By Iman Yusof Muttaqin
Results from Malaysia’s just concluded election show the country is more polarized than ever along ethnic lines, analysts said, pointing to astonishing gains made by Perikatan Nasional, a new Malay nationalist bloc.
Perikatan fought a race-based campaign, which featured allegedly divisive campaign speeches, to win over a large swathe of ethnic Malay votes amid a proliferation of anonymous hate videos, analysts noted.
The bloc, led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, counts the fundamentalist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) among its constituent parties.
Malaysia’s sociopolitical landscape has long been ripe for far-right ideas to take root and flourish, resulting in young conservative Malay voters choosing Perikatan, said Azmil Mohd Tayeb, a political analyst from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“This election showed how polarized the country is especially between Malays and non-Malays, and how voters particularly the Malays, are not as progressive as many thought, because they overwhelmingly voted for Perikatan,” Azmil told BenarNews.
The Nov. 19 general election in multiethnic and multireligious Malaysia resulted in a hung parliament, where no party or coalition secured a majority to form a government.
The most parliamentary seats, 82, were won by Anwar Ibrahim’s multiracial Pakatan Harapan bloc, with Perikatan following close behind with 73.
The incumbent Barisan Nasional bloc, anchored by the Malay-centric UMNO party, was routed at the polls. But it allied with Anwar in forming a new “unity government” when Malaysia’s king appointed him as PM to break the electoral impasse.
After taking the oath of office last week, Prime Minister Anwar said that he represented all Malaysians, but “Malay rights will continue to be at the core while the rights of other races and regions will remain protected.”
Perikatan was expected to eat into UMNO-Barisan’s Malay support base, analysts had noted before the election.
“But not to that extent,” Bridget Welsh, from the University of Nottingham Malaysia, told BenarNews, referring to the 70-plus seats that Perikatan captured.
With its slogan “Clean and Stable,” Perikatan seemed to have penetrated the Malay heartland where corruption-tainted United Malays National Organization used to have an edge.
Political observers had predicted that Malays who were upset about corruption allegations surrounding UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as well as former PM Najib Razak’s conviction linked to the 1MDB financial scandal, could well turn to Perikatan.
Infighting within UMNO, long seen as the bastion for Malay voters, further pushed this section of the electorate towards the new bloc, Welsh said.
‘Intolerant and hate-based narratives’
Another big reason for Perikatan’s success was that the bloc used race-based rhetoric to its advantage, although it was not the only one to do so, according to the analyst.
“[Using] racial [sentiments} as a narrative was on both sides, particularly DAP as well as PAS and Perikatan. But I think PAS and Perikatan used this as one of their core strategies,” Welsh said.
The Democratic Action Party (DAP), is a constituent of Anwar’s Pakatan and largely ethnic Chinese. Some people in the country’s Malay majority distrust DAP, which they see as putting the interests of Malaysian Chinese front and center, to the detriment of Malays.
“We saw the repeated demonization of DAP which began well before and especially after 2019. And that was the proxy to demonize the Chinese. .. .There were events in which there were comments made by Muhyiddin Yassin about Christians and Jews at the end of the campaign,” Welsh added.
In the days leading up to the election, local media reported that Muhyiddin accused Pakatan of a Christianization agenda for Malaysia. Muhyiddin later said he was quoted out of context while commenting on a video he had seen.
One video that went viral, showed a PAS leader allegedly saying that those who voted for Pakatan would go to hell.
Analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, was scathing in his criticism of Muhyiddin, when he spoke to BenarNews before the election.
“He is right-wing, and is not tolerant of other ethnic groups,” Tunku Mohar said.
The recent polls also saw the extensive use of social media to disseminate hate speech, with young people seen spouting far right rhetoric. The origin of these videos was not known.
According to a local not-for-profit journalism initiative, PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang was “one of the key amplifiers of divisive, racist, intolerant and hate-based narratives,” the Malay Mail newspaper reported on Nov. 17.
The social media monitoring initiative undertaken by the Centre for Independent Journalism said that Hadi and PAS had accused rivals DAP of being communists, citing their alleged atheism and “promotion” of LGBTQs.
Munira Mustaffa, executive director of the Chasseur Group, a consulting specializing in security challenges, said voters in Malaysia had become bolder in expressing their extreme views.
“The issues and grievances highlighted during the election trails were not novel. This time, however, the reactionary right has become more emboldened,” she told BenarNews.
“We are only realizing it now because political players are becoming increasingly adept at leveraging technology and social media to enhance their campaign trails and political messaging.”
PAS makes a mark
A striking feature of Perikatan’s success was the number of seats that PAS was able to win, both when contesting by itself and under the Perikatan logo. Estimates vary slightly, but PAS says it won 49 seats, the most seats won by a single party.
According to the two analysts, PAS’s large number of wins were due to its alliance with the more organized and strategic Perikatan, and not because of support for a more conservative agenda.
“One cannot equate this [winning more seats] to supporting the massive conservative PAS agenda,” analyst Welsh said.
“Many Perikatan voters didn’t even know that PAS was part of Perikatan. Many of these seats were won from strategic placement, and one has to acknowledge the vast resources that Perikatan had in its campaign.”
But others believe this election marked the rise of PAS.
Writing for BenarNews, analyst Zachary Abuza said that PAS had gone from a party with a power base in the rural and conservative northeast, to a national party.
“This represents a watershed in Malay politics and is evidence of the country’s increasing religiosity and growing intolerance,” wrote Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University.