DAP, the biggest loser in the Tanjung Piai massacre?

Calvin Sankaran, Free Malaysia Today

Quantitatively, the results of the Tanjung Piai by-election make little difference. But in the strategic political calculus, the outcome carried enormous implications, not just for national inter-party dynamics but also for the fragile, intra-coalition power balance within the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Knowing the dire consequences of a defeat, the PH government threw all it had into the battle, parachuting its heavy-hitters and superstars who dangled and dished out millions of ringgit using the “cash is king” strategy to get votes.

Their efforts were ably supported by the Election Commission and the police, who did their utmost to prevent the opposition from campaigning while turning a blind eye to the blatant bribery and violations of electoral laws by the ruling party.

In the end, it wasn’t even a contest but a massacre of a scale unseen in Malaysian political history, with the ruling party completely annihilated in a constituency where it was the incumbent.

Had this been a mixed martial arts contest, the referee would have stopped the fight and declared a knock-out. Had PH been a horse, it would have been put to sleep as an act of mercy.

The day after the by-election, predictably, political pundits had a field day, dissecting and interpreting the Massacre of Tanjung Piai with gleeful abandon. While some pundits performed statistical analyses and highlighted several key facts, the vast majority succumbed to the classic “confirmation bias”, a type of cognitive bias where one interprets an event based on prior beliefs.

The most pertinent facts from the by-election were only a few. The most important fact is not the 15,086-vote majority but the fact that the opposition won at all 27 polling stations including in Chinese-majority areas.

Victory for the opposition was a foregone conclusion as the PH candidate barely scraped through with a majority of 524 votes against the Barisan Nasional and PAS candidates in GE14. With the cooperation of Umno and PAS as well as the increasing Malay support for the opposition, the odds were stacked heavily against the PH candidate this time. This was evident in the last few by-elections where PH lost in all Malay-majority seats.

However, what was unexpected was the massive swing of Chinese support to the opposition despite the community’s traditional suspicion of Umno and PAS. In past by-elections, the Chinese community strongly supported PH candidates despite their unhappiness. As such, the PH government expected the community to continue supporting it.

The Chinese voters of Tanjung Piai are typically loyal supporters of DAP who vote for the party through good and bad times. They are not interested in highfalutin concepts such as democracy, free speech, human rights, election manifestos, etc. All they want is fair and just treatment from the government in matters of economy, education, language and religion.

When PH formed the government in 2018, it expected DAP to reciprocate its loyalty by fulfilling the promises made. It expected much from the party as DAP had 42 MPs of which 11 are ministers and deputy ministers. A DAP member also holds the powerful position of finance minister.

However, a mere 18 months later, DAP has proven to be an utter, abject failure in the eyes of the community. Not only has the unfair and unjust system remained in place, the new government has proven even more repressive and discriminating. The Chinese were outraged that their beloved DAP had swiftly morphed from the fearless defender of community’s interests to mute running dog of the increasingly racist federal government. Nothing exemplified DAP’s newfound arrogance much as Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng’s act of drastically cutting government funding for TAR UC.

Thus, the action of the Chinese voters of Tanjung Piai to support the opposition is the single most important feature of the by-election and a damning indictment of DAP. The party’s failure to deliver its promises (both implicit and explicit) to the Chinese community finally reached breaking point, resulting in the destruction of the trust and credibility carefully built over the decades.

In summary, the result of Tanjung Piai has three long-term strategic consequences for DAP. The first implication is that the Chinese community has crossed the Rubicon and the days of the community’s support for DAP/PH being taken for granted are truly over. It is highly improbable that the party will ever be able to enjoy the same level of support again.

The second implication is the weakened position of DAP within the PH balance of power. That PH was/is highly dependent on the non-Malay support that DAP brings is no secret. A significantly lower non-Malay support would mean that DAP is no longer able to carry the same weight to influence policies to favour their non-Malay voter block.

The third consequence is that the Tajung Piai results will likely trigger forces within PH demanding for change in national leadership by pressuring the prime minister to expedite the power transition to Anwar Ibrahim. This will unleash a major crisis and power struggle within PH, with parties and individuals forced to take sides. DAP, too, will have to choose a side. But irrespective of its decision, the consequences will only be negative for the party.