Pakatan Harapan has performed far better than expected.
Many political commentators had predicted that the loss of ethnic Malay votes to the Barisan Nasional, as happened in the state elections in Malacca in 2021 and Johor in 2022, would reduce the PH tally to 50-60 parliamentary seats in this year’s general election.
However, missteps by the Umno leadership and the stellar performance of Anwar Ibrahim and Rafizi Ramli led to a much better than expected outing for PH. PH managed to win 82 seats, emerge as the biggest coalition in the country, and install Anwar as Prime Minister.
However, the road ahead isn’t without problems and the supporters of the reform movement must be clear-eyed about the challenges ahead.
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There wasn’t much of a change in the vote among the ethnic minorities. High percentages of Chinese and Indian Malaysian voters continued to support PH – some pundits estimate the support to be as high as 90% and 80% respectively.
But about half the Malay voters who had voted PH in 2018 abandoned it in 2022. As was seen in Malacca and Johor, these voters shifted their allegiance to Bersatu and Pas.
The unexpected development in this general election was the implosion of Malay support for Umno. Umno, which had received about 45% of the Malay vote in the Malacca election, witnessed a huge erosion of Malay support in this general election, its share of the Malay vote falling to less than 25%.
Both these trends are evident in the parliamentary constituencies of Pokok Sena and Permatang Pauh as portrayed in the tables below.
It is important we appreciate the reasons for the realignment of the Malay vote. The 40% – 50% decline in Malay support for PH since the 2018 general election is due to worries that PH is not sympathetic to Malay interests, whether it is providing economic assistance, upholding Islam or safeguarding the position of Malays within the nation.
The exodus away from Umno since the 2021 Malacca election is most probably fuelled by the revulsion over the level of corruption within Umno and the Umno leadership’s attempts to deny wrongdoing by their national leaders.
Almost all the Malays abandoning PH and BN turned to Perikatan Nasional. It was perceived as the safest bet for them.
Significance of these electoral shifts
There are several implications.
The first is that the Malay electorate is as concerned about corruption and misuse of power as are the ethnic minorities. That is why Malay support for Umno has crumbled from about 80% in 2004 to a dismal 25% now.
The second is that most of the Malay voters in Malaysia – probably about 85% of them – did not vote for PH in this general election, and they will be anxiously watching PH to see whether the dire warnings pronounced by BN and PN leaders in the run-up to the general election regarding PH’s anti-Malay orientation is true.
Third, despite the seemingly comfortable number of MPs currently supporting it, the PH government is far from stable. A sudden withdrawal of support to precipitate a collapse of the PH government cannot be ruled out.
Fourth, 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 they can drum up a campaign to portray the PH-BN regime as inimical to Malay ‘interests’, the position of BN within the coalition might become untenable, just as Bersatu’s position in PH did in early 2020. BN might then have to withdraw from the government to stave off further loss of Malay support.
Anwar 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 Malay 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 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 two parliamentary terms for it to be consolidated.
To stay in power for two terms, PH has to increase its Malay support to above the 25% it enjoyed in 2018. Only if PH can achieve at least a simple majority on its own, can it breathe easy.
Role of Reformasi supporters
The job of consolidating popular support for the reform agenda cannot be left to Anwar and the PH leadership alone. Reformasi supporters must keep in mind that PH only received 37.5% of the popular vote in this general election. That needs to be increased to over 50% if the reform process is to be placed on a stable path.
There are several things that Reformasi supporters could and should do.
First, we need to stop defining ourselves as the ‘victim’. Victimhood allows us to focus exclusively on the injustices and marginalisation suffered by us and 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 the people and communities in the country. Those who voted PN and BN have their own perceptions of injustices perpetuated on them and are apprehensive that they might be marginalised further. PH supporters need to understand these apprehensions and anxieties, and explore how these issues can be tackled fairly and even-handedly.
Second, the incoming government should speedily implement the following four programmes, which will bring immediate economic relief to almost all the poorest 40% and the middle 40% of families in the nation.
Old-age pensions of RM500 per month for all those aged above 65 who are not currently on government or Socso pensions.
This will give immediately relief to around 1.5 million Malaysians in the senior citizens category and make their conditions of life so much better. This pension scheme will cost about RM9bn per year at present.
Socso contributions sponsored by the federal government to provide invalidity cover for all women aged between 18 and 60 in the country.
If based on the minimum wage of RM1,500 per month, this will come up to RM15.50 per person per month, and this will work out to RM1.2bn per year to provide this cover for the 6.5 million women aged between 19 and 60 who are eligible, ie women who are not government servants or currently covered by Socso.
Create a fund of RM2bn 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 children and youth in these flats to allow the situation to fester.
Transparency in the use of funds provided the Ministry of Rural Development through the district offices to maintain and upgrade public facilities and residents’ houses in rural areas. (It is currently about RM5bn per year! Not a small amount.)
The level of funding must be maintained for now, but it will go much further if the pilfering (by local politicians and district office employees and their crony contractors) is reduced by requiring all the allocations and the specifications of the projects approved to be put up on online notice boards that the local population can access.
The above four programmes will bring tangible benefit to a huge proportion of the population and will cost about RM12bn. These programmes will significantly allay fears among the people that those who didn’t vote for PH will be neglected, marginalised or left behind under the new government. It will definitely help widen the political base of the PH regime.
My third suggestion is addressed specifically to the supporters of the reform agenda who are unhappy about the New Economic Policy. I do understand that the NEP and the ethnic-based quotas marginalised especially the poorest 40% of the ethnic minorities – 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.
Socioeconomic imbalances in society are not going to be solved by the free market. Free competition generally benefits those who are already better endowed – in wealth, education 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 wealthiest 20% and that the legitimate expectations and interests of all communities in Malaysia are protected.
Malaysia is at a historic juncture. We have the opportunity to chart a new, fairer and more inclusive course for the nation. But we must recognise that we are a deeply polarised society. Fewer than 15% of the Malay voters in the peninsula voted for PH in this general election; 85% voted for either PN (60%) or BN (25%).
The only reason PH emerged as the largest coalition is that the 85% Malay voters who did not vote PH were divided between PN and BN. 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 reform process to continue and bear fruit.
The suggestions given above will help to stabilise the political situation and consolidate the reform process. PH supporters need to change their mindsets and think for all the communities in this nation – to reach across the ethnic divide and truly understand, and wherever possible, advocate for the ‘other’.
PH is extremely lucky to get a second shot at reforming the nation. Let’s not fumble this time around!