The intractable politics of race in Malaysia

14-Sep-2018 Intellasia | Today Online | 6:00 AM Print This Post

The recently concluded by-elections following the historic 14th Malaysian general Elections (GE14) that saw the defeat of the previous Barisan Nasional government are important indicators of trends that are beginning to emerge in Malaysian elections.

Contrary to the assumption by many political pundits that Malaysia is heading towards a less racialised political model, the voting patterns in the by-elections point to a further entrenchment of racial and religious politics.

This would not bode well for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government that has promised a more equitable Malaysia where race and religion will become less relevant.

The three by-elections were for state assembly seats in Sungai Kandis, Balakong and Seri Setia districts in Selangor, a PH stronghold state.

Not surprisingly, PH won all three seats comfortably, but political fatigue was evident with historic low turnout standing at between 43 and 45 per cent.

In the Balakong by-election, a seat with more than 60 per cent Chinese populace, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) won with a thumping majority of over 83 per cent, maintaining the party’s sway amongst Chinese voters.

In Sungai Kandis, PH’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) won with 60 per cent of the votes, an increase from the 55 per cent during GE 14.

The United Malays National Organisation (Umno)’s 38 per of the votes is higher than its share of 27 per cent in GE 14, but this is because the by-election saw a straight fight between Umno and PKR while Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) had made it a three-corner fight in GE14.

Perhaps the most interesting of three races was the Malay-majority seat of Seri Setia given that the majority of Malay voters had not voted for PH during the general elections.

Notably, the 9,698 votes secured by PAS in the by-election was more than double the 4,563 it had won in GE14.

In terms of percentages, PAS captured 42 per cent of the votes which is not only higher than its previous share of 10 per cent in GE 14 but also higher than the combined share of Umno and PAS which stood at 33 per cent.


The by-elections indicate that most non-Malays continue to support the PH and are satisfied with its performance.

The PH focused its campaigns on the message of a New Malaysia where corruption, nepotism and mismanagement will be rooted out under a new transparent system where race and religion will be less pronounced.

The PH had also promised Malay voters that their rights will be protected under the new government.

The choice of a religious scholar, Mohd Zawawi Ahmad Mughni, as the Sungai Kandis candidate was cited as PH’s commitment to strengthen the position of Islam in the country.

The voting pattern however indicated that its New Malaysia message has found more traction with non-Malay voters who continued supporting the PH, thus ensuring its victory in the three contests. The majority of Malay voters however seem to be sceptical of the PH message with many remaining loyal to Umno and PAS.

An issue that was keenly observed is the PAS-Umno partnership forged in the Sungai Kandis contest where PAS agreed to allow Umno to contest the seat.

The alliance was further enhanced when Umno gave way for PAS to contest in Seri Setia.

The Sungai Kandis and Seri Setia by-elections indicate that PAS and Umno continue to capture the lion share of the Malay votes.

In GE 14, both parties captured about 70 per cent of the votes.

The message is thus clear for the PH government that its support within the Malay community remains weak and that issues of race and religion which were harped upon during the three by-elections remain important for many Malay voters.

Another trend that can discerned from the Sungai Kandis and Seri Setia contests is that Umno supporters are more likely to vote for PAS than the other way.

In the Seri Setia election, PAS captured most Umno voters which could be seen from the overall better performance of the party and its ability to wrest several Malay majority electoral districts previously won by PH whereas in the Sungai Kandis election a segment of PAS supporters voted for PH which contributed to PH’s higher percentage win.

In sum, PAS is the party to watch as far as Malay votes are concern.

The three by-elections further strengthened a trend that was discerned during GE 14 that Umno supporters are more likely to switch to PAS than PH.

The importance of race in Malaysian politics was emphasized by prime minister Mahathir Mohamed during an event to commemorate the second anniversary of the formation of the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).

He noted that PPBM is a race-based party due to the realities of the Malaysian political system. The results of the three by-elections are indicative of this trend.

The perception of many Malaysian Malays that the government is today dominated by non-Malays will need to be addressed by the PH government.

A failure to do so could lead to a Malay backlash against the coalition in the next general election.

The likely formalisation of an alliance between Umno and PAS in this current context is likely to worsen the race and religious relations which does not bode well for Malaysia’s future.


Mohamed Nawab Osman is Assistant Professor at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.


Category: Malaysia

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