SINGAPORE: Wee Jeck Seng, the candidate for Barisan Nasional (BN), secured an unexpected landslide victory in the by-election at Tanjung Piai on Saturday (Nov 16).
While he lost Tanjung Piai to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) with a narrow margin of 524 votes in 2018 to Dr Farid Rafik who passed away in September, his political fortunes were reversed when he won a 67 per cent vote share in the by-election.
His strongest opponent – Karmaine Sardini from the PH – attained only a mere 27 per cent.
Among all nine by-elections since the 2018 General Election, Tanjung Piai marked the largest swing towards the BN and away from the incumbent PH coalition.
Tanjung Piai is also the first by-election since PAS and UMNO signed a unity pact in September this year.
Commentaries predicted that the margins of victory would be narrow, with PH and BN having equal chances of winning.
What factors therefore account for the BN’s unexpected landslide victory at Tanjung Piai?
READ: PM Mahathir pledges 'detailed, serious and honest' post-mortem after humbling defeat in Tanjung Piai
A close examination of the historical voting patterns in Tanjung Piai, as well as recent political events in Malaysia provides us with some answers.
WHAT TANJUNG PIAI VOTERS LOOK LIKE
Tanjung Piai, located at the southwestern tip of Johor, is predominantly rural. Malay voters comprise 57 per cent of voters, followed by Chinese at 42, and Indians at 1 per cent, respectively.
In Malaysian elections, people vote in polling districts, and an analysis of results at this more granular level can provide interesting insight.
Of particular interest are the voting districts that are predominantly mono-ethnic. These can provide an indicator of how various communities are voting.
There are 27 voting districts in Tanjung Piai, and the distribution of voters across various ethnicities within the Tanjung Piai seat is very uneven.
Chinese voters are broadly concentrated in the seat’s three urban centres of Kukup, Pontian, and Pekan Nanas. Malay voters tend to be located in the middle and southern, more rural parts of the seat.
A SURGE IN MALAY VOTES
In close to half of the 27 voting districts in Tanjung Piai, Malays constitute a demographic super-majority exceeding 80 per cent.
Support for the BN among these polling districts reached an extraordinary 84 per cent for the 2013 General Election, even as Malays in other states began to favour the opposition.
Despite a 22 percentage points drop in support for BN by this group in the 2018 General Election, preliminary analysis of last Saturday’s results suggest support for BN among Malay super-majority polling districts has once again risen to between 70 and 80 per cent.
THE CHINESE SWING
The biggest surprise in last Saturday’s by-election was however the massive swing against PH among the Chinese electorate.
The Chinese electorate constitutes a demographic super-majority in four polling districts within Tanjung Piai - Rimba Terjun, Bandar Pekan Nanas Barat, Bandar Pekan Nanas Selatan and Bandar Pekan Nanas Timor.
In last Saturday’s by-election, support for the BN in all four districts exceeded 50 per cent of votes – a sharp reversal from 2013 and 2018 General Election where BN garnered slightly below 30 per cent.
There are a number of reasons that underpin this swing.
First, much enthusiasm for the ruling PH has evaporated. There are perceptions on the ground that it cannot fulfil key election promises.
In a recent fieldtrip to Tanjung Piai, one conversation topic consistently brought up concerns over the persistent high costs of living despite a change in administration.
This is particularly the case with regard to Chinese voters.
Conversations with Chinese residents in Tanjung Piai suggest the Chinese community is upset with policies undertaken by PH administration, particularly the implementation of Khat calligraphy in national Malay Language syllabus, as well as with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s speech at the Malay Dignity Congress last month where he used the term “orang asing” (foreigners) to describe non-Malays.
Second, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Wee's party, had invested substantial resources to revamp and strengthen its grassroots machinery ever since the 2018 General Election.
In the Tanjung Piai by-election, MCA had a clear organisational structure among party members to reach out and canvass for votes.
Wee Jeck Seng is also generally well-regarded among local Chinese residents, since he has had a strong track record of showing he cares for needy residents and will ensure they get some assistance with welfare while serving as Tanjung Piai’s MP from 2008 to 2018.
THE RETURN OF MULTIRACIALISM?
What does this mean? While PH’s parliamentary majority is not at stake, this unexpected by-election defeat is significant.
The swing away from PH in Tanjung Piai could serve as an important signal that the new administration needs to re-calibrate its policies to cater to the Chinese electorate, while not neglecting the concerns among rural Malay communities.
For a BN that has also seen an UMNO-PAS pact, Tanjung Piai also acts as a message to BN that multiracialism can yield substantial rewards.
Kevin Zhang is a Research Associate in Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.