‘Unity’ may result in more Malay votes, but not more seats

(The Malaysian Insider) – There is an issue raging in the Malay press right now, and it is about Chin Peng, the former leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) who is now living in Thailand. Should he be allowed to return to Malaysia? The Malaysian courts have disallowed it, but public opinion is divided – roughly along racial lines.

The Chinese tend to be more open about his return, but there is strong Malay sentiment against it.

New Straits Times columnist Zainul Arifin explained the issue yesterday: “The CPM may have terrorised everyone equally, but psychologically affected Malays more because they saw it to be promoting Red China’s agenda to make Malaya a Chinese-dominated satellite, or the 19th province, of Beijing.”

Yet, at the same time, there are also some Malays, such as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who support Chin Peng’s return.

This controversy goes some way towards explaining the current Malay political sentiment in Malaysia after last year’s general election upended the status quo.

It brought out a deep sense of Malay anxiety over the perception of a loss of Malay political clout.

“They see the minorities as exerting more than the ‘ordinary’ sense of influence in national issues,” said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian.

It is this sentiment that underlies the current fervour for ‘unity’ talks between Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

Umno still holds around 54 per cent of Malay support nationwide.

There is a clear leaning, though a slight one, in Malay support for Umno, largely based on the sense that there is a need for the Malays to stand united.

But it would be a mistake to boil Malay sentiment down to this one category of anxiety to maintain political dominance. This may be the impression given by the Malay-language media, but the sentiment is a lot more diverse.

Pick any other racially sensitive issue – pro-Malay economic policies, scholarships and, yes, even bilateral issues with Singapore – and it will become apparent that the range of opinion is wide.

Indeed, the Malay political sentiment is riddled with subtleties. A political analyst said it would not do to underestimate the Malay sense of fair play and justice, and concern for issues of governance and democracy.

Many young and urban Malays focus strongly on these issues because of their access to information. They dislike the excesses of Umno, and see pro-Malay economic policies as benefiting a crony class.

They tend to give greater prominence to issues of justice and governance than to ethnic interests, but at the same time, they are generally also socially more conservative than the minorities.

As it stands now, the Malay vote favours the Barisan Nasional (BN) slightly, particularly because a vast majority of Malays live in rural areas. This would likely remain the case in the next general election, due in 2013, but after that, as the number of young voters increases, the scenario may change.

Given the current situation, a ‘unity’ of both parties – whether through a merger or cooperation – will probably win them more Malay votes, but ironically, this may not win either party more seats.

PAS and Umno generally contest against each other in the Malay-majority seats, while the mixed seats go to the other component parties.

“They are ploughing the same field,” said Merdeka Centre’s Mr Ibrahim.

Furthermore, the many by-elections over the last one year, in particular, the one in the mixed seat of Bukit Gantang in Perak in April, have shown that parties that take the middle ground have the best chance with voters. – The Straits Times