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Malaysia’s general election: When race-based policies might trump rice-bowl promises

Months away from Malaysia’s general election, little separates the ruling coalition and the opposition in terms of ‘rice bowl’ economic policies. The vote winner lies elsewhere: Malays value general pledges on jobs and social services, but they are wary of parties that make no commitment to pro-Malay policies


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By Lee Hwok-Aun

Malaysia’s general election could happen as early as September.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri administration’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the opposition Pakatan Harapan includes a pledge to not dissolve parliament until 31 July 2022.  

Beyond that, Ismail Sabri is under no obligation to ‘delay’ the coming general election. In fact, the vice-president of Umno is under pressure to hasten it.

The government pact revolves around Malay party Umno, solidly backed by its Chinese and Indian partners in Barisan Nasional (BN) and loosely strung with other Malay parties Bersatu and Pas, with dependable support of Gabungan Parti Sarawak.

Race-based parties, which have ruled Malaysia for 63 out of 65 years, are enjoying a resurgence.

The opposition, particularly the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition of mainly multi-racial parties, was trounced in recent state elections. Since losing federal power in February 2020, 21 months after their monumental May 2018 victory, PH has returned to a familiar position on the peninsula. It has traction with the urban or semi-urban electorate but has much less purchase in Malay-populated rural constituencies.

What will the government and opposition pitch to Malaysians? With recovery underway but pandemic pain lingering, ‘rice bowl’ pledges will take centre stage. Contenders will craft their plans for generating jobs, providing income, mitigating inflation and delivering social services.

Opinion polls asking Malaysians to rank what matters most invariably find that ‘the economy’ or ‘cost of living’ far exceed other concerns, such as ethnic relations or corruption. The strategic and moral imperative is so compelling that all parties and coalitions – BN, PH, or Perikatan Nasional – will focus on jobs and benefits for all Malaysians in the battle for hearts and minds.

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Another outcome of this convergence, though, is less obvious: voters will compare between variations on the same theme, and ultimately find marginal differences.

This is especially true of Malaysia, where political rivals are remarkably aligned on economic policy. At the 2018 general election, BN and PH promised to raise the minimum monthly wage to the same level of RM1,500.

PH will try to persuade the electorate that its representatives are more diligent and sacrificial and less corrupt and self-serving in bringing aid. It can point to track records in financial probity and in stewarding its constituencies through Covid hardships and flood catastrophes. It may have performed better than its adversaries, but again, all sides have something to offer on these matters – and, indeed, BN maintains an extensive and well-oiled grassroots machinery.

The general election of May 2018 served up a unique scenario that will not repeat soon. At that general election, two flagships starkly differentiated the competitors. PH promised to abolish the goods and services tax (GST) introduced by BN and to prosecute the 1MDB corruption scandal.

There is currently no pivotal economic cause like GST that only one side champions. Heading toward the upcoming general election, combating corruption and upholding institutions will still matter but will have to contend against public fatigue and possible disillusionment that PH in government fell short in executing timely justice.

Continuing to advocate for institutional reforms, integrity and accountability will help PH retain its urban base, but it will scarcely win over pivotal rural constituencies.

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What policy stances might swing votes? One should re-examine BN’s formula of advocating race-based interests.

These policies grant preferences predominantly to Malays and bumiputras – respectively, 56% and 70% of the population. The system has essentially stayed intact throughout changes of government but will be trumpeted loudly again by BN, its creator.

Besides the bumiputra quotas that will be effusively affirmed, BN will likely promise a quota for Indian students in pre-university matriculation colleges.

PH, by all indications, seems inclined to revert to its pre-2018 reticence on these fronts.

Two habits account for PH’s disengagement on pro-bumiputra policies and indecision on group-targeted measures more broadly.

First, PH cleaves to a popular polemic that BN’s policies only help the ‘Malay elite’, fail to reach ordinary people, and perpetuate cronyism and corruption. There is truth to this assertion; certain policies – especially involving government contracts and wealth transfers – have been abused and gamed.

But tarring the entire system with the same brush distorts the entire picture. However uncomfortable it may be to admit, the reality is that low and middle-income households have benefited from a vast array of quotas or bumiputra-exclusive access to post-secondary institutions, technical colleges and universities, microfinance and small and medium enterprise (SME) loans, business support, public sector employment, government contracts and unit trust funds.

A recent nationwide survey found that 81% of Malays support ‘Malay special privileges’. Such public sentiment means many things, but surely this includes an appreciation for the opportunities received through racial quotas or exclusive access.

The electoral implication is that, while Malays value general pledges on jobs and social services, they are very wary of parties that make no commitment to pro-Malay policies.

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Second, PH mindfully upholds the noble principle of serving all Malaysians but viscerally precludes Malay-targeted programmes despite their importance to the Malay community.

The coalition has failed to present a clear narrative on how it will provide help for everyone while also implementing special policies for distinct racial, regional, or gender groups.

PH often comes across as supporting assistance targeted at Indian and Orang Asli communities while opposing the same type of interventions favouring Malays. Interestingly, professing an all-Malaysian, inclusive platform has never stopped the opposition from advocating policies specifically for Sabah and Sarawak, rural areas or women.

These are grave inconsistencies that may cost the coalition come the next election.

PH actually wrote a new script at the 2018 general election, when its Buku Harapan manifesto was loaded with promises to promote bumiputra development, along with specific programmes for the Indian and Orang Asli communities, even the Chinese. That seems to be forgotten.

Unlike rice bowl issues in which voters appraise competing – and even similar – plans, on race-based policies the comparison between the plenty offered by BN versus the relative poverty of PH may prove to be the decisive difference. – fulcrum.sg

Dr Lee Hwok-Aun is a senior fellow of the regional economic studies programme and co-coordinator of the Malaysia studies programme at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously a senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Malaya

This piece was first published in the fulcrum.sg website, published by the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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