Malaysia: A Powder Keg?

First, a bit of history: Polarisation is the name of the game…

The federal constitutional monarchy of Malaysia has faced a polarised electoral base since its independence in 1957. This is greatly exacerbated by Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution, which essentially privileges Malays, as well as the native populations of Sabah and Sarawak, over the country’s ethnic minorities. While the Malay population represents 50.4% of the total population, 7.1% of the population is Indian, and 23.7% is Chinese, many of whom came to Malaysia as labourers in the 18th and 20th centuries as a part of colonial Britain’s social experiments. Naturally, ethnic minorities have resented the Malay population’s special position in society. This ultimately boiled over in 1969 in what is now known as the 13 May Incident. An estimated 800 died on the streets of Kuala Lumpur in the bloody race riots. The trauma continues to live on in the nation’s collective memory with many politicians warning against challenging Article 153 in the name of peace. And so, while the nation has experienced rapid modernisation and economic growth, race relations continue to be fragile. It appears that Malaysia has already seen a powder keg explosion in its. young history.

In February 2020, in the country’s most recent constitutional crisis, this fragility was sorely felt. The crisis can largely be attributed to  political elites  reconfiguring coalition alliances, which have dominated the Malaysian political landscape as a way to overcome fissures in the country’s voter base. Essentially, this shift in alliances resulted in the removal from office of the then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and ultimately overturning the outcome of the 2018 federal elections. The result was the prevention of the intended successor, Anwar Ibrahim, from taking power and the rising of Muhyiddin Yassin to the position of prime minister in March 2020, and the subsequent formation of Malaysia’s third government since 2018. In 2021, a fourth government formed, with Ismail Sabri Yaakob being appointed prime minister. Any semblance of ethnic and political cohesion on the political landscape has therefore deteriorated, with unstable political coalitions causing consecutive changes in administrations.

Who are the major players in the GE15?

Given the recent political crisis, many are wondering what can be expected from Malaysia’s 15th general election scheduled for 19th November 2022. Will the current ruling party and beneficiary of a 61-year one-party rule only having come to an end in 2018, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), take the lead at the ballot box? With the sitting Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the vice president of UMNO, polling at 9.5% in a survey conducted by the Universiti Utara Malaysia, the odds do not appear to be in their favour. On the other hand, Muhyiddin Yassin, chairman of Perikatan Nasional (PN), is currently perceived to be the most trusted leader in the country, with Anwar Ibrahim, the president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), close on his heals. And so, will opposition leaders take the lead? 

This poll reveals an interesting trend. In the lead up to the GE15, Malaysians are not strictly relying on ethnic allegiances at the ballot box. Rather, they are relying on trust. This is unsurprising in a country where corruption is a growing concern. You only need to look as far as the 2015 1MDB scandal, whereby billions in the state development fund were siphoned off and used to buy luxuries, such as jewellery, property and art, and even to fund the Golden Globe award-winning film The Wolf of Wall Street, to see how prominent corruption is on the Malaysian political landscape. While civic trust is a complex issue, corruption plays a massive role in a constituency’s ability to trust those in power. Voters want to know that who they ultimately put in power will use state funds to better the lives of those that elected them, and not to selfishly better their own lives by illegal means.

This is not the only way that money is talking at this year’s election. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Malaysian economy has struggled. Prices of essential goods, such as food, have surged in the past year alone. Fitch Solutions, for one, has predicted that the country’s GDP growth will drop to 4% in 2023, keeping in mind that this figure was as high as 9.4% in the first three quarters of 2022, this is a significant drop. Moreover, youth unemployment has been steadily increasing since 2019, currently standing at 15.6%. And so, it is no surprise that economic growth and job creation are at the forefront of Malaysia’s 2022 voters’ minds. However, it is not only the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought economic issues to the forefront of Malaysia’s political debate. Rather, the Dewan Rakyat’s passing of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019, ultimately lowering the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, has exacerbated this emphasis on economic issues through political candidates framing their messaging to accommodate for the predominant concerns of economic growth, job creation and infrastructural development, amongst the demographic of youth voters. This being the first general election since the passing of this amendment, 1 million new youth constituents are eligible to vote, alongside 5 million Malaysians between 21 and 29 years old automatically being registered to the electoral roll. And so, candidates have directed their messaging to capture this new constituency. Ultimately, what seems to be informing voter decisions is economic concerns and proposed economic policies.

How will the political game end?

While it is no secret that there are ethnic divisions in Malaysia, it seems that economic policies and concerns are the uniting forces in the GE15. No one wants race riots or deep ethnic fragmentation brought on by an election period, however, when looking at the situation holistically, perhaps this ‘pseudo unity’ is more damaging in the long-run. 

More specifically, Chinese and Indian communities in the country facing unquestioned marginalisation, Malaysia runs the risk of allowing resentment and anger to fester and, ultimately, one day to explode. Ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians are broadly considered ‘second-class’ citizens, with political elites benefitting from special safeguards in the constitution. While economic concerns may be the primary concern at the moment, once this survival need is met, it is only a matter of time until constitutional and political needs will become top of mind. With a strong economy, job security, and an overall good standard of living, constituents will no doubt begin to focus their attention on matters around political, social, and economic rights. This is inevitable. 

Keeping the inevitably in mind, the sooner the marginalisation is addressed, the better. Suppression will only grow resentment and anger. Steam must be released slowly before society combusts.