(Bumiputera and Malay are terms used interchangeably in this article.)
Following Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) general election victory in GE14, several media outlets reported it as a “Malaysian Tsunami”, as if the replacement of National Front (BN) from the seats of power was a sudden and devastating force that released the nation from the stranglehold of racial politics.
However, electorate data seems to suggest a less dramatic story. Tidal, yes, but not explosive.
A recent study by researchers at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) found that while there was a shift in voter behaviour when comparing GE13 with GE14, the racial trend of votes remained relatively unchanged. In fact electoral data showed that while there was an erosion of Malay voters for BN in GE14, it was just 3.5 per cent less than GE13.
So what was the difference?
In short, urban votes.
According to a 2010 national census, states where either BN or the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) won had more rural voters with a remarkably high proportion of the Bumiputera population at between 79% to 97%. Whereas in other states where PH won, the population was significantly more urbanised, and Bumiputera population varied between 44% to 85% with more of other races, particularly the Chinese.
While presenting his paper at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute last month, Dr Gary Rangel, who is a senior lecturer in finance at USM, noted that urbanisation played a major role in BN’s loss.
He said: “One reason is because urban voters are much more informed; there are much more alternative media platforms they can go on to to gain alternative views.
“Urbanisation also contributes to a more cosmopolitan view that nullifies the ethnicity effect. If you have prolonged interaction between different ethnic groups it expands your worldview and reduces ethnophobia in urban areas as compared to rural areas.
“There is much less emphasis on who you are and what race you belong to and more on what you need to have in terms of what are the material benefits to you.”
Simply put, rural Bumiputera still voted for BN, but the urban ones voted for PH. Certainly, there is now less Malay support for the BN, but they did not leave BN en masse. Combined with the fact that the opposition coalition of PH only won a simple majority, the term “Malaysian Tsunami” seems a misnomer.
“There is an erosion of Malay votes for BN but the decline is not really massive,” added Dr Rangel.
“If you talk about Malaysian Tsunami you are talking about droves of Malays voting for Pakatan and that’s not the case.”
While the election results took many experts by surprise, the truth was that BN’s decades of dominance obscured declining performances in recent years.
In GE12, BN lost its two-thirds majority, and in GE13, the alarm bells began to toll when they lost the majority vote at 46.5 per cent, despite holding 60 per cent of the seats. Of course, losing 3.5 per cent of Malay voters alone might not have been momentous enough to turn the tables. But in GE14, the BN parties associated with the minority races like the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) experienced a mass desertion, which explained the loss of support for BN from these other races.
Racial politics still alive
While a Bumiputera centric electoral strategy did not bode well for BN, it would be hard to fault the idea that racial politics is still very much alive. For all the talk of a “Malaysian Tsunami”, racial politics have returned to previous levels of normalcy in the months since GE14 in May.
Just days after the election victory, PH coalition chairman and current Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad assured that the affirmative action policies for the Bumiputera enshrined in the constitution “will be strenuously protected”.
Then in June – a month after assuming his new position as Finance Minister – Democratic Action Party (DAP) Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng was accused by critics of undermining the country’s national language for writing official statements in Chinese. Shortly after that, close to 4000 supporters of Malay political parties and groups gathered at the “Gathering for Muslim Revival” rally in Kuala Lumpur, claiming that their racial and religious interests were under threat.
And as if to drive home the point, Dr Mahathir reiterated his Bumiputera-centric position in a recent interview with BBC, saying that they had to “correct disparity in wealth between the Malays and others”.
Even for the former incumbent-turned-opposition, UMNO’s recent attendance at PAS’s general meeting suggests that these parties’ intention of rallying Malaysian Muslims – that are largely stereotyped to be Bumiputera – has not changed, or the efforts to do so may even be intensified in the future.
It is still unclear what racial politics might look like in GE15, but there is little cause to believe that it will be much different. While PM in waiting Anwar Ibrahim has called for the country’s affirmative action policies to be reformed based on needs rather than race, some Malaysians have remained sceptical.
“I think (the removal of Bumiputera rights) will be hard for local Malays to accept,” said Ms Loo Zhi Ying, an ethnic Malaysian-Chinese studying in Singapore.
“This policy favours the Malays and by removing it, there’s high chance of strike and revolt against the government.
“It is unfair, but ultimately when people live long enough with such politics, they will be more concerned about other things such as, GST, cost of living and how Malaysia’s economy is actually doing.”
Added Ms Connie Ngo, an International Relations undergraduate at the Singapore Institute of Management: “Even though PH is the most multiracial coalition in Malaysia, it does not have any movement towards abolishing special rights.
“Besides, fighting for the abolition of special rights means also going against the Sultans, which is not a political opponent they would want if the goal is to have a national majority.”