SINGAPORE: Eight by-elections have been held in Malaysia following Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) historic victory in the 2018 General Election.
PH won all four that year before three consecutive defeats at the hands of the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and Rantau in 2019.
Recently, PH secured its first by-election victory since, with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) wining in Sandakan. Even former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who campaigned for the opposition PBS, failed to defeat the ruling coalition.
But the win has been a double-edged sword because Sandakan is a seat in Sabah, with majority Chinese voters. Its victory strengthens the perception that PH can only do well in Chinese-majority areas, but not in Malay majority ones like Semenyih and Rantau.
Already, there is talk among Malaysian Malays that PH is “selling out” to the Chinese, especially to the DAP.
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A survey conducted by the Ilham Centre and Penang Institute in late 2018 show that 60 per cent of over 2,600 Malay respondents believed that non-Muslims are controlling the government and that the DAP is calling the shots in Putrajaya.
A PUBLIC SPAT
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s public spat with the Johor Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar and Crown Prince Ismail Ibrahim — when Malay rulers are honoured as the custodians of Islam and Malay culture — has accentuated the perception that PH is not serving Malay interests.
Their high-profile tussles over the resignation of the Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian, the initial plan to ratify the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court and a parcel of land earmarked for the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System in recent months culminated in Mahathir issuing a public statement that the Crown Prince’s position was “not permanent”.
Yet, attempts by PH to regain Malay support have resulted in backlash from the Chinese.
Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s remark in May that the newly announced increase to the matriculation quota is needed for the Malays and Bumiputeras to make up for the discrimination they faced in the private sector for being Mandarin illiterate, drew flak from many Chinese, including PH leaders.
Has Malaysia become more ethnically polarised, with Malays-Muslims on the one hand, and non-Malays on the other hand?
Against this backdrop, what form of political coalition would be viable for a fragmented Malaysia?
CLASHING WITH THE MALAY RULERS
After PH came to power in May 2018, it made sweeping changes. The government promptly replaced almost all top civil service roles and appointed non-Malays into key positions including the Chief Justice, Attorney General and Finance Minister.
Mahathir announced plans to scale down the size of the bureaucracy, and relook the federal Islamic bureaucracy JAKIM’s role.
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The government also stopped banning books, and attempted to engage groups it didn’t use to including the LGBT (lesbian, gays, bisexual and transgender) community.
But Mahathir’s open clashes with the Johor ruling family have unsettled the PH’s segment of more conservative voters.
They fear a repeat of the constitutional crisis Malaysia faced during Mahathir’s first term with the Malay rulers in 1983 and 1993, in which legislation was passed to reduce the powers of the constitutional monarch.
In reality, this time what started off as a contestation between the authority of the federal government and the states has moved to become conflated with race and religion, because Sultans are traditionally seen as protectors of Islam and Malay rights.
This rift between Mahathir and the Johor royal family has played into the hands of opposition UMNO and PAS, which have capitalised on ill feelings to drive a wedge between PH and their Malay constituents.
Many Malays respect the Sultans and continue to endure economic hardships, a product of the PH’s drastic reform agenda, despite having voted the PH into power.
As of now, Mahathir seemed to have regained the upper hand. He had insinuated that the Johor Sultan had appropriated a plot of land in Bukit Chagar for the railway link between Singapore and Johor.
In addition, Mahathir has hinted that the relevant authorities will investigate suspected cases of tax evasion. Already the government has enquired how much tax Mados, a firm believed to be controlled by the Johor royalty, has paid.
UMNO AND PAS STANDS TO GAIN FROM A POLARISED MALAYSIA
It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that in multiracial Malaysia, no party can control the federal government with only support from a particular ethnic group.
For 61 years of the Barisan Nasional’s rule, UMNO had to form a broad-based coalition with other ethnic parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) to win their elections, as well as alliances with smaller indigenous parties in Sarawak and Sabah.
The Islamic party, PAS, whuch had for a number of years struggled to push a conservative Islamic agenda, could only capture several seats in the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, and could never control the government. It only held positions in the federal government between 1974 and 1978 when it joined the BN.
However, the UMNO/PAS alliance seemed to have succeeded in three by-elections held in 2019, by playing up religious and ethnic sentiments, which PH also did.
They positioned themselves as protectors of Malaysia’s royal institution and defenders of Malay rights.
To what extent this partnership can help the BN regain power at the federal level remains unclear. Similar cooperation, though not formalised, did not gain traction in the string of 2018 by-elections.
But it is worth noting that Cameron Highlands and Rantau have always been BN strongholds, and PH’s loss in Semenyih could be a miscalculation as they had sent an inexperience candidate to run against a veteran UMNO candidate. Whether the UMNO/PAS partnership can win seats in multi-ethnic constituencies remains to be tested.
The complexity of Malaysian society transcends an ethnic divide to encompass a class divide, and an intra-religious divide. PH offers a different model that caters to electorate’s different needs.
The parties in the coalition are mixed, and many are, ideologically, pragmatists. DAP appeals to the urban Chinese, PKR in multiracial and urban seats, Amanah among religious and urban Malays, while Bersatu enjoys support from traditional Malays.
The fact that Bersatu is now moving into Sabah shows that it is able to read the ground well. While Warisan, a party allied with PH, can obtain the support of Sabahans living in the coastal areas, Bersatu can replace UMNO by targeting the latter’s core supporters in the Sabah hinterland.
This loose coalition model, where one that does not focus too strongly on ideology, may be the way forward in retaining power in Malaysia.
So the good news is, even if Malaysian society has become more polarised, the ruling coalition is still able to provide that broad tent to capture political support from a broad spectrum of voters.
The unknown is whether PH can rally Malaysians to look beyond their parochial interests to press forward and back an inclusive agenda of growth and development.
Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia (Amsterdam University Press, 2018). This piece is adapted from ISEAS Perspective piece entitled A Complicated Political reality Awaits the Malays.