Winning the Malay and Bumiputra vote, one step at a time…

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant National Director for Political Education for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 7th of February, 2019

The question of how much Malay support was obtained by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the 14th General Election (GE14) has been raised periodically since the 9th of May, 2019. Merdeka Center, a respected polling company, estimates that PH’s share of the Malay vote in GE14 at between 25-30%, BN’s share at between 35-40% and PAS’s share to be between 30-33%.[1]

More recently, a figure of 17% was quoted in relation to a joint survey done by the Penang Institute and the Ilham Center.[2] Using PH’s Malay vote share to understand the results of GE14 and more importantly, as a lens to look ahead to GE15, is an erroneous framework. It is far more useful to examine the Malay vote in GE14 as a choice between being for or against the BN. With the prospects of an UMNO-PAS alliance being formed ahead of GE15, the by-election results since May 2018 give us a closer indication of what the battle for the Malay vote will look like. With this backdrop, PH will need to put in place a systematic plan to win the Malay vote, one step at a time. At the same time, PH must also not forget the battle for the Bumiputra vote in Sabah and Sarawak, two important regions which the UMNO-PAS alliance seems to have forgotten.

In GE13, the challenge for Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to reach Putrajaya was to win at least 40% of the Malay vote and more than 80% of the non-Malay vote. Unfortunately, PR only managed to win 35% of the Malay vote which meant that BN-UMNO still controlled 65% of the Malay vote putting Putrajaya out of reach for PR. In GE14, with the then opposition being split into two – Pakatan Harapan (PH) and PAS – the objective of reaching Putrajaya still could be achieved if BN-UMNO won less than 50% of the Malay support with the rest of the Malay support being split strategically between PH and PAS. The important storyline for GE14 is that BN-UMNO lost at least 20% of its Malay support (from 65% in GE13 to below 45% in GE14) and that a majority of Malay voters (at least 55%) DID NOT vote for the BN. Malay voters were mostly voting to choose between keeping the kleptocratic Najib Razak led BN regime or getting rid of this regime, regardless of whether it was PH or PAS which would be the replacement. My own estimates are that BN won approximately 44% of the Malay vote in Peninsular Malaysia in GE14 with PAS winning approximately 32% (helped by their dominant showing in Kelantan and Terengganu) and PH winning 24%.

It seems almost certain that in GE15, UMNO and PAS will form some sort of electoral alliance, and agree to one-on-one fights against PH. In this context, it is easy to see why it would erroneous to assume that PH’s share of the Malay vote will remain at approximately one quarter and that ALL of PAS’ Malay support will go to UMNO and vice versa as part of their electoral alliance. The recent by-election results gives us some indication of the factors influencing Malay support for PH and BN / UMNO / PAS.

Of course, by-election results are not entirely an accurate representation of what will take place in a general election. Turnout is usually very much lower, voters know that their votes will not determine the fate of the state or federal government and local issues / candidacy may matter more than during a general election. This being said, by-elections are one of the few indicators we have to take stock of the current political sentiment in the country and it would be a waste not to take advantage of this data.

Table 1 below summarizes the estimated Malay support for PH, BN and PAS in GE14 compared to the estimated Malay support for PH and BN / PAS in each of the 5 by-elections since GE14.

Table 1: Change in PH Malay Support – GE14 versus Post GE14 By-Election

There is no clear and discernible pattern in PH’s Malay support in each of the 4 by-elections since GE14. PH’s Malay support increased by 12% in the Malay majority state seat of N49 Sungai Kandis in Selangor when faced with a tainted and weak BN-UMNO candidate Lokman Adam who was closely associated with former Prime Minister Najib Razak. PH’s Malay support increased by an estimated 35% (from 34% to 69%) when faced with a weak BN-MCA candidate in the Chinese majority state seat of N27 Balakong in Selangor without much campaign help from UMNO and PAS. In the mixed state seat of N32 Seri Setia, also in Selangor, PH faced a more formidable PAS candidate who was a former Selangor exco and experienced a fall in Malay support of 11.2% from 49.5% to 38.4%. In the Port Dickson by-election, PH fielded Prime Minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim against a crowded field which included a PAS retired air force officer (but no BN candidate) and PH’s share of the Malay vote increased by 18.5% from 29.4% in GE14 to 47.9% in the by-election. Finally, in the recent Cameron Highlands by-election, PH increased its Malay support by a mere 1% when faced with a Muslim Orang Asli candidate from the BN in what is traditionally an MIC seat. In the upcoming N24 Semenyih by-election in Selangor, pressure will be on PH to increase its share of the Malay vote from the 36.7% it won in GE14 since Selangor is a stronghold state for PH and BERSATU will be fielding a candidate for the first time in a by-election since GE14.

What IS clear from the by-election results is that one cannot assume that most of PAS’s Malay support will necessarily go to BN in a head to head fight with PH nor can one assume that most of PAS’s support that came about from anti-BN supporters will necessarily go to PH in a head to head fight. The Malay vote is up for grabs and PH needs to be strategic in taking systematic steps to win over them.

Firstly, the branding and institutional support structures for PH needs to be strengthened at the national and state levels. Having been officially recognized as a coalition of political parties for less than a year, PH still has lots of work to do before it can reach the same kind of institutional maturity and strength which the BN possessed at the height of its political power. While PH Presidential Council meetings occur on an almost weekly basis, the machinery to build PH’s brand, to communicate its policies to the larger public and to counter the right wing political messages from UMNO and PAS are still being organized. Campaigning as an opposition coalition and working as a ruling coalition are two separate tasks with different challenges.

With a stronger PH branding, support and structures, PH will be able to be more effective in its campaigns and be less susceptible to being seen as separate parties working independently of each other. A more cohesive PH will be less likely to be vulnerable to accusations that it is being dominated by any one single coalition member e.g. the DAP, which is fuel to the fire of racial and religious polemic that is being stoked by UMNO and PAS.

Secondly, there needs to be a more concerted effort to contrast PH against UMNO and PAS and tie the fates of UMNO together with PAS. Right now, PAS is trying to have its cake and eat it by working with UMNO on the basis of racial and religious cooperation but not wanting to suffer the taint of being formally associated with the corrupt and kleptocratic practices of UMNO. Whether this can last until GE15 remains to be seen especially given the accusations that PAS received financial help from UMNO prior to GE14. Indeed, more needs to be said about PAS’ original intention of leaving Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and contesting as ‘spoilers’ in GE14. It is likely that PAS’ game plan all along was to work towards an alliance with UMNO. If BN-UMNO had won GE14 with a small majority or if it needed PAS’ seats to form a government, PAS would most certainly have joined forces with UMNO at the federal level. If the unlikelier scenario of PH winning power occurred, then PAS would do what it is doing now – which is to inch towards closer cooperation with UMNO in preparation for GE15.

Thirdly, PH should take steps to ensure that the pro-rakyat policies which it has and which it will implement reaches to the ground. Right now, pro-rakyat policies such as the I-Suri contribution for poor housewives, the My100 and My50 public transportation passes and the MySalam health insurance scheme for the B40 have not been properly rolled out yet to the masses, especially to those in the rural areas. As more of these policies are announced, in accordance to the Manifesto Promises, the key challenge for PH is to ensure that these policies are felt on the ground, especially by the B40, the majority of which are Malay voters.

Fourthly and lastly, PH must not forget that in its efforts to systematically win more of the Malay vote, that it also rolls out targeted policies which benefit the Bumiputra voters in Sabah and Sarawak. This would include a careful implementation of the decentralization policies that were promised in the PH Manifesto. PH, together with Warisan, won 24 out of 57 parliament seats in Sabah (including Labuan) in GE14. With the inclusion of additional MPs post GE14, PH now holds 28 parliament seats in Sabah and Sarawak, almost half of the total parliaments seats. With the implosion of UMNO in Sabah and the dissolving of BN in Sarawak, UMNO and PAS are almost bereft of any political representation and influence in East Malaysia. As UMNO and PAS ramps up their political rhetoric and cooperation, they are also closing off any reasonable chances they have to have any political impact in East Malaysia come GE15.

A good gauge the political prospects for PH and UMNO-PAS will take place in the Sarawak state elections which have to take place by 2021. Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) will fight tooth and nail against PH to maintain control of the state government while UMNO+PAS will have to find a new campaign narrative for the state elections or remain politically irrelevant in the largest state in Malaysia.

PH should not have knee jerk reactions towards all the talk that it only has a minority of Malay support by trying to become BN 2.0. With a systematic agenda that is pro-rakyat and targeted policies which benefit the B40 being rolled out, Malay support for PH will increase, in spit of the best efforts of UMNO and PAS to play the racial and religious card against PH.