At the end of the day, Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which leads the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in Malaysia, returned to power with fewer votes than the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR, or People’s Pact) alliance. According to the election commission, Barisan’s total votes were 5.24 million while PR got 5.62 million. And yet, by securing narrow victories in more constituencies even while conceding large defeats in others, BN survived for five more years.
Describing the humbling verdict, Prime Minister Najib tun Razak spoke of a “Chinese tsunami” which went against the ruling coalition. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) which is part of the BN did suffer badly, and the Democratic Action Party (DAP, which is predominantly Chinese) did exceptionally well: with 38 seats in parliament it emerged as the second largest party in the house, more than Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), whose leader Anwar Ibrahim was the projected prime minister of the opposition coalition. (PKR won 30 seats).
By focusing on the ethnic aspect of the opposition vote, Najib is playing on atavistic fears. Inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia have never been easy. Recall that Singapore and Malaysia were together once, as the British colony of Malaya, and Malaya’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to evict Singapore from the federation in 1965, partly out of fear that ethnic Malays will be outnumbered if the Chinese, Indian, and other ethnic groups unite and form an alliance against UMNO. Singapore was and remains predominantly Chinese, and in theory, with Penang, Sabah and Sarawak (which were ethnically distinct), an opposition front could have provided formidable challenge to UMNO. Hence the separation—take Singapore out of the equation, and Malays had a comfortably large lead over the Chinese.
Then in 1969, the 13 May incident happened, when post-election celebrations went out of hand and in the racial riots that followed, nearly 200 people died. As dates go, it has seminal importance in Malaysian history. It was after that the Malaysian government clamped down on the opposition by imposing an emergency, and Malaysia unveiled what it called the New Economic Policy (NEP), an affirmative action programme that privileged bumiputeras (sons of the soil) over immigrants (Chinese and Indians), by granting educational and employment opportunities on a preferential basis to ethnic Malays. I recall Ghaffar Baba, a former Malaysian deputy prime minister, saying that the idea behind NEP was to change the static nature of Malaysia: the Chinese trader, the Malay farmer, and the Indian plantation worker. He seemed to suggest that Mahathir’s government had changed much of that. A stand-up comedian at a club in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1990s put it differently in her show: “The Chinese does the work, the Malay takes the credit, the Indian gets the blame.”
In any case, NEP did change the economic and political landscape of Malaysia, as Chinese-owned companies began offering shares to Malay investment holding companies, and with that gradual transfer of wealth, many ethnic Malays began enjoying middle class lifestyle—and some became exceptionally rich, particularly in the boom years of the Mahathir era. (South Africa’s African National Congress took inspiration from that to some extent, when it developed its Black Economic Empowerment programme). NEP was to end in 1990, but as with most affirmative action programmes, once established it has become institutionalized. Today, the Chinese continue to have wealth, but educational opportunities for them have reduced in proportionate terms, since preferential quotas for Malays has meant fewer seats for admission for non-Malays at good universities in Malaysia—which is one reason why you find so many Malaysian Chinese (and Indians who can afford it) students at universities in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US—they are educational refugees—and which is also why you find talented and skilled Malaysian Chinese working abroad, often in Singapore and Hong Kong. That is also why the stories in Tash Aw’s latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, about five Malaysian Chinese men and women seeking their fortune in present-day Shanghai doesn’t seem strange.
Malaysia has not seen major political unrest in a long time because it has had a dominant political party ruling the country for 57 years (and now on its way to five more years). But there has been simmering discontent among the urban middle class, which is increasingly voting for the opposition. Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), often described as fundamentalist, but which is really a conservative party, continues to dominate the rural north-east coast and is part of the opposition coalition. The ruling front is increasingly reliant on Sabah and Sarawak, and a large swathe of rural peninsular Malaysia. More than racial divide, what Malaysia has is a class divide—conservative Muslims, upwardly-mobile Chinese, and democracy-minded liberal urban Malaysians who don’t see themselves in ethnic terms.
Whether such an alliance is sustainable in the long run, is difficult to tell. To succeed, PR will not only have to hold together; it will have to make real inroads in rural Malaysia. To maintain its hold, BN will have to extend prosperity in rural Malaysia, rather than assume that its vote bank will forever remain secure.
Defeating a coalition that has been in power for 57 years is never easy. UMNO and Barisan have weathered crises in the past—Mahathir saw off the challenge of two rivals—Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in the mid-1980s, and Anwar Ibrahim in the late-1990s. But while Razaleigh sued for peace and rejoined UMNO, Anwar has been resilient, and his alliance has been inching closer to victory. The gap in the number of seats between BN and PR may seem large—over 40 seats. More worrisome is the popular vote, where BN has fallen behind PR. Smarter fielding of candidates, more sustained work in marginal constituencies, and maintaining the spirit of the past decade just may bring about real political change in Malaysia the next time.
Salil Tripathi, contributing editor at Mint, was a foreign correspondent for Business Times and Far East Economic Review based in Singapore from 1991-99.