KUALA LUMPUR: For years, the issue of race has dominated Malaysian politics, with Malays — particularly those in the rural areas — tending to vote for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which have long positioned themselves as the defender of Malay rights and supremacy.
But this week’s historic polls have turned things on their head.
Up in arms over the escalating cost of living, a burdensome Goods and Services Tax (GST) and an out-of-touch government mired in corruption scandals, the crucial Malay vote bank looked past race to end BN’s six-decade rule of the country.
But experts, politicians and Malaysians caution that anyone who thinks the days of racial politics in Malaysia are over cannot be more wrong, given how deeply ingrained it has become.
“Yes, we want progress, but don’t forget that Malay needs should come first,” said Mr Mohd Rosdy Yahaya, a paddy farmer in Kedah, echoing the views of others.
Mr Mohd Rosdy, who said he switched support from UMNO to the new Pakatan Harapan government because UMNO was seen as preserving its self-interests over the needs of Malays, added: “We hold the key to which government takes charge. We have shown our power in this election, and no current or future governments should forget that.”
WHAT LED TO THE MALAY TSUNAMI?
On Wednesday (May 9), the Pakatan pact led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad romped to a historic victory, clinching 113 out of 222 parliamentary seats in a bitterly fought election.
BN took 79 seats, with the rest going to the Islamist opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and other smaller parties as well as independent candidates.
Pakatan has traditionally relied on urban votes and support from the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, but its breakthrough this time was carried by a large swing in the Malay vote.
BN’s bruising defeat came as a big shock, not least because of the advantages of its incumbency, and the redrawing of electoral boundaries that packed Pakatan supporters into fewer constituencies. Furthermore, BN’s argument that a vote for the opposition would spell the loss of Malay rights had worked for many years and was a contributing factor to its long stay in power.
Malays make up over 60 per cent of the population and voters.
In the run-up to the polls, BN politicians — including the beleaguered former premier Najib Razak — had regularly bedevilled Pakatan’s Democratic Action Party (DAP), alleging that the Chinese-dominated party was anti-Malay and anti-Islam.
They also claimed that Pakatan was controlled by DAP and a vote for Pakatan would therefore undermine the special place of Malays in the country.
Some analysts have slammed this as “propaganda”, as the DAP has Malays and Indians, too, among its ranks. The party fielded 10 Malay candidates in this election, the most since its inception in 1966.
That did not stop BN from training its campaign videos at undermining the DAP, with Najib further stirring up the rhetoric.
“I notice Dr Mahathir is actually only being used by DAP to divide the Malay votes, as if DAP is good to the Malays,” he said.
The truth is, when has DAP ever been good to the Malays, to Islam?
During the campaigning, Najib devoted his efforts primarily to chasing the Malay vote, dishing out cash payments and other policy incentives.
There was little to no canvassing of non-Malay votes by him and the BN leadership, except by component parties Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).
But both MCA and MIC have suffered years of steady decline in both influence and credibility and were decimated in Wednesday’s polls.
In the 2013 general election, Najib at least made some effort to pursue the Chinese vote.
Among other things, he sent Chinese New Year cards and goodie bags to Resident Associations and even told the Chinese community to address him as “Ah Jib Gor” (Gor means elder brother).
But the Chinese community still voted overwhelmingly for the DAP, with Najib blaming the “Chinese tsunami” for BN’s loss of several seats to the previous Pakatan Rakyat pact.
This could be why he then decided to focus only on the Malay base.
The Pakatan pact, on the other hand, shrewdly made the election a referendum on rising cost of living and corruption, rather than Malay superiority.
This clearly resonated with voters.
A survey by pollster Merdeka Centre released on May 8, on the eve of the polls, showed that Malay support for BN stood at 44.3 per cent, down sharply from the 64 per cent support it garnered in the 2013 polls.
The growing dissatisfaction with abuse of power, corruption and governmental inefficiency “contributed to many, young and old, including rural folks — UMNO’s core supporters — rejecting the party”, said Professor Khadijah Khalid, executive director of the International Institute of Public Policy and Management at the University of Malaya.
Mr Salahuddin Ayub, a Pakatan vice-president, said many Malay voters have “waited for quite a long time” for BN to carry out its obligations to improve their lives but it failed to do so.
“Those are the needs of the people today, because their income has not increased much,” he added, saying:
But they have to pay more because of price hikes in the market. This is the problem we want to address in the next few months.
Mr Asrul Hadi Abdullah, an analyst with political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia, said the electorate’s displeasure over escalating cost of living, the 6 per cent GST introduced in 2015 and corruption “in the end trumped all other issues”.
“What the electoral result has shown is that Malaysians are willing to look beyond their racial and religious silos for the promise of good governance and fair policies,” he said.
The observers noted that Dr Mahathir’s leadership of the Pakatan pact also made it easier for Malay voters to switch over from BN.
The former prime minister had made clear from the onset that the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia party he set up in 2016 to oust Najib was a bumiputera-centric one, even though it was also open to non-bumiputera Malaysians as associate members.
Dr Mahathir reassured the Malays of their dominance, rather than calling for more equitable statuses and power-sharing, said Professor William Case, of the University of Nottingham Malaysia, adding that this was crucial to Pakatan’s success.
Besides the veteran politician’s record of protecting Malay rights, his ability to coalesce four component parties into a coherent pact also made Pakatan a viable political alternative to BN, said Dr Francis Hutchinson, who coordinates the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Malaysia Studies Programme.
Research analyst Rashaad Ali, from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, added:
I think we can say with certainty that without Dr Mahathir, the opposition would not have been able to win the election.
DESPITE SHARP SWING, RACE ISSUES HERE TO STAY
The rejection of BN by its Malay vote bank, while momentous, far from heralds a new era of post-racial politics.
Mr Othman Aziz, who was a BN deputy finance minister before he lost his parliamentary seat in Kedah on Wednesday, said that there was no running away from race-based politics in Malaysia.
“People are still harping about education, these rights and those rights. That will continue,” he said.
“Ideally, we want meritocracy, but in the rural areas, the people are handicapped by so many factors. How do you put everyone on a level playing field, when it’s not levelled in the first place?”
Acknowledging that BN no longer has a “guaranteed vote bank” in Malay voters, he said this signals a shift in voting patterns.
“They probably rejected BN and UMNO, and hope Pakatan will perform better. But if Pakatan doesn’t, maybe they will swing back to UMNO,” he said, adding that UMNO’s challenge going forward was to think outside the box to reach various segments of voters.
“If we don’t change, we’ll be changed.”
Prof Case said that in the semi-rural and rural areas, a pervasive fear among Malays that the Chinese were endangering their birthright and well-being was still regularly heard.
Ethnic suspicions will persist across much of Malaysia, he said, noting the DAP remains the “devil” especially in Malaysia’s east coast, and any Malay who joins the party is vilified as a “kafir” or an unbeliever.
Prof Case was of the view that in many cases, Malays who supported the opposition did not so much vote for Pakatan and ethnic harmony, but instead against Najib.
While acknowledging that the election showed bread-and-butter issues could gain priority, he said this does not mean racial politics would fade away.
“Continuing economic hardship can worsen ethnic tensions,” he said.
Some Malaysian Malay voters agree that Malay rights remain an important issue for them in politics.
Kedah paddy farmer Mr Mohd Rosdy, 50, said that while he no longer buys the argument that the Malays will lose their rights if Pakatan takes power, there was a need for the new government to pay special attention to the needs and interests of Malays given that they are the dominant race.
Other Malays, especially die-hard supporters of UMNO, are less sanguine about the new government.
“The Chinese have a desire to take over the country. They have already dominated our economy,” said real-estate agent Saiful Mohd, 37.
The only thing left for us is that the Malays continue to govern this country. And I hope this remains the case. Otherwise, it would be the end of the race.
Others, however, urged against a political system cleaved along racial lines, saying they wanted to see a unified Malaysia where benefits accrue equally to all.
Other Malaysians plumped for unity towards a common aim.
Legal consultant Dymphna Lanjuran, 36, said the new Mahathir government should not go down the path of race-based politics, as the Pakatan pact was voted into power on faith, hope, integrity and the promise of a better Malaysia.
"The recent polls were an indication that we are stronger and more united as one, as Malaysians. I wish to see more of that," she said.
Concurring, marketing executive G Sistri wanted to see an end to race-based politics and a plan to ensure Malaysia's economic transformation.
Still, some like Madam Theresa Lim, 65, believe Malaysia cannot be totally unencumbered by race-based policies.
"Race politics is too ingrained. But so long as it's not abused, it's fine. They may package 'race-based' as 'needs-based' and that's okay,” she said.
As the euphoria from the historic win fades, the Pakatan pact is getting down to the business of governing.
It will also face an opposition UMNO which observers say will likely persist in playing the race card, as comments by the former deputy finance minister Mr Othman suggest.
This tactic may however change if a younger generation of leaders takes over the reins in the coming months.
Mr Salahuddin, the Pakatan vice-president, said the 10 promises made in its election manifesto reflected Malaysians’ aspirations regardless of race and would hopefully “repel the racial card played by UMNO for decades”.
“Only then will (all Malaysians) feel part of this country … and that they can share together in the wealth of this country,” he added.
Pakatan, for one, will be more multicultural than the UMNO-dominated BN, with DAP leader Lim Guan Eng already given the key finance portfolio.
But DAP will clearly not be the dominant party in Pakatan alongside three other largely Malay parties - Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Mr Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Parti Amanah Negara led by new defence minister Mohamad Sabu.
Pakatan's philosophy is that its four component parties are equal partners and Dr Mahathir said on Saturday that "we are conscious many factions and races are involved and we don't want to be seen as one race governing the other".
Mr Chew Chong Sin, a Johor state assemblyman from the DAP, said that the structure of the pact, coupled with the distribution of state and parliamentary seats across different parties, pointed to a “good balance” and will set Pakatan up to handle the issue of race well.
He said moving away from racial politics would require “one or two terms” of government.
Former deputy youth and sports minister Gan Ping Sieu, an MCA leader, acknowledged that BN’s rigid structure under a dominant UMNO was one reason racial politics persisted.
"The dominant parties are seen not reprimanding members who come out and make inappropriate race-based comments that, in turn, damage the credibility of other smaller parties in the coalition," he said.
"As such, the smaller parties are seen as not having a say in the decision-making process, especially since it involves ethnic community issues."
Mr Tian Chua, vice-president of PKR, said that the new government will not go down this route.
We should be celebrating that Malaysians across all divides are giving us their trust to lead them — there is no ethnic division in the votes given to us.
Still, Pakatan's core position is that it will preserve bumiputeras’ special status and uphold Islam as the official religion.
This was a point underlined by Dr Mahathir himself at a press conference on Thursday.
The members of the pact — including the DAP, which he said was accused of being racist in the past — had signed a declaration in full support of the constitution, which spells out how Islam and other religions should be treated, and what the official language of the country is.
“It’s very comprehensive and we all signed this thing ... the DAP signed this.”
Taking a swipe at BN, he added: “I would like to emphasise the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress did not sign.”
Ms Tricia Yeoh, an expert in Malaysian politics from the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said that any move away from racial politics will be a slow one, owing to the Malay community’s insecurities which have been exacerbated by economic loss brought on by the rising cost of living.
But when the economy recovers and expands, “it follows quite naturally that if there’s sufficient to go around for all communities, communities that are insecure about their positions will not feel the need to be insecure, because they feel that their interests are being taken care of”, said Ms Yeoh.
“The younger generation, in particular, are able to see past race,” added Dr Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow with the Malaysia Studies Programme at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“And as that generation gets older, they bring up their offspring, who will follow in the same light. Then Malaysia might move beyond racial politics.”