Commentary: In Malaysia, where identity politics trumped all for the third time
The Rantau by-election victory is a morale boost for Barisan Nasional’s leading party UMNO, facing a leadership crisis, and a huge blow to the Pakatan Harapan, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak’s Norshahril Saat.
SINGAPORE: The Rantau by-election results might look like status quo for the Negeri Sembilan seat on the surface.
Opposing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition candidate Mohamad Hasan won the seat comfortably, with a majority of more than 10,000 votes in a four-cornered fight. He secured over 4,510 votes ahead of his closest rival Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKS) Dr S Streram, backed by the Pakatan Harapan (PH), who won almost 6,000 votes.
But it was no doubt a contest between two camps for the heart and soul of Malaysia.
The election was called after the federal court dismissed an election petition by incumbent UMNO Member of Parliament (MP) Mohamad Hassan.
Mohamad Hasan won the Negeri Sembilan state legislative assembly seat uncontested in the 2018 general election, after his opponent Dr S Streram was denied entry into the nomination centre on nomination day because he did not bring along his candidate pass and could not submit his nomination papers.
This victory is a morale boost for BN’s leading party UMNO, facing a leadership crisis. Its former president Najib Razak has been charged for several counts of corruption, while his immediate successor Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has stepped aside to prevent an exodus of members from the party.
BN’s Rantau candidate is now UMNO's acting president, and he will use this victory to solidify his position in the party.
Rantau is the BN’s third successive by-election victory in a row after Cameron Highlands and Semenyih.
Some consider this to be a sign of the coalition’s revival after its shocking defeat in the last general election, and after its loss in the first four by-elections in Sungai Kandis, Seri Setia, Balakong and Port Dickson.
But the Rantau by-election was the BN's to lose when it has been the coalition’s stronghold since 1964.
PAKATAN ON THE BACKFOOT
Still, the PH had been on the backfoot this time around. They could have used the beginning of Najib Razak’s 1MDB corruption trial to strengthen its campaign in Rantau.
The high-profile trial would have served to remind voters why PH was swept into power in 2018: To reduce costs of living, end corruption, and find out the truth about 1MDB.
In fact, PH initially pursued this line of argument in its attacks against Mohamad Hassan during the campaign, questioning his wealth and RM10 million apartment in London.
Yet, this narrative cut no ice with voters. Najib Razak's trial is at its infancy stage, and without a court verdict to implicate the former prime minister of wrongdoing, these lines rang hollow.
Moreover, Najib has successfully reinvented himself as a credible opposition leader with his strong social media presence, denouncing all accusations against him, and has gained quite a following.
RACIAL POLITICS RISE TO THE FORE
On the contrary, the timing of the Rantau by-election might have contributed to PH’s defeat. PH’s recent high-profile clashes with Malay rulers gave the BN plenty of ammunition to play the race card.
So the BN politicised Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s announcement that the government would not ratify the Rome Statute, an international treaty recognising international crimes genocide, humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression in which the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate wrongdoing.
Mahathir himself revealed that some groups were inciting tensions between the government and the Malay rulers, which was why the government decided not to proceed.
Worse, the resignation of Johor chief minister Osman Sapian led to Mahathir publicly clashing with the Johor royal family.
The question over whether the Johor state government or the Johor ruler has the right to appoint the chief minister bears striking resemblance to the constitutional crisis in the 1980s and 1990s between the first Mahathir government and the Malay rulers.
Taken as a whole, these issues have cast doubt on the PH’s commitment to upholding Malay rights and Islam.
Mahathir’s absence from the Rantau campaign was also conspicuous. He chose instead to attend Bersatu’s inauguration ceremony of a local chapter in Sabah, a move that has been proved divisive with other PH coalition parties happy to rely on Parti Warisan Sabah to hold the fort against BN there.
Bersatu’s decision to start a local chapter in Sabah is contentious because it opens the door for former UMNO members in Sabah, who want to join the government of the day but did not wish to be part of Warisan, to cross over to PH.
The loss in Rantau was also a blow to prime minister in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, who was running the campaign and is MP for neighbouring Port Dickson.
If Anwar takes over Mahathir, Negeri Sembilan would be the home state of the prime minister. Yet Rantau voters were not moved by this potential scenario.
UMNO AND PAS COOPERATION: A BOON?
The Rantau victory is also a sign that cooperation between UMNO and PAS is bearing fruit and the partnership making headway in winning over Malay voters, with their move to galvanise Malay and Islamic unity.
PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang had showed up on Mohammad Hasan’s campaign to canvass for votes and lauded him as a strong, able candidate who can take on the PH government.
This narrative works well in Malay-majority constituencies such as Rantau, and previously Semenyih, though this does not necessarily represent sentiments throughout the country, especially in urban areas.
On the flipside, UMNO-PAS cooperation may be shifting BN’s multicultural ethos.
These uneasy dynamics have placed junior BN partners and minority parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, in a difficult position since UMNO and PAS is moving towards the right of the political spectrum, which may sit uncomfortably with Chinese and Indian voters.
What is clear is that this cooperation has worked out to UMNO’s benefit more than PAS, since all the recent by-election victories were won by UMNO candidates.
And as UMNO and PAS work closer in the future, would PAS come to collect favours one day?
Norshahril Saat is Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia.