Strait to the polls: Malaysia’s fraught elections

The upcoming Malaysian general election is a layered story.

Malaysians will head to the polls on Wednesday 9 May in its most hotly contested general election of recent years.

The centre-right ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, has been in power since Malaysia’s first elections in 1969. However, in 2013, Barisan Nasional, though it retained government, lost the popular vote for the first time to a broad coalition of centre-left parties.  The opposition coalition, now named Pakatan Harapan, views this election as a prime opportunity to build upon the momentum of 2013 and to finally break Barisan Nasional’s 50-year streak.

Pakatan Harapan has put up former Barisan Nasional Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad as their prime ministerial candidate in the hopes of converting Barisan Nasional voters. While Mahathir was once a “sworn enemy” of the opposition, his goal for this election is to unseat Najib, even if that means temporarily relegating feuds “to the background”. Some voters, understandably, are sceptical whether such a pact, cobbled together for this election, could last the distance in government.

Nevertheless, Pakatan Harapan are trusting that the government has lost the public’s confidence. In 2015, Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of having channelled a staggering US $700 million from 1MDB, a taxpayer-funded strategic investment fund, into his personal bank accounts. An ABC Four Corners investigation revealed that Najib used the money to fund political allies and personal spending abroad. The Auditor-General of Malaysia’s report on 1MDB, completed in March 2016, remains an “official secret”; Najib and 1MDB remain under investigation from the United States Department of Justice, who will be watching this election closely.

Despite heavy criticism from international quarters, Najib has been resilient, partly because of his willingness to crack down on dissent. Shortly after the scandal broke, Najib removed the Attorney-General who was preparing investigations into 1MDB. His government has jailed the would-be leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, since 2015 on seldom-used sodomy charges.

Malaysia recently passed the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 targeting “fake news” on digital and social media, which also applies to foreigners if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen is affected. One Danish citizen has already been convicted. Human rights activists claim the law is too vague, with the potential to be misused to shut down dissenting opinions; Mahathir has already had a police report filed against him under this act.

All this takes place through the lens of divisive identity politics. The largest party in the Barisan Nasional coalition, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), gathers its support mainly from ethnic Malays in rural areas and East Malaysia, while Pakatan Harapan is stronger in cities and with Chinese and Indian minorities. UMNO was accused of gerrymandering after they pushed a dramatic change of electoral boundaries, greatly favouring rural areas, just before the election was called.

Successive governments have adhered to ketuanan Melayu, an ethno-nationalist ideology which grants ethnic Malays inalienable rights due to their continuous residence on the land. In the name of ketuanan Melayu, governments have endorsed wide-ranging affirmative action policies for Malays, such as discounts on housing, priority for government projects, quotas for corporate ownership and allocations for university places (up to 90 per cent in some cases). While the Chinese and Indian parties in Pakatan Harapan strongly oppose these policies, it is interesting to note that Mahathir was one of ketuanan Melayu’s biggest proponents while in office.

Despite his party’s unfavourable stance towards non-Malays, Najib has welcomed a record 21 billion ringgit (US $4.75 billion) net foreign direct investment from China into Malaysia in 2016, which the government says has created jobs, especially in poorer states. However Mahathir maintains that Malaysians fear their country is being sold off. Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, one worker in Najib’s home state of Pahang, on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, bemoaned the Chinese-led project he was working on was “a show to tell people they’re giving opportunities to locals”. Malaysians are also angry over a new 6 per cent goods and services tax raising their cost of living while wages are stagnating.

In response, Najib has echoed old anti-Chinese sentiments, stemming from Chinese-Malaysians being historically wealthier than other ethnicities in Malaysia. Both sides are running strongly-worded yet confused rhetoric on China, which constantly threatens to spill over into the Chinese-Malaysian community. As China seeks to extend economic cooperation, the winner of this election will have to settle on a China strategy to ensure regional security and internal peace.

Complicating this picture is the rise of the Malaysian Islamic Party, a third party which seeks to play kingmaker in this election. Their logic of who to align with, says party president Abdul Hadi Awang, is simple: choose the coalition who would be willing to form “an Islamic government”. That term is loosely defined for the moment, but there are concerns that a renewed focus on religion from the state, in an already conservative Muslim country, may lead to legislation or social conditions that alienates or discriminates against non-Muslims, including the introduction of an Islamic criminal justice system.

It is sad to see that for a country which prides itself on multiculturalism, on unity through diversity, the most effective tactics in this election have reinforced ethnic, religious and class divisions. Fragmenting Malaysia is not sustainable for parties and not in the country’s best interests. If groups continue to pander to racial prejudice to secure votes, it could inflame tensions that have been suppressed for years, with consequences unknown.

As of 2 May 2018, the Merdeka Centre, an independent polling agency, predicts Pakatan Harapan will take 43.5 per cent of the popular vote, Barisan Nasional 40.3 per cent and the Malaysian Islamic Party 16 per cent. These numbers are likely to shift before the election and, due to Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system, may not represent which party wins the most seats.

In a contest like this, so much is at stake, and many eyes around the world will be watching. Party leaders in this election are urging Malaysians to vote carefully. In a speech on the campaign trail, Najib spoke to voters’ aversion to risk. “Don’t risk losing all the good things we have today—peace, stability, prosperity and freedom. Cherish it, my friends. We’re one Malaysia. No one will be left behind.” Soon enough, we’ll know whether Malaysians took that risk.