Protest votes, broken promises: Decisive defeat for Malaysia’s ruling coalition in Johor’s Tanjung Piai by-election

South China Morning Post

A decisive by-election victory by an opposition party in Malaysia’s southernmost Johor state should serve as a warning shot to the country’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, analysts say.

The by-election was held on Saturday for the constituency of Tanjung Piai after the previous PH member of parliament died in September. It was the second seat that the ruling coalition has lost since taking power in 2018.


Wee Jeck Seng, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association – a component party of the now-ousted Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which had ruled Malaysia for over six uninterrupted decades – received 25,466 out of 52,471 votes, capping a decisive victory.

The party beat PH’s candidate by a 15,000 majority, thanks in part to the support of the opposition race-and-religion based United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – Malaysia’s former ruling party – and the Islamic Party of Malaysia.

MCA party president Wee Ka Siong said the results would prove to be “a new game changer for MCA”, which had failed to secure the seat in 2018 national polls.

“We won in all Chinese-majority district polling centres this time, compared to [the last election] when we lost in all eight. People of all races came together and sent out a strong message to the government that they are sick with its frequent U-turns, flip-flops and bad performance,” Wee was reported as saying by local media.

“This is a clear message to the government to keep their promises.”

James Chin of Tasmania University’s Asia Institute said: “There was a Malay swing thanks to the Umno-PAS partnership working together to support MCA rather than fielding their own candidate”.

He said that some ethnic Malays – the nation’s largest group of voters at over 60 per cent of the population – would have issued “protest” votes against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership.

He recently visited the constituency, where he claimed the opposition had been riling up racial sentiment.
Besides Malay-Muslims, Malaysia is also home to a large number of ethnic Chinese and a small percentage of ethnic Indians.

Similarly, said Chin, ethnic Chinese voters in the constituency would have likely voted against PH out of “unhappiness” with that coalition’s Democratic Action Party (DAP), the component with the strongest Chinese support base.

“They think DAP is not delivering on promises and becoming what MCA was like before it fell – a ‘yes man’ pandering to Malay interests. They want DAP to be more aggressive when it comes to domestic Chinese interests and take a stronger stand against Mahathir and his Malaysian United Indigenous Party, which is furiously working to win Malay support from Umno,” Chin said.

As part of the previous BN government, the MCA was viewed as a “younger brother” to the Malay-dominated Umno, which had more than 20 cabinet members, compared to the MCA’s three.

“It was mainly a protest vote so MCA should not be too happy,” Chin said.

“But if Pakatan Harapan does not do anything then yes, this will be the start of a momentum.”

The victory in Tanjung Piai – previously won by PH on a slim 524-vote margin – will not only double MCA’s parliamentary representation in Malaysia’s 222-person lower house, but should also serve as a warning to the PH government, which has been grappling with falling public approval because of
undelivered election promises.

But PH has maintained that it is still undoing the damage wrought by its predecessors, led by Umno which has recently seen its top leadership on trial for corruption and abuse of power.

Among them is former premier Najib Razak, who has been hit with more than 40 charges for his alleged role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (IMDB) global corruption scandal.

After the 2018 national elections – which saw PH topple BN after more than six decades of uninterrupted rule – pollsters indicated that PH had won with less than 30 per cent of the Malay vote.

Since then, Malaysians have been critical of the government for the slow pace of reforms and allegedly pandering to Malay-Muslim voters through preferential policies.

Such a strategy carries risk for PH, according to political scientist and academic Azmil Tayeb of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

“There’s significant swing among Chinese voters toward Barisan Nasional. It shows the anger and frustration against Pakatan Harapan,” he said, adding that the government had to begin focusing on the economy as well as other reforms it had promised.

“If the government doesn’t do anything different, Barisan Nasional will maintain this momentum – even if non-Malay voters sit out the election.”