As race and religion loom large, bruising contests seen shaping up in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan

“If we look at all the elections in Malaysia, racial and religious sentiments can override everything else while all the other issues such as cost of living, will always be there.”

(MMO) – Political parties are set to again descend into racial and religious issues for six impending state elections, according to analysts who also saw the national unity government being vulnerable as a result in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.

While Malaysians were still coming to grips with inflation and the economy still on the mend from the pandemic, the analysts said race and religion would remain the platform of choice for politicians due to their effectiveness when seeking to influence voters.

Professor of Asian Studies from University of Tasmania, James Chin, said polls in Malaysia have been driven by racial and religious sentiments since the 1960s, especially in Peninsular Malaysia, and will not change even with the county in uncharted political waters now.

“If we look at all the elections in Malaysia, racial and religious sentiments can override everything else while all the other issues such as cost of living, will always be there,” he said.

Senior Fellow of Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun said this was also being magnified by the current wave of Islamic revivalism globally, which meant religious concerns was at the forefront of Malay voters.

However, Chin explained that communal politics was not a phenomenon unique to the Malay community, as voters of other races were just as susceptible to being influenced by racial and religious sentiments.

Among others, he said Pakatan Harapan’s loss of the Permatang Pauh seat in Penang to PAS during the 15th general election has spooked Chinese voters uncomfortable with the Islamist party.

“Even if the ethnic Chinese voters are unhappy with DAP, they are afraid of PAS and Perikatan Nasional (PN) even more,” Chin said.

While communal politics has been a significant factor from before GE15, its relevance became impossible to ignore earlier this month when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s government confirmed withdrawing the appeal of a court ruling over the use of “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, in Christian publications

The appeal had been filed in 2021 when Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the chairman of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, was the prime minister.

With PN achieving unexpected success during GE15 on a wave of support for religious conservatism, the analysts said the “Allah” issue could play a significant role in in influencing the Malay and Muslim voters.

“While Anwar’s decision to restrict the non-Muslim use of Allah to East Malaysia seem reasonable to most, it may not play well at the grassroots level,” Chin said, the PM’s pledge to amend the laws on the use of the word “Allah” with restrictions for non-Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak.

The state elections for Kedah, Penang, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negri Sembilan and Selangor — expected to be held concurrently in July or August — must be held as the six opted not to dissolve their state assemblies during GE15 last year.

After PN’s virtual sweep of federal seats in Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu, the coalition is expected to dominate the three states while threatening to make headway in Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor now under PH administration.

While the analysts saw Penang as safe, they said PH and its partners in the national unity government could not take Selangor and Negeri Sembilan for granted, despite controlling a supermajority in the first and all the seats in the second.

“The (land) reclamation and water issues in Penang may irk some PH supporters, but likely enough of them would still turn out to ensure a PH-BN win,” Oh said.

Universiti Malaya sociopolitical analyst Assoc Prof Awang Azman Awang Pawi said the “Allah” issue would likely to feature prominently in PN’s campaign for an unlikely victory in Negeri Sembilan, but predicted that the coalition would not be able to expand past Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu.

In Selangor, Oh said PH could be at risk if its supporters do not turn up for the election due to complacency, or by pushing a reform agenda that might upset conservative voters and cause them to swing towards PN.

Negeri Sembilan Umno liaison chief Datuk Seri Jalaluddin Alias previously dismissed PN’s chances in the state, but Oh said PAS has made enough inroads into rural areas there to give it a chance of pulling off upsets.

After racial and religious issues, the analysts said the national unity government would also need to fend off attacks over its handling of the economy and the persistent inflation.

“The Opposition will continue to play up the rising costs of living to spur the anger of voters in the state elections,” Awang Azman said.

Despite the prediction of racial and religious issues dominating the state elections, however, Azman Awang said he believed voters — especially in more urban states — were better equipped now to resist demagoguery.

Awang Azman said voters in Selangor would be more concerned about issues such as good governance, livelihood and integrity, although those in more rural parts of the state could still be susceptible to communal politics.

He added that the issue of Employees Provident Fund (EPF) withdrawals would also be among the issues to influence Malay voters in the northern and East Coast states.

“The anti-Islam narrative against DAP will only be effective in conservative Malay areas such as Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu but it will no longer play a role in influencing voters in the other three states,” he said.

As for the young voters introduced when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, Oh said the group that backed PN strongly in GE15 were expected to keep doing so.

Chin said this would make social media a major component of the eventual state election campaigns.

“A lot of political platforms have moved to Signal and Telegram, I can see these two platforms have taken off and will play a role in influencing the young voters,” Chin said.