The Peninsula is the real battleground 

Umno/BN’s legitimacy to command the support of East Malaysian, including Sabah Umno, hinges on BN winning the majority of Peninsula parliamentarians.

Dr Wong Chin Huat

The real battleground for the ruling and opposition coalitions in this coming general election may not be Sabah and Sarawak, but Peninsular Malaysia.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) parliamentarians concede the possibility of losing six and seven parliamentary seats respectively. That would mean only losing 13 out of a total of 57 seats in the entire East Malaysia.

And if the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) counts on these 13 seats to constitute a simple majority of 112 seats in the Federal Parliament, the opposition coalition would need to win 99 out of 165 seats or about 60% in the Peninsula.

That would be an uphill task for the four-year-old opposition coalition, which won only 80 seats in the Peninsula and has kept only 73 seats after a series of defections.

Going by this line of calculation, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim — who heads Pakatan — can bid farewell to his Putrajaya dream, unless he can orchestrate an exodus of BN key leaders like how he recently enticed a Muslim and a Christian parliamentarian to join his camp.

Alternatively, the current leaders of Sabah PR need to win more than six parliamentary seats in the coming election.

This may not be easy given the likelihood that PR would have to face multi-corners, with local Sabah opposition parties led by popular leaders like Jeffery Kitinggan and Yong Teck Li playing the third force.

As a matter of fact, the failure of the opposition to work out a straight fight against BN may offset the benefit it may reap from infighting within Sabah BN.

In other words, the growing under-currents against the scandal-tainted Chief Minister Datuk Musa Aman may be a missed opportunity for Anwar’s dream.

Key point

The analysis so far has however missed out a key point: Umno/BN’s legitimacy to command the support of East Malaysian, including Sabah Umno, hinges on BN winning the majority of Peninsula parliamentarians.

In the 2008 elections, BN in fact lost the simple majority in popular votes by a small margin. It led PR with a 85:80 margin only because of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

The moment PR wins 83 seats — the simple majority in the Peninsula — the entire game would change.

The price for Umno to command the support of East Malaysian MPs would immediately soar. Loyalty will then require much better offers than what the politicians get now.

And Umno may simply cannot afford to beat the PR offer.

To begin with, the non-Muslims in East Malaysia have a general distrust for Umno. Non-Muslim BN parties contest as many as 29 seats there.

To make the matter worse, not only Umno Sabah and PBB of Sarawak have a number of non-Muslim parliamentarians, even some Muslim politicians are not happy with the Peninsular-dominance embodied in Umno.

Main battleground

This means the real battleground to keep Sabah and Sarawak is in the Peninsula or West Malaysia.

Contrary to a common view, the battleground will not be in the Malay voters even though they make up the majority in 114 federal constituencies in West Malaysia, based on the electoral roll gazetted in June 2011.

The balance will instead be decided by the Chinese voters, who have shown the most uniformly voting pattern of all ethnic groups so far.

Government intelligence now puts the base line of Chinese support for the BN at 20%, whereas in the past the floor was 30%.

Now, if the Chinese support for PR across the board is indeed 80%, then for PR to win the 83 constituencies with the highest proportion of Chinese voters — with Jempol (26.72%) being the 83rd — it needs only 39.06% of support from the non-Chinese: Malay, Indian and others.

In reality, the minimum of non-Chinese support that PR needs in constituencies with a substantial Chinese minority is much lower.

In 2008, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) from PR won 15 seats with less than 26.27% Chinese voters in the more than 55% of popular votes.

This means PR should be able to retain these Malay-majority constituencies based on Malay votes, even when there is a general swing of 5% towards the BN.

And it needs only 68 more seats to pass the magical threshold of 83.

By the same calculation, PR will need to win the 68 constituencies with the highest percentage of Chinese voters, which ends with Sembrong (33.30%). And the minimum non-Chinese support it needs will be as low as only 35%.

This explains why MCA is working so hard now to highlight on the fear of Islamisation and ethnic riot. A few percent more Chinese voters staying at home or going away would be enough to save the BN.

In 1999, MCA women campaigners contributed greatly to the BN’s victory amidst the Reformasi wave by reminding other home makers to stock up food supply because elections were around the corner.

Now, a group of Chinese homemakers calling themselves Mama Bersih is going to every yellow and green rally to advocate for political awakening. Their motivation? They want their children to grow up in a safe and free country.

It is a different kind of fear that defines the future of Malaysia.

This is how much this country has changed in 13 years, whether or not the politicians have.

Dr Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist and former lecturer of Monash University (Malaysia campus).