OPINION

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ASSOC PROF DR HELEN TING

Helen Ting (PhD in Political Science, Sciences Po, Paris) is a Senior Research Fellow at IKMAS, UKM. Her research interests include the politics of national identity, interethnic and interreligious relations, multiculturalism, and history education. Her latest publication is a book chapter entitled, ‘Malaysian History Textbooks and Sense of Belonging’.

Political scientist Assoc. Professor Dr. Helen Ting provides a thought-provoking analysis of how the need to broker complex interethnic relations has shaped the kind of campaigns and election outcomes Malaysia has had in the past. While she notes how Pakatan Harapan has kept interethnic concerns at bay during the election campaigns, she notes that the continued presence and need of interethnic manoeuvering will require delicate and hard work by a multiethnic ruling coalition.

At independence, Malaya was described by scholars as a nation-state saddled with deep ethnic division. It is often forgotten how interethnic contentions after WWII profoundly affected the outcomes of the Alliance negotiations towards independence.

Interethnic relations at the dawn of Merdeka
Despite so, Malaya managed to minimise violent ethnic conflicts through delicate political manoeuver and balancing of interethnic interests, although this often entailed repressive measures to suppress dissent. The modus operandi established by the Alliance was interethnic power sharing and cooperation, though that has been eroded progressively by incremental UMNO domination. The ethnic composition of the population, where Malays only constituted a weak majority, has provided the incentive for interethnic political cooperation for success in the elections. In constituencies of mixed ethnicity, the cross-ethnic vote pooling may bring about the margin of victory. This provided a structural incentive for moderate leaders of each ethnic group to cooperate, negotiate and compromise on ethnically conflicting policy issues.

“One can argue that PH succeeded due to its electoral strategy in navigating the pitfalls of ethnic politics. Nonetheless, the divisive issues of race and religion are not going to fade away tomorrow.”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Helen Ting

Gradual Erosion of BN’s Multiethnic Support Base
Through the constitutional amendments made in 1973, UMNO dominance within BN and increased state authoritarianism had led to electoral delineation and malapportionment which favours a stronger Malay representation above their electorate proportion. Having been beneficiaries of pro-Malay preferential policies, the political loyalty of rural Malay voters towards UMNO has been deeply entrenched. By themselves, the monoethnically based parties such as DAP or PAS could not dream of taking over the federal power due to, among others, the advantage of cross-ethnic vote pooling enjoyed by BN.

Even during the 1999 general elections, when there was a significant swing of Malay voters against UMNO/BN, the opposition Barisan Alternatif did not manage to rally enough of both the Malay and non-Malay electorates, thus failing to unseat BN. Nonetheless, the increasingly competitive edge of PAS against UMNO in tandem with the relatively more BN-friendly non-Malay electorate due to Vision 2020 had led to more mixed seats being created for the 2004 general elections.

On the other hand, it may be argued that the relatively successful (notwithstanding its various failings) pro-Malay affirmative action policy over the decades has also indirectly contributed to the political demise of UMNO. One enabling factor behind the several political upheavals inside UMNO since the end of 1980s, and spilling over to outside UMNO from the time of Reformasi, is the social differentiation of the Malay community. The emergence of a sizeable Malay middle and upper class means that more and more of them are not beholden to the state for handouts or contracts, and feel free enough to challenge the status quo.

The Turning Point: 2008 General Elections

2008 saw sawBN lose its two-thirds majority in parliament and  in thein 2013, the popular vote as well. These was due to the success of Anwar Ibrahim in stitching a deal among DAP, PAS and Keadilan to ensure one-to-one contests against BN, whose success then led to the formation of Pakatan Rakyat which enjoyed multiethnic support. The large shift of Chinese electoral support to Pakatan Rakyat and significant though to a lesser extent among voters from other ethnic communities meant that Pakatan has been consolidating its multiethnic support base to the detriment of BN. The advantage of vote-pooling was no longer the preserve of BN.

GE 14

When analysts and pollsters tried to predict the electoral results of GE14, one hard nut to crack was the extent of Malay voters’ support for Pakatan Harapan (PH), particularly in view of PAS’ decision to stand as a third force. Earlier round of polls indicated higher Malay support for BN as voters opposing BN were split between PAS and PH, and the trend only reversed in favour of PH during the very last few rounds. UMNO leaders had repeatedly used the DAP bogeyman (read, Chinese) to warn the Malays of the dire consequences of a PH-government as posing a threat to the Malay special position and Islam.

Seeking to soothe the apprehension of the rural Malay community, Bersatu decided to confine full party membership of their newly formed political party to the Malays only. They understood that to clinch victory for PH, they needed to win over sizeable staunch UMNO supporters in their rural stronghold such as in FELDA. They began organising roadshows to these places to explain 1MDB scandals and other corruption issues to the Malay grassroots as far back as April 2017. The nomination of Dr Mahathir as PH’s 7th Prime Minister-designate was another vital strategy to dispel Malay fear of eventual PH betrayal of their interests. Other initiatives such as that by Rafizi Ramli and the widespread use of social media tools such as Youtube, Facebook and Whatsapp also contributed to the spread of information crucial in persuading these people on the need for change.

“The emergence of a sizeable Malay middle and upper class means that more and more of them are not beholden to the state for handouts or contracts, and feel free enough to challenge the status quo.”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Helen Ting

Pakatan Harapan campaigns
It is important to note that the PH campaign stayed clear of narratives related to race and religion. PH leaders targeted Najib as a corrupt leader who siphoned off billions and joked about the alleged diamond ring bought by his wife with 1MDB money and so forth. They also promised to relieve the people of the economic hardship they have been experiencing, perceived as the impact of Najib’s economic policies especially since the introduction the goods and services tax and the removal of a number of subsidies.

One can argue that PH succeeded due to its electoral strategy in navigating the pitfalls of ethnic politics. By focusing on the bread and butter issues and those of accountability and corruption, enough of the Malaysian voters of all ethnic groups could come to a common perspective and performed the unthinkable and historic act of throwing out the corrupt yet entrenched, 6-decade-old BN government.

Nonetheless, the divisive issues of race and religion are not going to fade away tomorrow. The divisive forces have been entrenched and strengthened over the past few decades by government policies, having nurtured sizeable and influential vested interest groups. It will take strong political will, wisdom and astute leadership to delicately neutralise these minefields over time, so that they would not weigh down on interethnic and interreligious harmony in the long run.

In the meantime, it is important that BN does its housecleaning and be rejuvenated based on a more egalitarian interethnic partnership as a credible opposition. This would consolidate a competitive two-coalition political system which hopefully would bring about an attenuation of ethnicised or religiously based politicking to the benefit of all Malaysians.

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ASSOC. PROF. DR. HELEN TING

Helen Ting (PhD in Political Science, Sciences Po, Paris) is a Senior Research Fellow at IKMAS, UKM. Her research interests include the politics of national identity, interethnic and interreligious relations, multiculturalism, and history education. Her latest publication is a book chapter entitled, ‘Malaysian History Textbooks and Sense of Belonging’.