Non-Malay? Win the Hearts of Malay Voters First

To become a Prime Minister, it is pertinent to win the hearts of Malay voters. This could not be achieved if politicians keep conducting themselves in a manner that pushes Malay voters away.

Dr. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

Since its independence in 1957, the Federation of Malaya has been administered by democratically elected governments. This  continued when Sabah and Sarawak were federated with Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963.

Malaysia evolved from an agricultural nation into a newly-industrialised nation and is now on its path to becoming a high-income nation by the year 2028.

For decades, Malaysia has been administered by Malaysians with Members of Parliaments of various ethnicities appointed as ministers. Although there are weaknesses and allegations of corruption against the administrating government, Malaysia flourished with a growing economy, enjoying relative peace and its people having access to affordable education and medical services.

This is achieved through mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. Since 1969, there have never been large-scale racial riots taking place in Malaysia.

This means administration under the Malay premiership works for Malaysia.

Recently, there have been irresponsible politicians questioning Malay premiership in Malaysia. Malaysia is a democratic nation. It was democracy that toppled down Barisan Nasional (BN) government in 2018. In 2023, Malaysians again voted for Pakatan Harapan (PH) to be in power (with the help of BN of course).

All Malaysians regardless of race could be Prime Minister. Nevertheless, one must remember that Malaysia is a democracy. One can only become a Prime Minister if he is democratically elected and gain the support of the Dewan Rakyat.

It is not unconstitutional for a Non-Malay/Bumiputra to become a Prime Minister. Nevertheless, as of July 2023, 70% of Malaysian population consists of those who identify themselves as Malay/Bumiputra.

Therefore, to become a Prime Minister, it is pertinent to win the hearts of Malay voters. This could not be achieved if politicians keep conducting themselves in a manner that pushes Malay voters away.

For instance, when khat was introduced as part of the Malay language syllabus in 2019, there was a politician who remarked that learning khat is likened to ‘rubbing cow dung on our faces’.

In 2015, a Sarawak Member of Parliament refused to speak Malay in Dewan Rakyat, and decided to speak English instead, an act that annoyed the entire country particularly among the Malays. In addition, some Malaysian politicians have laughable command of the Malay language. Learning Malay is part of being a Malaysian as it is the sole national language of Malaysia under the Constitution.

If these politicians keep behaving in a way that annoys Malay/Bumiputra voters, how can the vision of having a non-Malay Prime Minister could even realise? It is not realistic at all.

Just imagine – Malaysian Prime Minister not fluent in Malay, the national language. This is beyond pathetic. Even the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong is fluent in Malay, respecting the fact that it is the sole national language of Singapore.

It is a norm that the elected Prime Minister of a nation is chosen among the ethnic majority. For instance, the Prime Minister of Singapore has always been of Chinese ancestry as 75% of the population is Chinese. There has never been a Singaporean Prime Minister of Malay or Indian ancestry. The President of Indonesia has always been of Javanese descent (except for BJ Habibie) as ethnic Javanese consists 40% of the entire population of Indonesia.

If one looks at themselves as Malaysians, it matters not who the Prime Minister is, regardless of race and ancestry. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Kamala Harris is white. Nevertheless, they speak very fluent English, respect the culture of the ethnic majority in the nations they are residing in and do not link themselves too heavily with the culture of the country of their ancestors. This
is probably why these politicians receive support from the majority white populace.

Malaysian politicians have not entirely reached such a level just yet, particularly mastery of the Malay language.

A non-Malay/Bumiputra can become Prime Minister – but could he or she win the hearts of Malay voters?

Dr. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is associate professor at the Faculty of Syariah and law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a research associate at the Asian Institute of International Affairs and Diplomacy (AIIAD), Universiti Utara Malaysia.