Chinese Malaysian girls waving the white moon flag of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Malay boys wearing the red rocket T-shirt of the Democratic Action Party – these were some of the stories told about the campaign during the 2008 general election.
The anecdotes were meant to illustrate the point that Malaysians had finally cast aside their racial loyalties to join hands in political battle against the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
In reality, the outcome was far more complex. Race has not vanished as a factor in Malaysian politics, far from it.
In the years after the 2008 polls, which saw the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) wrest an unprecedented five states from BN, race has become stridently noticeable, in political discourse as well as the way government policies are targeted.
No doubt, a strong swing to the PR by all races in 2008 led to the BN's stunning losses at state level and in the federal Parliament. But it was not a uniformly strong swing, and it would be wrong to say the PR's multiracial message finally trumped BN's model of race-based parties led by a dominant Malay component in Umno.
A closer look at the results showed that the ethnic minority support from Chinese and Indian voters had swung the most, followed by a much more modest Malay swing.
Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst with UCSI University, said his analysis found that in 2008, Chinese support for the BN had fallen to 36 percent from 65 percent in the 2004 general election, and the Indian vote fell from 83 percent to 48 percent.
The Malay vote fell by a smaller margin, from 65 to 58 percent, suggesting that the community's support for the existing set-up of a Malay-dominated coalition is far stronger than for the minority races, and that disillusionment with the coalition on issues other than race is likely the reason for the drop in Malay support.
The analysis suggests there is no basis for saying that the 2008 general election was a watershed event that saw Malaysians rising above race.
It also suggests there is room for much volatility in the coming general election that has to be called by early next year, and much of that will be determined by how the race card is played.
“Race is still a very important issue in Malaysia, and I don't think most people are ready to see beyond it yet,” says political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy.
This was why, he said, the political strategy of BN parties like Umno and the Malaysian Chinese Association is still to harp on racial or religious issues in hopes of solidifying the support of their core constituencies.
Further, in the last four years, new groups like the ultra-Malay Perkasa have emerged to raise the pitch of the race rhetoric.
There is no escaping politics as seen through the prism of race; it is woven into Malaysia's race-based political structure and is the outcome of government policies that have been in force for more than 40 years.
The BN is a coalition of 13 race-based parties, of which only a handful are ostensibly multiracial but are still dominated by one particular race.
The PR is made up of three parties, of which only one – Parti Keadilan Rakyat – is truly multiracial.
Khoo noted that while the opposition has chosen a multiracial platform to provide a distinct alternative to the BN, it was still conscious of racial perspectives. PAS, for instance, is appealing to the loyalties of its conservative Malay-Muslim base by pledging to implement Islamic hudud law in Kelantan.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Najib Razak has sought to undercut PR's multiracial appeal with his 1Malaysia slogan and reforms to win over the Chinese and Indian communities.
But he is constrained by the fact that Umno is a Malay-based party, and he cannot stray too far from its fundamental mission to protect Malay rights.
Despite Datuk Seri Najib's best efforts, question marks remain over the strength of the Chinese support.
According to the independent Merdeka Centre surveys, Chinese support for Najib had climbed to a high of 58 percent in the middle of 2010 before slipping to a low of 38 percent a year later. It climbed again to the 50s but has now fallen again to the 30s.
The Chinese support appears to climb relatively high when Najib is pushing his economic and political reforms that promise to address some longstanding grievances such as the lack of a level playing field.
But it plunged both times after the two chaotic electoral reform rallies in July last year and April this year, as the government appears to be backtracking on its reform promises.
Going by the by-elections since 2008, Chinese support for the BN appears to hover around 20 percent. This is supported by the latest Merdeka survey which found that only 18 percent of the Chinese say they are satisfied with the government.
Race will undoubtedly feature in the upcoming elections but its impact will be affected to some extent by other trends that have begun to emerge.
“Like any other general election, race will be the dominant lens of analysis but I think other trends are also important,” said Ong.
One to watch for would be the urban-rural divide.
The last general election as well as the Sarawak state election last year highlighted that the urban versus rural voting pattern is becoming an increasingly important factor.
The Sarawak state election in April last year showed that the opposition gains were almost wholly in the urban areas, with only small inroads into the rural seats.
Analysts say this trend can be expected in Peninsular Malaysia as well, although to a smaller extent because West Malaysia has more developed infrastructure.
“The urban-rural factor was already present in the 2008 elections, and I think a similar trend will continue where on the whole, the urban voter will go for the opposition and the rural areas will plump for the BN,” Ong said.
This is partly because the urban electorate has greater access to opposition news via the Internet, although these days, the Internet has also become part of the rural landscape.
But it is not just information that counts. Rural communities still tend to rely heavily on government assistance like subsidy schemes, are more conservative and closely knit, all of which make them more supportive of the BN.
The other factor to watch is that of age.
According to electoral analysis done by Ong, the 2008 elections showed that voters aged between 25 and mid-40s tended to vote opposition, while the BN gets more votes from those younger and older than that. This is significant as two million more voters, mostly below 35, have been added to the electoral roll, making it 12.6 million in all.
It is the reason why the BN Youth, led by Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, has been working overtime to woo the youth vote, through programmes like job fairs, music contests and other youth-related events.
Umno Youth believes that the youth vote is not set in stone after a survey that it carried out two years ago, which showed that many of the young are actually fence-sitters with no strong partisan loyalty. They vote according to the issues of the day, and on the issues that affect them.
With the BN campaigning hard for the youth vote, the opposition has also belatedly taken up youth causes such as its recent campaign for free tertiary education.
For now, it is hard to say which voting pattern will dominate. And as the 2008 general election showed, while the general trends are discernible, the unexpected can happen, and even a small swing – at that time it was the Malay vote away from BN – can set off a tsunami.