism where “the proffering of material goods in return for electoral support”, constitutes clientelism “where the criterion of distribution that the patron uses is simply: did you (will you) support me?”.

In the case of Brazil where a major CCT, the Bolsa Familia, was established an important debate has taken place over the relevance of ‘clientelism’ to the understanding of the Bolsa Familia, and whilst initially its launch, in the aftermath of a vote-buying scandal and in proximity to the 2006 elections, and its benefitting the poor who formed the backbone of the Workers Party support led many in the Brazilian middle-class to see the Bolsa Familia as a means for a corrupt government to build itself a permanent electoral majority. And yet as many analysts came to argue Bolsa Familia’s lack of any tie to voting preferences, its lack of surveillance mechanisms, its nature as a ‘club good’ and bypassing of local patrons meant that Bolsa Familia didn’t produce partisan clienteles but produced electoral support only within the broader perspective of economic policy.

In the case of BR1M its politicization is rather more evident in its repeated use in proximity to national and state elections.  Yet as with Bolsa Familia it doesn’t fit neatly into a definition of clientelism.  BR1M is given to all Malaysian’s based upon the criteria of income and not upon their voting preferences or group affiliations. It contains no surveillance mechanism linking voting behavior to receipt of the benefit. Equally it is a state provision and not a provision provided by a particular political party or candidate, it can therefore be mobilized by opposition groups for electoral purposes and, as has occurred in Selangor and Penang, they can propose similar mechanisms. Equally, whilst the distribution of BR1M can be politicized through ‘BR1M ceremonies’ the fact remains that many can receive BR1M directly into their accounts or at collection centres run by banks and that many complaints of ‘BR1M ceremonies’ has encouraged the move towards direct transfers increasing the distanciation between benefactor and beneficiary.

In this sense BR1M has been part of a transition within Malaysian welfare policy from a heavily clientelistic model towards a more centralized, state-based programmatic model. Whilst in the past access to government services, from access to government housing, to agricultural development funds and FELDA land grants would depend upon political allegiance, contemporary welfare mechanisms are more centralized, technocratic  and impersonal, producing not strong clientelistic obligations but weaker, more complex and less transactional, responses from recipients.


From clientelism to populism

Yet without the surety of clientelistic mechanisms how are we to understand the importance placed upon BR1M within the electoral strategy of Barisan Nasional in its attempt to secure voter loyalty? I think when looking at BR1M it is more productive to analyse it through the nexus of neoliberalism and counter-neoliberalism, than merely the relationship between patron and client or benefactor and recipient.  BR1M offers a response to problems of inequality, the cost of living, indebtedness and economic precarity which have all become increasingly salient in Malaysian politics in the last decades. It is part of a shift away from a politics of developmentalism (whether one can experience the benefits of development or not), to one premised upon the quality, evenness and inclusivity of growth.  It has marked a transition from a focus on absolute poverty to one focused upon relative poverty.  It also provides a justification for neoliberal reforms, from the imposition of GST to the abolition of subsidies, and in this sense it forms a part of a reformist neoliberalism, which seeks to combine broadly neoliberal economic policy prescriptions with targeted social welfare mechanisms.

BR1M has thus been part of an ongoing process through which the government has sought to ameliorate the problems of neoliberal development, speak to the poor as a class and a political grouping and produce a visible response to the economic frustrations of a large swathe of voters. Yet in this sense I would suggest that we locate BR1M not on the register of clientelism or patronage politics (with its rather rigid patron-client model) nor on that of money politics, with its focus on the cash-based economic nature of the good, but on the register of populism and particularly pro-poor populism which places it at the intersection of political economy, ideology and culture and which emphasizes the importance of process and of the construction of electoral coalitions.

For his part, Najib has been keen to emphasise the poor or the Bottom 40 as an important class and BN as their champion. His government has promoted a whole series of welfare schemes aimed towards the Bottom 40, it has promoted a discourse of inclusive and even growth, particularly through the New Economic Model, arguing that uneven growth would fuel extremism and political radicalism amongst a ‘neglected underclass’.  Rhetorically his government has placed an emphasis on the luar bandar, Bottom 40 Malaysian Indians, indigenous groups, Sabah and Sarawak, rejecting ideas of them as underdeveloped or backwards and championing their achievements and promising targeted support. Similarly his government has tried to promote a vision of Malaysian modernity capable of talking to all classes of Malaysians, as is evident in the latest BN manifesto which juxtaposes ordinary Malaysians alongside the vision of Malaysia in 2050. Najib has himself talked of his own ability to feel equally at home addressing the United Nations and talking to working people.

This is rhetorically opposed to a kind of urban chauvinism which came to be associated with the years of Mahathir Mohamad, where development was particularly urban-centric, where rural voters felt left behind, where indigenous groups in East and West Malaysia were seen to be caught in the jaws of developmentalism,  and were largely talked down to by Mahathir who didn’t much appreciate rural Malay culture or ‘primitive’ indigenous peoples and privileged an ideal of development emphasizing the modern urban corporate class, many of whom he could count as his friends.

This was at that time rhetorical fuel for PAS who would emphasise the antagonism between the everyday kampung Malay and the urban corporate Malays of UMNO, to good effect in 1999. But in the time of Najib this been appropriated by BN itself in order to attempt to produce a more inclusive bloc of voters, emphasizing a harmony and reciprocity between the corporate world and everyday Malaysians, and emphasizing the role of all classes in the nation. In turn this populist image has been able to be turned against elements of the urban elite within the opposition. Thus the oppositions criticisms of schemes such as BR1M or Kedai Rakyat 1Malaysia as vote-buying or economic waste has been returned to them as forms of snobbery or a lack of concern for the poor. This has been intensified by the approach of the opposition itself to such welfare schemes, which have largely emphasized the criticisms of these schemes and how they have been undertaken but have said less about their own position on the poor as a class within Malaysian politics. Thus whilst Pakatan Harapan has been keen to promote schemes which will benefit the poor (abolition of GST, reintroduction of fuel subsidies, a minimum wage increase) what they have really lacked is a comparative pro-poor identity which perhaps has much to do with the dynamics of neoliberalism and anti-neoliberalism within their own coalition.

This differs from the earlier policy trajectory of Pakatan Rakyat which took this problem much more seriously. In the aftermath of 2008 PAS began promoting its idea of Negara Kebajikan Islam (Islamic Welfare State) on the German social democratic model, whilst Pakatan Rakyat was proposing the Ekonomi Rakyat (People’s Economy) to produce an economy which worked for all classes. Arguably however with the fragmentation of the opposition and the greater rhetorical and ideological focus upon 1MDB there has been a privileging of the discourse of corruption, which all around the world, in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Thailand, Russia or Philippines, serves as a critique of pro-poor populism and of cash-handouts. This has been an issue highlighted by Parti Sosialis Malaysia, who sought admittance to Pakatan Harapan, emphasizing the need for the coalition to focus on welfare politics and economic issues facing the bottom 60% of Malaysian households in rural and semi-rural seats in Malaysia, and particularly rural Malay poverty, in order to avoid being outflanked by UMNO. PKR’s Azmin Ali in Selangor has also promoted his own pro-poor schemes under Selangor’s Inisiatif Peduli Rakyat and has too come under criticism from Bersih for the politicization of these schemes during the election period. As against other elements in Pakatan Harapan Azmin Ali appears less concerned about the intersection between pro-poor populism and democracy.

Nevertheless whether or not this discursive battle around welfare reaches the ground and whether or not Najib’s political positioning gains traction will come out in the course of the election, for now there is a dearth of field research on BR1M. Yet its impact shouldn’t be too easily underestimated, it enjoys large rates of engagement and has been consistently the countries most Googled term for the last few years and has gained traction amongst Bottom 40 voters. That there is cynicism and weariness amongst many voters in the heartlands of BN is undoubtedly true yet how this will intersect with the potential feelings of gratitude, empowerment and inclusion in a governmental and developmental project will undoubtedly be an important factor in the outcome of the election. Najib’s pro-poor populism perhaps doesn’t have the charismatic pull of others in the region, but the question is really whether or not it will be enough to get him safely back to Putrajaya.