Can Malaysia’s DAP capture the Muslim and non-Chinese vote? Anthony Loke may be about to find out
“The percentage of Chinese seats, not voters, will keep dropping while the Malay-majority seats will keep going up. So even if the DAP permanently locks in the urban Chinese-majority areas, it is a losing game because as percentage, they will become smaller and smaller in the coming years”
Amy Chew, SCMP
A multilingual Malaysian Chinese politician with a love of Hong Kong movies is being touted as a top candidate to lead Malaysia’s largest opposition party into the next general election.
If he is elected as secretary general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) at its Central Executive Committee election on June 20, Anthony Loke Siew Fook, 44, will take over at a watershed moment for both the party and the country, amid political uncertainties and a pandemic that has crippled the economy.
Observers say the DAP needs to work hard to shake off its image of being a predominantly ethnic Chinese party and project a more multiracial, more inclusive approach.
They say it also needs to counter a decades-long demonisation by Malay-based parties and groups that have painted it as “anti-Malay” and “anti-Islam”.
Malays account for over 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population of around 33 million, while ethnic Chinese make up about 20 per cent and Indians most of the rest. A little over 60 per cent of the population is Muslim.
Given such demographics, a party dominated by ethnic Chinese might seem an unlikely candidate as the biggest bloc in parliament.
As James Chin, professor of Asia Studies at the University of Tasmania, put it: “If you go into the street and ask people, most will assume it is one of the Malay parties that is the biggest bloc in parliament.”
However, they would be wrong. “In fact, it is the DAP,” said Chin.
With 42 MPs the DAP is currently the biggest party in Malaysia’s 222 seat parliament. Even so, analysts say it needs to reach out to Malay voters if it wants to maximise its chances of getting back into power as part of a coalition government.
“The DAP is at a crossroads because now that they’ve tasted power, they want to get back into power,” said Chin.
“They know they’ve locked in the Chinese votes and quite a significant portion of the Indian votes. These votes are not going to go away for the next one or two general elections. They will still support the DAP.”
However, Chin said the DAP had still not quite worked out the formula to “reach out to Malay and non-Chinese voters”.
The DAP has found itself in this unexpected position of being Malaysia’s single biggest party after the Pakatan Harapan coalition it was part of collapsed in February last year amid the splintering of the biggest Malay-based party, the United Malays National Organisation or Umno. Following the 2018 election Umno had held 54 seats, but its power was chiselled away as defections left it with its current 38 seats.
However, the DAP is itself in a perilous position, analysts say, as its critics are trying to frame it as a threat to Malay interests – an accusation many say is unfair.
“DAP strives for equality of all Malaysians irrespective of their background, but such egalitarian struggle has long been pervertedly and deliberately twisted into an alleged form of chauvinism,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).
Pakatan Harapan came into power following its surprise win in the 2018 general elections that ended the 51-year rule of the Barisan Nasional coalition, in which the Malay-based Umno was the biggest party.
Prior to that point, Umno had dominated Malaysian politics since the country’s independence from British rule in 1957, accounting for every prime minister since then.
During Pakatan Harapan’s rule under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, in August 2019 the coalition held 129 seats in parliament; 26 from Mahathir’s Malay-based Bersatu party; 50 from Anwar Ibrahim’s People Justice Party; 42 from the DAP; and 11 from Amanah, a moderate Muslim party.
However, the moderate, multiracial Pakatan Harapan government lasted only 22 months. It was felled by relentless attacks by Umno and ultra-Malay nationalist organisations who accused it of being controlled by a “Chinese DAP” who were “anti-Malay and anti-Islam” despite having a Malay-majority cabinet in a country where race and religion are sensitive issues.
Pakatan Harapan was also troubled by the rivalry between Mahathir and his long-time rival Anwar. Their relationship was complicated by Mahathir’s unfulfilled promise that he would handover power to Anwar.
In a series of political manoeuvres, Pakatan Harapan was replaced by the Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional coalition led by Muhyiddin Yassin of the Bersatu party. Muhyiddin is now prime minister, while Umno remains part of the Perikatan Nasional coalition in an uneasy alliance.
The rise of Perikatan Nasional has seen MPs from Umno and other parties defecting to Bersatu.
At least 15 Umno MPs defected to the party, leaving the once dominant Umno with 38 MPs, a far cry from its heyday when it commanded a two-thirds majority in the legislature. The People’s Justice Party has also suffered from defections and now has 35 seats. Meanwhile, Bersatu now holds 31 seats, making it the second biggest party in Perikatan Nasional.
D.A.P. MPS REMAIN LOYAL
Amid the party hopping elsewhere, the DAP’s 42 lawmakers have remained loyal to the party of 200,000 members.
Anthony Loke, the party’s organising secretary who is seen as a potential leader, said there were “various offers being made to some DAP MPs to switch loyalty” but none had taken the bait.
“We are very thankful to the 42 MPs who remain committed to the struggle. Even though we lost the government, none of the MPs left,” Loke told This Week in Asia over the phone.
He conceded that some assemblymen at the state level had left, but none from the federal level had done so. In March this year, two DAP assemblymen in Perak state defected to the ruling Perikatan Nasional.
Loke said “all our MPs can differentiate between right and wrong”, and their loyalty could not be bought with “money or positions”.
University of Tasmania’s Chin said one reason for the DAP’s cohesiveness was that the party had “a very clear ideology”.
“Their leaders by and large are quite principled, none of them as far as I know are involved in high-level corruption, so that sort of brings people together, people have more respect for them,” Chin said.
Loke said DAP members had the value that “no matter who you are, how strong you are, your victory is because of the party”.
“Myself included,” Loke said. “Without the party, I am nobody. If you look at the voting, people vote for a party. Of course the candidate is also an important factor but the party will still come first.”
THE RISE OF ANTHONY LOKE
Loke, a former transport minister, is widely tipped to be elected secretary general on the back of his performance while in government.
“Anthony Loke will become the secretary general. Lim Guan Eng [the current secretary general] will probably move up to become the chairman,” said Chin.