MARK KULASINGHAM. ‘Malay tsunami’ to decide Malaysian election.

May 3, 2018


Next Wednesday 9 May, Malaysia’s fourteenth general election will take place.I think it’s going to be a cracker.After speaking to Malaysians across the country – I sense there is something different about this election. In previous polls, there was always a sense of resignation that the ruling coalition would cruise to victory until the stunning Opposition gains in 2008 and 2013 reduced the Government’s majority to just 22 seats.

This time, it feels like the country is in the mood for change – it feels like the people have decided that the ruling party has been in for too long. On the ground, it feels like the people are aware and cynical of the government’s machinations to stay in power.

It feels like the public has stopped listening. And they are not buying  the Government line.

At stake in this election are 222 Parliamentary and 505 State Assembly seats across Malaysia’s 13 States and 3 Federal Territories.

The main protagonists are the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) government of scandal-tainted PM Najib Razak and the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition of former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad. A third group is a loose coalition of Islamic based parties led by the hard-line PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party).

Everywhere you go, conversations with locals will inevitably turn to reports of blatant electorate gerrymandering designed to favour ruling party candidates by moving Malays into marginal seats and keeping ethnic strongholds bottled up in Opposition held seats, a new ‘fake news’ law designed to stifle dissent on the web and social media, attempts to deregister political opponents and parties, and irregular application of electoral regulations on campaigning by favouring Government over Opposition candidates.

The government of Najib Razak  raises the spectre of race riots in the event of an Opposition win, cash handouts to  voters, allegations of massive amounts of money being stolen and laundered from government coffers, bribery, corruption, nepotism, cronyism, political patronage, even murder and the new buzzword ‘kleptocracy’, The government has disenfranchied many voters by holding the election on a working day and requiring  for example Malaysians working in Singapore, Thailand and Brunei to return to Malaysia to vote – the list goes on.

It was very clear to me that the Malaysian people or ‘rakyat’ as they call themselves, are extremely knowledgeable about the elections and the elements around it.

They refer with relish to the face-off between ‘Jibby and the Old Man’ – a reference to PM Najib and Dr Mahathir. I noticed this to be particularly so with the Malay community.

Interested in election commentary around a ‘Malay Tsunami’ – a huge Malay vote against the government, I decided to scope some in the community.

The young Malays of 2018 I spoke with are educated, English speaking, well-travelled, knowledgeable, and worldly. They are comfortable with the prospect of a new government – one that will be centre-left, more multiracial and inclusive. Many of Pakatan’s new crop of candidates are young, educated, multilingual – cleverly preselected to appeal to this demographic.

Election material I observed from the government is almost exclusively targeted at young Malays. Opposition messaging is based around reassuring young Malays that any Chinese or Indian opposition candidates are just as young and Malaysian and future-focused as they are.

I spoke to old schoolmates; middle-aged, in established careers with families – all the ones I asked are voting for the Opposition, even some who were diehard BN supporters in the past. One, a successful businesswoman, told me she is voting for the Opposition for the first time in her life, because she fears the subtle encroachment of Islamic fundamentalism into mainstream Malaysian society – the product of a BN government beholden to the Islamic hardliners in PAS to remain in power. “I fear for the future of my educated, moderate, liberal-minded children,” she said.

Grab (Malaysia’s Uber) drivers I spoke to told me that the buzzword on the street is ‘UBAH!’ (Change!) and that Malay passengers talk to them about voting differently this time.

On the idyllic holiday island of Langkawi, a traditional BN stronghold, I spoke to a number of young Malays living and working in this rural paradise.

Ahmad B, a taxi driver, told me that he was going to ‘ubah’ because he had enough of the rising cost of living which he blames on government mismanagement and the lack of accountability. Noraini, a University student visiting family on the island, told me that it was her first election and that she was “voting for change because it was time for change.”

22-year-old hotel staffer Nurhaliza, told me that young Malays like her did not believe mainstream news reports on politics due to the government monopoly on TV, radio and print media. “The only news and info I trust is Facebook!” she laughed.

The candour and openness with which many young Malays spoke about the election is also different. While many would not tell me which way they would vote, most indicated that they were considering voting differently.

Candidate Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of jailed former Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and PKR President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is circumspect about the election.

“We have a fair idea of how the Indian and Chinese communities will vote,” she told me. “But this is essentially a Malay election. It is whether the Malays stay with BN and PAS, or whether they shift their votes in large enough numbers to Pakatan; that is the great unknown.”

Deliciously, the ‘Dr.M’ factor has also turned this election on its head. The 93-year old Mahathir – former PM and BN leader, has come out of retirement, made peace with his former foe Anwar Ibrahim, and is now the leader of a coalition of parties that is on message and campaigning masterfully.

Still tremendously popular with Malays, his ‘ceramah’ (election speeches) are masterclasses in politicking – he often starts off with “I don’t have much time left on this earth…” which results in howls of ‘Hidup Tun!’ (Long live Mahathir!). He then goes into a well-practiced litany of having to come out of retirement, apologises for his past transgressions when PM, about going against the party he once led to save his country. He rails at Najib, promising to put him on trial if Pakatan wins, promises to get Anwar pardoned and made PM – all filmed on smartphones, and spread far and wide across social media.

It is brilliant. It has caught BN off-guard. They cannot detain him, attack him or denounce him. There are too many Malay votes at stake.

The government is finding it hard to cut-through in the West Coast states where Mahathir’s influence and popularity is still strong. The Opposition member parties have stayed largely silent, campaigning effectively behind the scenes – letting the Najib/Mahathir dynamic play out in the open.

Most pundits expect the gerrymandering to get BN over the line – but my guess is that 9 May will throw up some surprises. I have no doubt that the Malay vote will decide this election.

If there is enough of a ‘Malay Tsunami’ on election day, there will be a new government in Malaysia – and ‘UBAH!’ will indeed be the buzzword of Malaysia’s future.


Mark Kulasingham grew up in Kuala Lumpur and is a self-confessed Malaysian politics ‘tragic’.


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