Racial and religious politics at a crossroads in Malaysia’s General Election

Racial and religious politics at a crossroads in Malaysia’s General Election

Will BN succeed with its race-based formula? Will it be outdone by Pakatan in the Malay heartlands? Can PAS rely on its Islamic credentials? The programme Insight looks at the hot issues of race and religion.

Race has long been a fixture in Malaysian politics, but how will the race card pan out with voters in this high-stakes General Election 2018? Insight explores the issues on 'The Road to Putrajaya' ahead of the May 9 polls. 

MALAYSIA: Like many of his peers, 66-year-old Abdul Majid Mohd Nor has never been well off. In fact, after he left the military in 1998, he struggled to make ends meet for his family of six.

He had a mortgage to pay and only a monthly pension of RM685 (S$232). So he applied for a RM5,000 loan from Malaysia’s National Entrepreneur Group Economic Fund to open a coffee stall in Kedah.

Bumiputeras (sons of the soil) like him enjoy preferential treatment when it comes to university admission, employment, ownership of share capital and even loan applications.

Not only has that helped him to own a small business, but his family also earn extra income from the plantation he inherited from his father-in-law, who had been resettled under a Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) scheme for poor rural families.

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Mr Abdul Majid Mohd Nor

That is why Mr Majid remains grateful to Malaysia’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional. “When we had nothing, we were given help, so that we could work and give our children an education,” he told the programme Insight. (Watch the episode here.)

If BN has done a lot for the people, we must support it.

Voters like him in the Malay heartlands, BN’s traditional strongholds, will play the kingmaker role in the country’s ongoing General Election.

After the non-Malays deserted BN in the last two elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak is facing the toughest battle in his political career to win the hearts and minds of the ethnic Malays.

And their vote may determine not only the fate of the ruling coalition and Mr Najib’s premiership, but also of Malaysia’s race-based policies and politics.

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Since its introduction in 1971 as part of the government’s efforts to improve the socio-economic status of the bumiputeras, the New Economic Policy has helped to build up a pool of middle-class Malays.

The indigenous people’s share of the nation’s corporate wealth increased from 2.4 per cent in 1970 to 23.5 per cent since the last elections.

And the policy should remain in place, maintains former Cabinet minister and long-standing United Malays National Organisation member Shahrir Abdul Samad – at least until the bumiputeras are confident enough to compete economically with the other races.

His former Cabinet colleague Syed Hamid Albar agrees. “It has made Malaysia politically stable,” he said.

I think people accept that growth for the sake of growth, without equity and distribution, without social policies, can create instability.

"That’s why … the (United Nations’) Millennium Development Goals (have) a lot of emphasis on equity and distribution," he added.

To shore up support among the Malay electorate and also within his party, Mr Najib has rolled out new bumiputera economic empowerment programmes, and warned that the Malays would be beggars in their country should the opposition take power.

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The results of the 2013 elections, in which UMNO – the linchpin of the ruling coalition – increased its parliamentary presence by nine seats, give BN its confidence in the Malay vote despite having lost the overall popular vote.

Referring to the gratitude of voters like Mr Majid, Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute visiting fellow Serina Abdul Rahman said: “I think this is part of Malay culture, where you remember people who are kind to you and you never forget that.

“So you always seem to have to pay off some kind of debt to them.”

UMNO may also have no other choice but to play the race card and prove itself to be the true champions of the Malays.

Political analyst and Asia Strategy and Leadership Institute senior adviser on international affairs Oh Ei Sun said: “If you look at the urban areas as well as the suburbs, most voters and most constituencies nowadays would go towards Pakatan Harapan.

“So if UMNO and, by extension, BN were to retain their rule over the country, they’d have to indeed win the Malay heartlands.”

WATCH: How will the race card pan out? (7:49)


A survey done by opinion research firm Merdeka Centre has shown that the Malays tend to trust BN more, while the non-Malays place higher trust in the opposition to manage the country.

Surveys have also shown that half of the Malays in the country back the pro-bumiputera policy, compared with a quarter of the Chinese and Indians.

Mechanic and car wash owner Koon Yoon Sin, who hails from Kedah, is among those who have become increasingly critical of the race-based policies.

The 35-year-old feels that the time has come for Malaysia to review these policies that have polarised many Malaysians along ethnic lines.

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Mr Koon Yoon Sin

He said: “To be fair, such policies should help the poor and needy regardless of race. That would be the best scenario.”

That remains the Democratic Action Party’s stance. “Why racialise the issue? You’re just trying to … divide and rule,” said its secretary-general and Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng.

We don’t deny that the majority of the poor and those who need help are Malays. So why don’t you have a racially neutral but economically affirmative action policy?

Dr Oh thinks the voting patterns of Malaysia’s ethnic minorities will not differ from the previous elections, but he adds a caveat: The millennials may have a “rather unpredictable” political outlook.

“I know some of these millennials feel that the opposition isn’t doing enough in terms of trying to overturn all this mistreatment and … questioning the supremacy of race and religion in the country,” he said.

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“They won’t vote for BN. But, for example, (if) they stay home and not come out to vote ... it’s going to hurt the opposition.”

At the same time, opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan cannot ignore UMNO’s fear-mongering over Malays losing their privileges or dominance, which Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Lee Hwok Aun said “seems to be an effective tool for political mobilisation”.

He added: “Pakatan has to respond by giving assurances that it’ll look after the different groups, especially the Malays.”


Last year, a Merdeka Centre study found that Malay rights still topped the list of concerns among Malay voters, with 37.4 per cent of them citing the issue as important to them.

Some 17 per cent listed leadership, while another 13.1 per cent said economic performance would be an important factor for them in the elections.


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Now, it is up to opposition figures like former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, known as a defender of Malay rights, to help capture votes in BN’s traditional strongholds, starting with the northern rice bowl state of Kedah.

One of its residents who remembers him fondly is rice farmer Basir Ahmad Ismail. “He struggled for the people,” said the 55-year-old.

“For example, in Kubang Pasu (a district in Kedah), he built a university, a college and a polytechnic. He brought a lot of developments here to provide education for the people.”

Beyond his personality, Dr Mahathir brings “his idea of what Malaysia ought to be”, said Merdeka Centre co-founder Ibrahim Suffian.

“He also brings along a proportion of dissatisfied BN voters, particularly the Malay voters, who have fallen out with the BN and UMNO leadership at present.”


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Dr Mahathir Mohamad is the leader of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, one of the parties in Pakatan Harapan.

If the 2013 General Election was characterised as a “Chinese tsunami”, then Pakatan Harapan hopes to see a Malay tsunami in the heartlands this time.

Dr Norshahril Saat, an Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow in regional strategic and political studies, said: “I think the opposition is banking on Dr Mahathir’s influence here to split the Malay votes and … wrest control of some states.”

Those Malay battleground states include Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and parts of Johor and Perak too. But with multi-cornered fights between Pakatan Harapan, BN and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) for most of the seats, Dr Mahathir faces a harder task.

That has also been compounded by the redrawing of electoral boundaries, which has created ethnic supermajorities in some seats, prompting anger among opposition lawmakers.

The assumption is that the new delineations will help BN. But that outcome is not a given, according to Dr Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, who coordinates the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Creating big Malay-majority areas or seats with a stronger Malay presence could also benefit PAS,” he said, noting that many Malays in the heartlands voted for the opposition previously, which was “how PAS could capture a large number of seats”.


While some observers see PAS’ role in this election as nothing more than a spoiler, Dr Oh noted that the party trumps all the others in its political use of religion.

In Kelantan especially, which PAS has ruled since 1990, voters like retiree Abdul Wahab Yusoff still hope the state will become an Islamic one some day.

“PAS wants to make Islam great in Malaysia, and because of that, we feel proud,” said the 66-year-old. “Islam first … Our race comes second.”

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Religion may well play a key part in voter decisions beyond Kelantan, given the rise of Islamic conservatism among some segments of Malaysia’s Muslim population.

In a Merdeka Centre survey done in 2015, over 60 per cent of Malays identified themselves as Muslim first, compared with the 27 per cent who were Malaysians first and the six per cent who were Malays first.

The findings confirmed that religious consciousness in Malaysia had risen since a Merdeka Centre poll on the issue in 2005. And this will have an impact on the politicians, believes Dr Norshahril.

“They can’t just ignore groups demanding for hudud laws in Malaysia. They can’t stop groups demanding for greater Islamisation,” he said. “If that’s the thinking that’s dominant, then I think the UMNO politicians would have to give in.”

Mr Ibrahim thinks that “nearly all parties … understand the lie of the land” and thus are engaging in some form of “dog-whistle tactics”: Sending out messages that they can “better protect the interests of the community”.

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Leaders of Parti Islam SeMalaysia.

As far as PAS’ political fortunes go, however, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, the founder and president of think tank International Movement for a Just World, believes that it will have little to do with the party’s conservative stance.

“I don’t think its adherence to hudud, to be very specific, would be a major factor,” he said.

“If PAS does well, it would be because it’s seen as a party that represents the marginalised within Malay society and also as a party that’s prepared to take a strong position against corruption and abuse of power.”

That is also a priority of the opposition alliance’s Parti Amanah Negara, set up by progressive leaders who broke away from PAS.

“If you’re, for example, in power and a good Muslim, you’re fighting against corruption, you’re fighting for justice,” said Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub. “These are the things we can share together.”

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Former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (centre), who became one of the component leaders of Pakatan Harapan after Mr Najib sacked him, is leading the opposition charge in Johor.


While Dr Norshahril sees a danger of this election becoming ethnically and religiously divided, for example with “unhealthy” talk of ethnic tsunamis, some other analysts think the dynamics do go beyond that.

Mr Ibrahim said: “What we’re seeing, perhaps in the last 15 years or three election cycles, have been concerns over governance – how the government conducts itself and how well it managed public funds.

I think a lot of people are becoming more acutely sensitive to issues like corruption, government excesses and how some officials may abuse their powers.

Take, for example, Mr Koon, who is unhappy with not only the government’s race-centric policies but also its governance issues.

“I want the election outcome to be balanced, and not heavily tilted towards the ruling party. The opposition needs to be given a voice too. Not everything that the ruling party has done is correct,” he said.

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The 11-day campaign period will culminate on May 9, Polling Day.

To Mr Basir, bread-and-butter issues matter a lot. He said: “The cost of living seems to be increasing, while subsidies for items like sugar and cooking oil have been cut.”

Many things could shift the choices of Malay voters, said Dr Nawab. “We don’t actually know whether Malay voters will necessarily vote for BN this time round.”

What is clearer, however, is that there are young people from all races who want a move away from Malaysia’s race-based political system.

“Choosing people to vote into office based on your race and religion is … the worst criteria,” said comedian Keren Bala Devan, 32. “It has to be (about) the issues.”

It is the inequality that gets to fellow comedian Rizal Van Geyzel, who cited how he would feel if he and Mr Devan had children who were treated differently.

Said the 34-year-old of Malay-Turkish and Chinese-Dutch descent: “They wouldn’t have the same rights, yet his family has been here the same time, if not longer, than mine. How’s that supposed to be normal?”

Dr Norshahril agrees that many young voters do not believe in race-based politics. He said: “Even the young Malays themselves believe that they can stand on their own, and not need all these privileges.”

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(From left) Mr Rizal Van Geyzel, Mr Keren Bala Devan and fellow comedian Brian Tan.

Still, the reality is that the road to Putrajaya, the centre of the federal administration, must cut across 54 constituencies from the Felda and rubber plantation areas, out of a total of 222 parliamentary seats.

And with less than a week to Polling Day on May 9, it remains unclear where the political pendulum in the Malay heartlands will swing.

Either way, however, Dr Muzaffar believes that the presence of non-Malay parties on both sides of the political divide will help to reduce the possibility of race and religion becoming inflammatory issues.

He said: “You won’t be able to push (any ethnic or religious agenda) to the extreme because the coalitions themselves would hold that at bay, given their nature – multi-ethnic, interethnic coalitions.”

Watch Part 1 of 'Road to Putrajaya' here. The programme Insight is telecast on Thursdays at 8pm.

Source: CNA/dp