Malaysia by-election threatens to be racially polarised, could hurt government’s moral, political legitimacy: Analysts

Voters in Selangor’s Kuala Kubu Bharu could abstain or vote for the opposition to show dissatisfaction with how the unity government has handled issues of race and livelihood, analysts say.

Channel News Asia

A state by-election in the semi-urban town of Kuala Kubu Bharu in Selangor set for May 11 is shaping up to be a test of the dynamics between different factions in the unity government, analysts said.

Recent events – such as the controversial KK Super Mart socks saga as well as the latest twist in former premier Najib Razak’s bid to get out of jail – could exacerbate the existing animosity between Barisan Nasional (BN) and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, analysts said, making it more difficult for BN supporters to vote for the government’s candidate.

This will be the seventh by-election to be held in Malaysia after the 15th general election in November 2022.

Following Nomination Day on Saturday (Apr 27), it will be a four-cornered fight, with PH represented by Democratic Action Party (DAP) candidate Pang Sock Tao and the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) fielding Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) Hulu Selangor division chief Khairul Azhari Saut.

Parti Rakyat Malaysia nominated Ms Hafizah Zainuddin, and Ms Nyau Ke Xin is running as an independent. Another independent candidate Chng Boon Lai had earlier filed for nomination but was disqualified for having incomplete documents, the Star reported.

The seat had been held by DAP assemblyman Lee Kee Hiong since 2013 before her death on Mar 21 after a battle with cancer.

While observers said a unity government loss in this by-election will not impact its stability in governing both Selangor and the nation, it is a wider signal that Malaysians are unhappy with how bread-and-butter issues like rising cost of living are being handled.

The observers added that a poor result for the unity government would also mean PH and BN might be forced to abandon any thoughts of forming a “super-coalition” at the next general election, due to be held by February 2027.

In recent weeks, events involving members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the once-dominant Malay-based party leading BN – have threatened to sow further discord in its already tenuous relationship with PH.

UMNO youth chief Akmal Saleh has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the KK Super Mart socks saga, despite the government’s insistence that the incident not be politicised.

The incident – where socks bearing the word “Allah” were purportedly sold at several outlets of the homegrown convenience store chain – also drew a sharp rebuke from Malaysian king Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar.

More recently, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – who is also Deputy Prime Minister – filed an affidavit on Apr 17 to support Najib’s bid to compel the government to produce a supposed royal order that allows him to serve the remainder of his sentence at home.

Already, BN component parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) previously said they will not campaign in the by-election if the government’s candidate is not from BN.

Both Mr Anwar and Mr Ahmad Zahid have come out to dismiss these suggestions.

While MIC seems to have softened its no-campaign stance, MCA has held firm, citing what it perceives as insults from members of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – a component party of PH.

For instance, MCA has hit out at claims by DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke – who is also the Transport Minister – that the Chinese-based party MCA had the image of not prioritising the needs of the people, especially the Chinese community.

Political analyst Sivamurugan Pandian at Universiti Sains Malaysia said the by-election will test DAP’s relationship with UMNO, in terms of how far the latter can convince its supporters to vote for the government’s candidate.

“I think this election will also be a litmus test for the unity government to show that the collaboration does not exist only at the top level, but also at the grassroots level,” he told CNA.

Professor James Chin from the University of Tasmania said it will be difficult for UMNO to ask Malays – who now form the majority of Kuala Kubu Bharu’s voters – to support the government’s candidate.

Fifty per cent of voters in the constituency now are Malay, 30 per cent are Chinese, and 18 per cent are Indian.

“If the candidate is from DAP, UMNO will have some problems, especially after Akmal’s quarrels with Nga Kor Ming,” Prof Chin said, referring to how the DAP vice-chairman – who is also the Housing and Local Government Minister – had traded barbs with Dr Akmal over the socks issue.

“A lot of (whether Malay voters will support the government candidate) will depend on how aggressively UMNO will be campaigning among the Malay community.”

Ms Pang is also the current press secretary of Mr Nga, who stirred controversy by suggesting in February that Selangor’s Chinese new villages be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

UMNO’s Malay nationalists slammed the idea, which was also criticised by some quarters for evoking painful memories of exploitation during the country’s colonial era.

In a commentary published by Free Malaysia Today, Kua Kia Soong, an academic and former MP, wrote that the nomination was an “insult” to those who fought colonial power.

Between 1948 to 1960, the British colonial administration – purportedly fighting the anti-colonial movement – forcibly relocated Chinese Malaysians into tightly monitored settlements with inhumane living conditions. These settlements include the Chinese new villages.

Plans for the UNESCO nomination were subsequently abandoned.


The government’s problems could be further compounded by decreasing support from the non-Malay community, which forms half of voters in Kuala Kubu Bharu.

Already, certain quarters had called for Indian voters in the constituency to not support the PH candidate, citing dissatisfaction with the unity government’s treatment of the Indian community. Mr Anwar has defended his treatment of Malaysian Indians.

Beyond that, political scientist Wong Chin Huat from Sunway University believes the socks issue has soured DAP and UMNO’s relationship to the point that UMNO will not campaign for DAP.

“Or if UMNO does, the campaign would be ineffective (to rally support from) Malay voters and off-putting for the non-Malays,” he told CNA.

“Those (UMNO members) who do (campaign) would be seen as soft towards DAP. At the same time, DAP’s self-restraint on the KK Super Mart issue and (on the) Najib (issue) has made its base feeling lost, and questioning if their once vocal party has morphed into the new MCA.”

Dr Ong Kian Ming, director of the philosophy, politics and economic programme at Taylor’s University, said in a statement that it would “not be inaccurate” to say DAP and PH supporters have been disappointed by the unity government’s performance.

This includes areas like the slow pace of delivering institutional reform, the weak economic narrative involving rising cost of living, and the public spats between some PH and BN leaders, especially in the recent weeks over the KK Super Mart issue.

“These factors mean that the turnout among non-Malay voters is likely to reduce noticeably in this by-election especially since the results won’t affect the stability of the Selangor state government,” he said.