Malaysia: Consolidating the reform process
First published at Think Left.
Pakatan Harapan (PH) has performed far better than expected. Many political commentators predicted that the loss of Malay votes to Barisan Nasional (BN) — as happened in the state elections in Melaka in 2021 and Johor, 2022 — would reduce PH’s tally between 50 to 60 parliamentary seats in GE15. However, missteps by UMNO’s leadership and the stellar performance of Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim (DSAI) and Rafizi Ramli exceeded the expectations for PH. PH managed to win 82 seats, emerge as the biggest coalition in the country, and installed DSAI as prime minister. Even though the Rakyat managed to avoid worse outcomes, the road ahead isn’t without its problems. The supporters of the reform movement must be clear-eyed about the challenges moving forward.
The Malay Tsunami
There wasn’t much of a change in non-Malay votes. High percentages of Chinese and Indian voters continued to support PH, as some pundits estimate the degree of their support to be as high as 90% and 80% respectively. But about 50% of Malay voters who had voted for PH back in 2018 did not do so this year. These voters shifted their allegiance to Bersatu and PAS, similarly in Melaka and Johor. The unexpected development in GE15 was the implosion of Malay support for UMNO. UMNO — which had received about 45% of the Malay vote in the Melaka state elections — witnessed a huge erosion of support from Malay voters in GE15, reducing its share of the Malay vote to less than 25%. Both of these trends are evident in the parliamentary constituencies of Pokok Sena and Permatang Pauh, as portrayed in the tables below.
Pokok Sena: Percentage of Votes Cast in 2018 and 2022 by Coalition
Note: The ethnic composition of Pokok Sena is Malays 81.5%, Chinese 15.2% , Indian 2.5%, Others 1%
Permatang Pauh: Percentage of Votes Cast in 2018 and 2022 by Coalition
Note: The ethnic composition of Permatang Pauh is Malays 73.1%, Chinese 19.5% , Indian 6.6%, Others 0.8%
It is important that we appreciate the reasons for the realignment of the Malay vote. The estimate of 40% – 50% decline in Malay support for PH since PRU-14 is caused by the concern that PH lacks sympathy towards Malay interests — be it economic assistance, upholding Islam, or safeguarding the position of Malays within the nation. The exodus away from UMNO since PRN Melaka 2021 is most probably fueled by the revulsion to the level of corruption within UMNO and the attempts of UMNO’s leadership to deny wrongdoings on the part of their national leaders. Nearly all Malays abandoning PH and BN moved to Perikatan Nasional (PN), because it was perceived as the “safest bet” for them.
Significance of these electoral shifts
There are several, the first is that the Malay electorate is as concerned about corruption and misuse of power as non-Malays. That is why Malay support for UMNO has crumbled from about 80% since 2004 to the dismal 25% now. Secondly, the majority of Malay voters in Malaysia – which is probably about 85% of them – did not vote for PH in GE15, and they will be anxiously keeping an eye on them to see whether the dire warnings pronounced by BN and PN leaders in the run-up to GE15 regarding PH’s anti-Malay orientation is true. Thirdly, despite the seemingly comfortable number of MPs currently supporting it, the PH Government is far from stable. Sudden withdrawal of support to precipitate a collapse of the PH Government cannot be ruled out. Lastly, the possibility of PN using race and religion to augment Malay insecurity is ever-present. They have a well oiled apparatus that can amplify such messages throughout the Malay community. If PN can drum up a campaign to portray the PH-BN regime to be inimical towards Malay “interests”, the position of BN within the coalition might become untenable, just as Bersatu’s position in PH did back in early 2020. If that happens, BN would have to withdraw from the government to stave off further loss of Malay support.
DSAI is clearly aware of the apprehensions of the Malay electorate. This is reflected in his first press conference to the nation upon being appointed Prime Minister. He started out reiterating that all constitutional provisions for Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, Islam as the religion of the Federation, the special position of the Malay community, and the position of the Malay Rulers would be respected and upheld. Only after stating this did he go on to say that the rights of all communities in Malaysia would be respected.
It is important that the supporters of the reform movement in Malaysia understand the need to allay Malay anxieties in the current scenario. The reform process will need at least 2 parliamentary terms for it to be consolidated. To stay in power for 2 terms, PH has to increase its Malay support above the 25% it benefitted from in 2018. Once PH achieves at least a simple majority on its own, can it breathe easy.
The role of the supporters of Reformasi
The job of consolidating the support of the general population for the reform agenda cannot be left to DSAI and the PH leadership alone. The supporters of Reformasi must keep in mind that PH only received 37.5% of the popular vote in GE15. That needs to be increased to over 50% if reform is to be on a stable path. And there are several things that Reformasi supporters could and should do.
Firstly, we need to stop defining ourselves as the “victim”. Victimhood allows us to focus exclusively on the injustices and marginalisation suffered by us and/or our communities and agitate that the government acts quickly to resolve these to our satisfaction. Instead, Reformasi supporters — the winners of this electoral round — need to think nationally for all people and communities in the country. Those who voted for PN and BN have their own perceptions of injustices perpetrated on them and are apprehensive that they might be marginalised further. PH supporters need to have understanding of these apprehensions and anxieties, and further explore how they can be addressed in a fair and even handed manner.
The incoming government should speedily implement the following 4 programs, which will bring immediate economic relief to almost all of the B40 and M40 families in the nation.
- Old age pension of RM500/month for all those above 65 years of age who are not currently on government or SOCSO pensions. This will give immediate relief to an estimated 1.5 million Malaysians in the ‘warga mas’ category, and immensely improve their quality of life. This pension scheme will cost about RM9 billion/year at present.
- SOCSO contributions sponsored by the federal government in order to provide Invalidity Cover for all women between the age of 18 – 60 in Malaysia. If based on the minimum wage of RM1,500 per month, this will tally to RM15.50/month per individual. It will work out to RM1.2 billion per year to provide this coverage for 6.5 million women aged 19 – 60 who are eligible i.e. women who are not government servants or currently covered by SOCSO.
- Creating a fund of RM2 billion per year to co-sponsor a program which mandates local councils to take over the upkeep and management of low-cost flats throughout the country. Many of these are in a deplorable condition and it would be a great disservice to the youth in these flats to allow the situation to fester.
- Transparency in the use of funds provided by the Ministry of Rural Development (KPLB) through the district offices to maintain and upgrade public facilities, as well as houses of residents in rural areas. (It’s currently about RM5 billion per year! Not a small amount). The level of funding must be maintained for now, but it will go much further when the pilfering by local politicians and the district office employees and their crony contractors is reduced — by requiring all the allocations and the specifications of the projects be approved for display on online notice boards which the local population would be allowed access.
The four aforementioned programs will bring about tangible benefits to a huge proportion of the population, and at an estimated additional cost of about RM12 billion. The anxieties of being neglected, marginalised or left behind under the new government would be relieved, for the voters who did not vote for PH in GE15. These programs will definitely help widen the political base of PH’s regime.
My other suggestion is addressed specifically to the supporters of the reform agenda who are unhappy with Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP). I do understand that the NEP and the ethnic-based quotas marginalised groups — especially the B40 non-Malays — and there are many who are quite resentful because of that. But voicing resentment when in opposition is quite different from continuing in the same tone when the party of your choice is in power. You need to look more carefully at how what you say will be interpreted by the 62% of the population who voted differently from you. Socio-economic imbalances in society are not going to be solved by the free market. Free competition generally only benefits those who are better endowed in wealth, education and/or business acumen.
Can we all agree that affirmative action should be used by the government to address the imbalances that currently exist in society? But with the proviso that there should be safeguards against the abuse of the system of affirmative action by the T20, and that the legitimate expectations and interests of all communities here are protected.
Malaysia is at a historical conjecture. We have the opportunity to chart a new, fairer and inclusive course for the nation. But we must take into cognizance that we are a deeply polarised society. Less than 15% of Malay voters in Semenanjung voted for PH in GE15. 85% of them voted either PN (60%) or BN (25%). The only reason that PH emerged as the largest coalition is that 85% of Malay voters who did not vote for PH were divided between PN and BN. This proves that PH is on shaky electoral foundations. PH supporters need to help consolidate and widen the support for the PH led government if they want the reformasi process to continue and bear fruit.
The suggestions given above would help to stabilise the political situation and consolidate the reform process. PH supporters need to change their mindset and be considerate for all of the communities in this nation, in order to reach across the ethnic divide, and truly understand and advocate for the “other” whenever possible. PH is extremely lucky to get a second shot at reforming the nation. Let’s not fumble it this time around!
Jeyakumar Devaraj is PSM Chairperson and former Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput.