The crisis that engulfed Anwar Ibrahim’s appointment as prime minister for five days of an unprecedented election aftermath not only gripped the nation. It also caught the attention of the international media including Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, CGTN, Jakarta Post, South China Morning Post and other news agencies around the world.
Perhaps the most representative among the reporting was from the New York Times with its lead commentary headlined: Anwar, Opposition Leader for Decades, Is Now Malaysia’s Prime Minister by its Southeast Asia bureau chief (see here).
The article focused on the challenges ahead for Anwar in bringing political stability to a polarised electorate split between voters who want an inclusive and multicultural future and others driven by a conservative Islamic ideology.
Now that a unity government led by Pakatan Harapan is in place, cooler heads and less partisan voices should prevail to take stock of the election results and reflect on what needs to be done to restore cohesion, lessen the divisions and bring reassurance to a country racked by instability and uncertainty since the last election in 2018.
The first observation is that despite the political upheaval, Malaysia has had a peaceful and incident free election even going by the standard of advanced democracies. The record turnout of voters – an estimated 74 percent of 21 million voters turned out to vote – is testimony that the citizenry continues to keep faith with Malaysia’s distinctive but limited democratic system, flawed though it is in major ways such as the massive malapportionment and gerrymandering that discriminate against urban voters and affected the overall results.
Another positive feature is that racial and religious hyper-ventilation was relatively restrained in the campaign runup to the election, except for the last public rally of Muhyiddin Yassin, the contending Perikatan coalition leader who could not resist playing the race and religion card in Muar where the nation’s newest party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) president Syed Saddiq was standing. Taking down the party with its multiracial, progressive and youth oriented ideology which is aligned to the Pakatan coalition was a clear key objective of the Perikatan coalition.
Claiming that Pakatan Harapan was an agent of Jews and Christians who were out to colonise Malaysia, Muhyiddin’s allegation (a video clip of him making the allegation posted by a Tiktok user was estimated to have been viewed over 600,000 times) appears to have heightened the racial and religious sense of insecurity among the Malay electorate. Although Muhyiddin has clarified that he was quoted out of context, it was a successful strategy in wooing younger and fence sitting Malay voters away from Pakatan in Muar and elsewhere in the nation.
Race and Religion Concerns Dominate Voters Decision
Although fine grained analysis of voter preference breakdown by race is not available, it is clear that overall, race and religion concerns rather than bread and butter or class issues were uppermost in voting decisions. Together with the moral outrage sentiments of voters, they produced a widespread rejection of UMNO and associated Barisan Nasional parties and resulted in a new reconfiguration of the political landscape with PAS, the dominant religion-based party of the country, emerging as the largest single party in the new parliament.
The election result revealed a deeply racially and religiously polarised nation and produced a hung parliament. At the same time, Malay and Muslim dominance of the country’s governance and political system remains the central feature as seen in the voting statistics. The continuity in Malay political dominance is also beyond doubt as is apparent from the table on the racial composition of the newly elected representatives.
15GE: Breakdown of the Vote and Seats Won By Party
Party Votes Won Seats Won
Number Percent Number Percent
Pakatan Harapan 5.83m 38 82 38
Perikatan Nasional 4.67m 30 73 33
Barisan Nasional 3.46m 22 30 13
Gabungan Parti Sarawak 644k 4.2 23 10
Gabungan Rakyat Sabah 194k 1.2 6 3
Warisan 281k 1.8 3 1
Others 360k 2.8 4 2
Total 15.44m 100 221 100
Post 15 GE: Racial Composition of Parliamentarians By Party
Party Malay Chinese Indian Bumiputra
Pakatan Harapan 35 35 9 3
Perikatan Nasional 72 0 0 1
Barisan Nasional 26 2 1 1
Gabungan Parti Sarawak 8 4 0 10
Gabungan Rakyat Sabah 1 2 0 3
Warisan and Independents 3 1 0 4
Total 145 44 10 22
Unity Government’s Biggest Challenge
Some of the other major outcomes and takeaways to emerge from the election are:
- The new government despite its unity objective will have a fight to keep at bay the combination of Malay and Islamic opposition representatives in Parliament and at state level. In particular Pas with 49 members in the new Parliament and control of the state governments in Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu together with supportive Malay Muslim bureaucrats and the openly pronounced and priority goal of an Islamic state can be expected to push harder for the greater Islamization of the society in all aspects of public and private life.
- It is also clear that the playing up of racial and religious issues has resonance and contributed to electoral success of the Perikatan coalition. How to deal with and neutralise the political leaders and dynamics that instigate and fan the ethno-nationalist and religious forces of extremism will require all of Anwar’s and his cabinet’s skills and dexterity. But other stake players – not only those in Parliament – but also the fourth estate of media and fifth estate of think tanks and civil society representatives – have a role in standing up more effectively to racism and religious bigotry or the country will relapse into a new and more dangerous cycle of instability and disunity.
The decisive outcome of a unity government highlights the continuing important role of the Yang Di Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s monarch, in providing the ballast to ensure the nation’s peaceful and harmonious development. In exercising his constitutional authority to decree the formation of a national unity government and the appointment of the new prime minister, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah has called on politicians and the public to “be rational” and to “move forward for our beloved country”. It remains to be seen whether this call supported by the Conference of Rulers can be the guiding spirit and light for the nation’s new parliamentarians.