Written by Joseph Chinyong Liow.

Ethnic identity and communal interests have always been a defining feature of Malaysian politics. This is perhaps most profoundly illustrated in the composition of the ruling National Front coalition which governs the country. Consisting of more than fourteen political parties, the Front is to all intents and purposes anchored by three main parties: the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). As evident from the nomenclature, these are parties that claim to represent distinct ethnic communities. Notwithstanding attempts to demonstrate a more pluralist outlook, the same can be said of the opposition People’s Alliance coalition. Of the three parties represented there, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) are predominantly Chinese and Malay oriented respectively, while the People’s Justice Party (PKR) has a leadership that is not only majority Malay, but is also drawn from UMNO after followers of Anwar Ibrahim left the party in 1998 following his unceremonious dismissal for undermining the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Ethnic minorities form a sizeable portion of the Malaysian electorate, more than 40%, and are believed to be a major force in the upcoming 13th Malaysian general election.  This is all the more so given the critical role that the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak play in the constellation of Malaysian politics. Predominantly non-Malay and intensely protective of their state rights, these two East Malaysian states account for up to a quarter of the 222 parliamentary seats up for grabs. Given how closely contested the 5 May general election is anticipated to be, it is no wonder that both coalitions are going all out to court the non-Malay vote.

The 2008 general election in Malaysia was a watershed. The ruling coalition was returned to power without its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority as it suffered its worst election result in history. For that, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was hauled through the coals and suffered the ignominy of being removed via what was effectively an internal party coup in April 2009. Badawi was replaced by Najib Tun Razak, son of former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak who in the early 1970s oversaw the implementation of comprehensive pro-Malay affirmative action policies which effectively codified the status of Malaysia’s non-Malays as second class citizens. A liberal technocrat and self-professed reformer, Najib introduced a suite of initiatives as he sought to turn the tide back in the National Front’s favour. These included the liberalization of the economy from the shackles of affirmative action policies and the declaration of his 1Malaysia (OneMalaysia) mantra to foster greater cohesion and inclusiveness in Malaysian society. Clearly, these policies were targeted at stemming the hemorrhage of non-Malay support.

One reason why the National Front fared so dismally in 2008 was the loss of support from ethnic minorities, especially Chinese and Indian votes. Solidly behind the National Front from the mid-1970s until 2008, Chinese and Indian voters abandoned the National Front in droves as a result of the government’s high-handed encroachment into their respective cultural and religious spheres, and the inability of their representatives in the Front – namely MCA and MIC – to represent minority interests. The perception that the leadership of MCA and MIC (and other smaller ethnic component parties like Gerakan) had fast gained currency on the ground, resulting in the total incapacitation of these hitherto major allies of UMNO. Indeed, the situation has degenerated to such an extent that the MCA, and to lesser extent the MIC, enters the fray in this election entirely dependent on UMNO’s support. When the smoke clears on 6 May after the campaign battles, it will be evident that to the extent MCA can hold some of its state and parliamentary seats, it would be because of UMNO’s lobbying of Malay votes for them. Further instructive of MCA’s decline is the fact that the party has had to give up seats with significant Chinese electorates because within the confines of the National Front war room, the conclusion is that the Chinese votes are all but lost, and hence victory in any such hitherto MCA strongholds will depend on UMNO securing a sizeable chunk of the Malay vote.

Clearly then, from the standpoint of electoral strategy, the National Front is resigned to the possibility that they will lose the majority of the ethnic Chinese vote, Najib’s 1Malaysia initiative notwithstanding (interestingly apart from Najib no other Malay cabinet minister seems to have been enthused by the idea). Further compounding the communal problem is the fact that Najib the reformer has been engaged in a double game, brandishing his reformist and pluralist credentials while at the same time unable and/or unwilling to clip the wings of Malay chauvinist right-wing elements within his party. The reason for this is simple – Najib has yet to secure a personal mandate, without which he has neither the credibility nor legitimacy, not to mention security, to rein in these disruptive elements. This does not portend well for Malaysian politics, as the logical conclusion is the very real possibility that the country will have a predominantly Malay incumbent and a non-Malay, primarily Chinese, opposition.

What of the opposition?

Of the parties in the People’s Alliance, PAS has had to compromise most for the sake of the coalition. Long seen as the only viable challenger to UMNO’s dominance among the Malay-Muslim population, PAS has strained against its own internal ideology and logic by embracing non-Muslims over the last few years. This has included the creation of a non-Muslim wing within the party, participation in inter-religious events to the chagrin of more conservative clerics in its ranks, and even endorsing the right of non-Muslims to use the term “Allah”. That final point however, has proven to be the last straw for many in the party who are concerned that PAS has lost the plot and has surrendered its core interest – the promotion and defence of Islam above all else – for reasons of political expediency. After the party leadership took that stand in early 2010, PAS contested four by-elections across the country and lost in all of them. This all but checked its unbridled embrace of the People’s Alliance’s pluralism and the party leadership has essentially performed a U-turn on the right of non-Muslims to use the term “Allah”. Likewise, the party’s Islamic state objective, held in abeyance for the sake of coalition unity, has started to resurface in PAS’s discursive circles.

Not only is PAS’s embrace of pluralism in need of scrutiny (notwithstanding the genuine labours of many progressives within its ranks), questions have also been raised about the credentials (and credibility) of the de facto opposition leader and choice for prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar has positioned himself as an egalitarian reformer. Not too long ago however, he had been an unapologetic and vociferous champion of Malay rights, and had also undermined the interests of Chinese and Christians in the past when he was in the corridors of power. Because of this, there are not a few within DAP who continue to harbour suspicions of him. At the same time, PAS also has its own reservations towards Anwar, with many of their senior leaders, especially in the conservative ranks, remembering how he was recruited by Mahathir to be his able lieutenant in confrontations with the opposition’s Islamic scholars. Clearly there is no love lost there as well, and hence it would not be surprising, should the People’s Alliance come to power after 5 May, that PAS reconsiders its endorsement of Anwar as prime minister.

As for East Malaysia, it has always been the case, and will remain so, that the agendas for Sabah and Sarawak are decidedly different from the Peninsula. There, the issue of state rights is paramount. In line with that, the status of East Malaysian indigenous ethnic groups as “bumiputra” or “sons of the soil” means that they have similar rights and privileges, at least in theory, as ethnic Malays under the auspices of affirmative action.

All said, communalism still possesses a strong hold on Malaysian politics despite attempts by individuals and parties to transcend race and religion. As the hustings intensify, tactical and strategic decisions are being made on the basis of ethnic configurations, and political parties will return once again to the language of communalism in order to secure their respective support bases. Communalism then, remains as consequential a factor as ever in Malaysian electoral politics.

Joseph Chinyong Liow is Professor of Comparative and International Politics and Associate Dean in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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