Malay politics post GE15

Amirul Johan, Malay Mail Online

The recent removal several Umno top leaders notably Khairy Jamaluddin, Noh Omar and the suspension of Hishammuddin Hussein may not bode well for the image United Malay National Organisation (Umno), but to some factions within the party, it was the necessary move to ensure party stability and secure its position in the current unity government. Whatever happens next within Umno will surely change the Malay political landscape but until its party elections in 2026, no one can tell if Umno would remain the same or embark on a reform agenda it needed to recapture the imagination of the Malay community in the country.

In January 2023, the usually much anticipated Umno Annual General Meeting (AGM) received much less attention among Malaysians compared to previous years. The Umno AGM used to be an event to watch by many. The main event by the country’s largest Malay party usually sets the tone and determines Malaysia’s political direction and acts as the driving factor of Malay politics in the country.

However, in 2023, things changed. Umno is no longer the country’s largest Malay party (by the number of seats in the parliament) after the 15th General Elections (GE15), taken over by the Islamic-based party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its traditional hold on the rural and semi-urban Malay votes and continues to lose its grip in the Malay heartland states while the Malays voting pattern shifted to Perikatan Nasional (PN).

Although one may argue that the Malays have moved beyond Umno’s agama, bangsa dan tanah air or ABATA (religions, race, and homeland), yet a huge number of Malay voters went to support PN in GE15 on the basis of conservative religious values and nationalist ideologies.

After the 15th general elections, the country’s political landscape has become more complex. Post Sheraton Move in 2020 saw several smaller parties began to emerge either from splinter groups or new political players who saw the need to better represent a certain minority or interest groups.

The overwhelming inclination to support PAS-PN vis-à-vis race and religious rhetoric to administrate the country then begs the question – have the Malay community become more conservative and that political parties began to play the same tune?

The acceptance of PN as an alternative or the third force is not accidental, but rather the party knew the dilemma that the Malays had in mind. The Malay voters perceived “PH as liberal and BN as corrupt” which hindered them from supporting either coalition.

Supporting PH which consists of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) as the main component in the coalition is difficult among the conservative Malays as the party is often seen as liberal and does not conform to Malay values and Islamic principles. For BN, Umno’s internal bickering and political posturing have eroded its credibility and cemented the image of an old political party which could not move forward.

This led to PN successfully splitting the Malay votes in the general elections. Both BN and PH lost a huge chunk of Malay voting block to PN which promoted itself as “clean” politicians and its commitment to have “Islam” as the guiding principles of its administration.

The multiple factors that influenced Malay psyche towards politics also helped the creation of multiple parties that seem to cater so one or more needs specific to the community, including a party that wanted to champion the rights and welfare of army veterans (although they did not directly participate in the elections). The plurality in the political scenery and more voting options allowed the voters to choose from the previous biparty system (BN vs PH) to the multiparty system (BN vs PH vs PN).

Although the Malay voters supported PAS-PN in the GE15, that does not mean they support political Islamism.

Instead, at the time when the elections were called, there was a power vacuum in the Malay leadership – the absence of strong and competent Malay figurehead to unite the community (or Ummah) post-Mahathir and Najib era. The failure of the Malay-based parties such as Umno, PPBM, PAS and Amanah to fill the gap. In the absence of such leadership and without any Malay politicians (at that time not even Anwar Ibrahim) showing outstanding appeal or charisma, the community was attracted to the religious narratives espoused by PAS which was in the end the biggest beneficiary in the elections.

Enter the Anwar Ibrahim-era

Malaysia cannot afford to be ultra-conservative, given its multi-ethnic and cultural make up. Malay-based political parties may find it easy to appeal to the Malay mindset by playing up religious and race related topics, but as the country moves forward, the greater Malaysian population expects the government (and politicians) to focus on pressing issues such as economic growth, job creation, addressing high household debts, securing business opportunities and most importantly, put a stop to all discussion on race and religion.

Will Anwar Ibrahim be able to fulfil that aspiration and be willing to take the bull by its horns to set the tone for a modern and progressive Malaysia? Would he be able to fill that Malay leadership vacuum? How is Anwar and his unity government going to balance the push for conservative Islamic administration promoted by PAS and many Malay groups, with the need to bring Malaysia out of this inter-ethnic debate and into a progressive mindset?

But first, Anwar must ensure that the government could survive for one term or the next five years, at the very least. Second, the Prime Minister must ensure his ministers are in the same boat and the government is well-functioning. Unless the “unity government” led by Anwar performs well and turns around the country’s economic challenges (inflation, cost of living, etc.), it is hard to see if the pattern will change anytime soon.

Third, Anwar’s administration needs to take pragmatic, inclusiveness and universal policies, while maintaining the interest of the Malay majority. Each race must get a proportionate share of the economic cake based on their needs, rather than the approach “the richer get richer, the poor get poorer”.

And lastly, Anwar needs to use his political wisdom to manage Pakatan Harapan (PH) and BN supporters despite having many differences rather than similarities. The elections in six states due this year would be the litmus test for PH and BN to determine whether this marriage of convenience is workable.

PN will continue to ride the momentum of the “Green Wave” campaign in preparation for six states election. PN is more likely to retain Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah based on the GE15 results. At the same time, the party can seize several Malay majority seats in the north and south Selangor and nearly 10 DUN seats in Penang. PN is also looking to strengthen the party to be more accepted by urban/sub-urban Malay voters and non-Malay voters who are disappointed with PH and BN relations.

Therefore, the ball is in Anwar’s court. It depends on Anwar’s leadership to manage the public expectations of him and play political chess within the coalition government’s parties at the same time.

*Amirul is a Researcher at the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research, an independent think tank committed to furthering our nation building agenda through constructive views and advocacy.