Four realms in the new Malaysian political landscape

With the deep split in the Malay vote within the Malay heartlands, and the poor appeal for Malay-centric political parties in the urban areas, no single political party or coalition can win any general election.

(FMT) – One of the revelations of the recent general election was the distinct divisions within the Malaysian socio-political landscape. These divisions indicate that Malaysia is in reality four distinct regions.

Consequently, we cannot view Malaysia as a single homogeneous nation. Doing so would distort any understanding of what Malaysia really is. The election results highlighted the divisions, where no one group could garner enough seats to form a government within their own right.

This is not a bad thing. Many other countries in the world are shared by divided realms. Unfortunately, some have long ongoing civil wars, or internal insurgencies while those which embrace diversity and inclusion have usually become very progressive nations.

Nation-building can never be about building one uniform culture to which all citizens must conform. Nationhood is about finding the values that all citizens can share.

This hasn’t occurred in Malaysia, where the national narrative has been dominated by a government that has long been ethnocentric towards Malays, most often to the exclusion of others. This is counter-nationalism.

Malaysia now consists of four distinct cultural realms, where beliefs and values differ. The sense of nationhood varies between the realms, each with differing beliefs in what constitutes Malaysia as a nation.

These four distinct cultural realms are described below.

The Malay heartlands

The Malay heartlands cover approximately 88 parliamentary seats within the Peninsula, or 39.6% of the 222-seat Dewan Rakyat. The area covers Kelantan, Terengganu, Perak, Kedah, Perlis, Pahang, and parts of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, and Johor.

The Malay heartlands are becoming much more urbanised, allowing non-Malay parties to build strongholds in some of the towns. The rest of the Malay heartlands can be considered very Malay-centric, where Malay values and issues are of prime importance.

There are three major political parties vying for influence within this realm. Umno has traditionally electorally dominated the realm, with PAS centred around Kelantan and Terengganu.

Bersatu has made inroads into Umno’s traditional seats. When combined with PAS in the Perikatan Nasional coalition, this makes PAS and Bersatu the dominant electoral force in the heartlands.

Issues important within the Malay heartlands include local community development, Malay privileges, and Islam.

Urban Malaysia

Malaysia is officially 75% urban, where town and urban areas have been massively growing into adjunct rural areas. The urban areas are represented by 78 seats, or 35.1% of parliamentary seats.

The malapportionment between the Malay heartlands and urban Malaysia is high where anything up to 3 or 4 urban votes are equivalent to one vote in the heartlands.

These urban centres are focused on the Klang Valley, Shah Alam, Penang, Sungai Petani in Kedah, Johor Bahru, Melaka, Seremban in Negeri Sembilan, and Ipoh in Perak.

The urban areas range from Malay dominated seats to multi-ethnic seats. Issues of importance are much more diverse than in the Malay heartlands. General issues include education, cost of living, transport, religious freedoms, and corruption.

The parties that traditionally dominate the urban areas include DAP and PKR. Barisan Nasional through MCA and MIC is able to capture one or two seats, while Umno is competitive within the Malay dominated seats. Generally, the urban areas aspire to a diverse Malaysia, rather than Malay supremacy narratives.


Sabah is one of the founding partners of the Malaysian federation. There are 25 parliamentary seats in Sabah, representing 11.2% of the total.

Sabah was subjected to mass migration from Indonesia and the Philippines, which has drastically changed the demographic structure of the state. Islam has now eclipsed Christianity as the majority religion, and the influence of Kadazan-Dusuns within the government and civil service has waned over the last two decades.

Sabah is made up of Kadazan-Dusun (19.3%), Bajau (16.5%), Chinese (7.3%), Brunei Malay (9%), Murut (3.1%), and other indigenous groups (19.7%).

Non-citizens make up approximately 25% of the population.

Umno entered Sabah back in 1989 and has been able to take a dominant role in Sabah politics. Where Umno split, Warisan has developed. Sabah Bersatu has also grown but suffered party defections recently.

Other Peninsula-based political parties include DAP and PKR. There are a number of other indigenous parties of which STAR is currently the largest. Sabah-based political parties tend to be volatile and change over time.

Perhaps Sabah politics is based on personality more than ideology. However, such issues as illegal immigrants, state development, and Sabah’s state rights also influence the political environment.

Sabah’s political dynamics are unique to the state. There is no real pan-Borneo sentiment.


Sarawak has 31 parliamentary seats that represent just under 14% of the total. Sarawak was a founding member of the Malaysian federation and has a unique ethnic mix.

The state is dominated by the Dayaks (61.2%), followed by the Malays (18.1%), Chinese (17.2%), and Melanau (3%). Christianity is the dominant religion in Sarawak.

This makes Sarawak distinct from the rest of the nation. Local politics dominate, except in the towns of Sibu, and Miri, where Peninsula-based political parties have broken through.

The rest of the electoral scape is dominated by Gabungan Parti Sarawak, which believes Sarawak should strive for as much independence as possible from the Peninsula.

In reality, the politics of the state are dominated by a small number of families that are interrelated. There is also a very small secessionist movement within Sarawak based around urban professionals.

Sarawak is probably the most insular realm within Malaysia. Like Sabah, Sarawak has its own immigration system, which operates independently of Putrajaya. Sarawak has protected the state from illegal migration.

Political aspirations appear focused on Sarawak affairs, over national issues. This has allowed GPS to dominate the state.

Towards a sense of nationhood

Nationhood within Malaysia requires a deep-sense of multi-cultural values and commitment to a shared national outlook across people within Malaysia’s four realms.

The formation of a unity government, as was encouraged by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong should be the way forward. Any government dominated by one group is unhealthy. Anwar Ibrahim crafted his Cabinet in reflection of these realities. It consists of all major ethnic groups, religions, and ideals.

This new exercise in power-sharing, after many years of divisive politics, will be interesting.

With the deep split in the Malay vote within the Malay heartlands, and the poor appeal for Malay-centric political parties in the urban areas, no single political party or coalition can win any general election.

Further, under the current socio-political environment, no single political narrative will work across all realms.

What the future holds

The two most volatile realms appear to be the Malay heartlands and Sabah.

This is weakening the narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay Supremacy, that kept Barisan Nasional in power for over 50 years. Any winning coalition must moderate and show they will serve the interests of various stakeholders across the four realms.

The split in the Malay vote has drastically weakened the electoral dominance of the Malay heartlands. This drastically changes the roles of Sabah and Sarawak, from being considered as ‘fixed deposits’ for Barisan Nasional to ‘kingmakers’.

The key question is how long this political paradigm can hold. If the current government survives, politics within Malaysia will require a political grouping that will look after the interests of all electoral stakeholders. This should mean a much more moderate and multi-realm government.

However, any lapses in political stability, where Malay-centric parties change parliamentary loyalties, would alter power distribution and bring back the old race-based political model.

Malaysia now has its last chance to develop a multi-racial political system based on open power-sharing. This is going to be tested over the coming months.