What once looked like a permanent feature of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic politics, communal parties that shared power in government are fast fading after the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition resoundingly lost to Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan alliance at the May 9 polls.
United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the outgoing BN coalition’s backbone party, saw its seats drop by nearly 40% from 88 to 55 in the 222-member parliament. Two UMNO ministers, one deputy minister and two ex-ministers lost in their re-election bids.
BN’s main Chinese partner, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), suffered a near wipe-out, with only one parliamentarian and two state lawmakers elected, down from seven and 11 respectively. Another ethnic Chinese-based ally, Gerakan, was completely wiped out in both federal and state contests, while all Chinese parliamentary candidates from regional partner Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) also lost.
The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), benefiting from the split of ethnic Malay votes in multi-cornered contests, retained two parliamentary constituencies with slim majorities. Another Indian-led BN component, People’s Progressive Party (MyPPP), had its sole candidate’s election deposit forfeited because he could not even win one-eighth of the ballots.
BN, also known as the National Front, has been effectively reduced to a regional union of UMNO and its Bornean allies, with 46 UMNO parliamentarians from West Malaysia, 30 from East Malaysia, two Indians and one Chinese. A week after the election, BN is fast losing its lawmakers, including UMNO’s own, to Harapan and other parties.
A wider mass exodus from BN is expected as the political allegiance of politicians and political parties in Sabah and Sarawak is defined more by patronage than partisanship. The fast shrinking of UMNO and evaporation of its communal allies reflect deep changes in Malaysian society first seen after the 2008 election, a result popularly known as a “political tsunami.”
Even before achieving independence from colonial Britain, Malaysian politics was defined by a deep divide between Malay Muslims, which now constitute more than 60% of the citizenry, and minority groups, especially Chinese and Indians, which make up about 30% of the population.
Most Malays were left economically backward during colonial times, while the Chinese and Indians were more competitive. Religiously and linguistically, the two minority blocs are distinct, making socio-economic inequality issues even thornier.
That deeply rooted ethnic tension produced UMNO, MCA and MIC as communal champions who teamed up and formulated a pragmatic compromise on citizenship and communal rights to gain independence from Britain.
However, the UMNO-led centrist coalition was subject to flank attacks by both Malay-based and non-Malay-based opposition parties, as non-communal fault lines like left-right failed to overtake ethnicity, language and religion in political salience.
In 1969, UMNO and its allies suffered a significant attrition of Malay votes to the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), but the first-past-the-post electoral system produced the opposite result: impressive gains for the non-Malay-based opposition parties, including the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
Misperceptions that the Chinese were challenging the Malays’ political dominance resulted in a post-election riot, known by the fatal date May 13, 1969.
Under the leadership of Razak Hussein, the late father of outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak, UMNO seized the opportunity to rewrite the rules of the game and rejuvenate UMNO’s hegemony. Malaysia’s budding multi-party democracy was replaced with an electoral one-party state.
Razak locked in Malay votes by introducing a wide range of pro-Malay policies which were tied together with UMNO’s political power. On the other hand, non-Malays and especially the Chinese were always reminded of the danger of another ethnic riot should they attempt to challenge the prevailing political order.
This produced a sophisticated alarm-and-defense system for the post-riot party state. That is, every time opposition parties came together to vie for federal power, the alarm would be triggered to ensure that Malays and non-Malays would not act in sync.
Two attempts at regime change by a united opposition in 1990 and 1999 were defeated exactly because either enough Malays feared they would lose their political dominance and policy benefits, or enough Chinese feared that they would fall prey to another riot if power changed hands.
In 2008, the party-state’s alarm system seemed to fail because BN had a 91% parliamentary majority before the poll. It lost five of 13 states to the opposition and only barely clung to federal power.
Most detrimentally, the threat of ethnic riot was discredited when Malaysia remained peaceful after the so-called “2008 tsunami.” The electoral result removed the rationality for Chinese voters to give BN some minimum support, despite their discontent, and destroyed for good the communal balancing game which BN thrived on.
The writing on the wall for BN’s Chinese parties was obvious. In the 2013 poll, characterized by some as a “Chinese tsunami”, MCA was mocked as the “7-11” party for winning only seven federal and 11 state seats. Facing DAP’s onslaught, MCA begged for mercy from the Chinese community but were nonetheless resoundingly trounced at the polls.
Last week’s regime change could not have happened without the emergence of a “Malay tsunami.” It was part of a larger “Malaysian tsunami”, alongside the now persistent “Chinese tsunami” and a “Borneo tsunami”, the latter of which saw UMNO lose traditional support in Sabah and Sarawak.
Malay voters’ angry revolt was triggered by a rising cost of living caused by Najib’s introduction of a Goods and Sales Tax (GST) and slashing of subsidies.
While most voters could not grasp the complexity of Najib’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, his image as a “thief”, his wife’s extravagant lifestyle and his perceived as sycophantic ministers personalized their anger.
But the Malays’ deep fear of losing their political dominance and ethnic preferential policy could not be overcome without the Mahathir factor. A Malay nationalist who alienated many non-Malays, Mahathir is ironically what Malays need to be convinced of the possibility of continuity with change.
His stature also eventually ensured a peaceful transfer of power without too much resistance by the deep state, notwithstanding troubling delays of his swearing-in as prime minister.
Many Malaysians believe their nation is free from communal politics now that UMNO’s communal party system has been decisively thrashed at the polls. In a bold move, Mahathir broke the four-decade convention of appointing an ethnic Malay finance minister by giving the nod to ethnic Chinese DAP leader Lim Guan Eng.
The euphoria may be premature, however, not so much because Mahathir’s United Indigenous Party (PPBM) is also a communal party, but because PAS was also a beneficiary of the “Malay tsunami” and may push Harapan to compete on religious issues like the expansion of sharia law.
PAS unexpectedly won power in two Malay heartland states, Kelantan and Terengganu, in taking 18 out of 68 federal seats lost by UMNO. If UMNO is eventually essentially absorbed by Harapan through defections, it may unwittingly make PAS the official opposition and religion the main divisive issue at the next election which must be called by 2023.