Elections in Malaysia: “Chinese tsunami”?

By Lynn Kuok

Malaysian voters on May 4 at a rally at Penang. Source: nickchan.net's flickr photostream.

Malaysian voters on May 4 at a rally at Penang. Source: nickchan.net’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The elections in Malaysia on May 5 saw the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) remain in power, marking 56 years of uninterrupted rule since independence. When the coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), lost its two-third majority in Parliament in the 2008 elections for the first time, it was considered a “political tsunami.” This election, BN fared even worse. It lost seven seats to the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), and its share of the vote dropped below 50 percent.

One key trend of this election was the poor showing of BN in Chinese-majority districts nationwide. Prime Minister Najib Razak noted the swing in Chinese support on national television and declared it a “Chinese tsunami.” Some analysts estimated a drop of 10 percentage points from 35 percent at the last elections to about 25 percent. Najib expressed concern that the trend would result in “tension and conflicts” and announced that his government would embark on a “process of national reconciliation.”

Framing the Chinese community’s lack of support in this light is misguided and potentially dangerous. It suggests that the reason the Chinese abandoned BN is intrinsically linked to the community’s “Chinese-ness.” Najib’s comments took place against a backdrop of an election campaign wherein claims that voting for the opposition would destroy Malay special rights were made. In the lead-up to elections, members of PR were surprised to find pamphlets with alleged PR pledges to abolish the monarchy and Islam as the country’s official religion at a printing press, despite PR never endorsing such statements.

The Pakatan Rakyat is a coalition of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), who represent parties constituted predominantly by Chinese, Malays, and Muslims respectively. The coalition’s manifesto explicitly reaffirms the position of Islam as the official religion and its campaign focused on the need for clean government and a system of affirmative action emphasizing needs.

Many Chinese decided to move away from BN because of bread and butter matters, not “race issues.” Corruption ranked as the top issue requiring federal attention in a Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research poll conducted early this year. Similarly, the University of Malaya Centre of Democracy and Election (UMCEDEL) conducted a survey just prior to the elections, revealing that a “transparent, responsible and trustworthy administration” and “[a government] devoid of corrupt practices” were the top two factors influencing respondents’ choice of party. This result was replicated for the Chinese community. The survey also found that more Chinese than Malays were concerned about “upholding the Malay rights and the supreme position of Islam.”

Given these concerns over corruption and good governance, it is misleading to suggest that racial issues prompted the Chinese swing. Many Chinese object to a system of affirmative action that works to greatly favour the Malay elites to the exclusion of others. The Malay majority was historically deeply disenfranchised. The government introduced affirmative action with the twin goals of reducing poverty and restructuring society to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function. Minority groups see these goals as necessary for social stability and even fair. But it is a bitter pill to swallow when benefits are largely accrued by society’s upper echelons and spread thinly on the ground.

The Chinese and Indian communities constitute just over 30 percent of Malaysia’s population, indicating that an unprecedented number of Malays voted for the opposition. It makes about as much sense to declare a “Chinese tsunami” as it would to declare a Malay one. The tsunami in Malaysia is not race-based, but a rising up against corruption and a call for good governance. Najib must focus on these issues, moving forward. He has taken some steps towards this, but needs to do more. The pathway to “national reconciliation” in Malaysia lies in leveling the economic playing field by eradicating corruption and unfair business practices and deals. Opportunities continue to elude the common man.

Dr. Lynn Kuok is a visiting fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies at CSIS.Follow her on twitter @LynnKuok. Read more by this author here.



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