The Big Read: Voters not swayed by racial politics in Malaysian GE, but how long will that last?

Mahathir presser May 11, 2018

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.”

READ: A commentary on racial politics in GE14.

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.

Voting line Malaysia

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.

Malaysia's outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves after a news conference following the ge

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.

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READ: A commentary on the rot within the BN.

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…

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