Commentary: Rise of ‘birther politics’ in Malaysia and how it might backfire

PN’s decision to not field their non-Malay stand-in party, Gerakan, or a non-Malay candidate in KKB probably already cost them critical non-Malay votes. The seat has never been won by a Malay candidate before. Now this vernacular school tactic might worsen PN’s chances.

(CNA) – What was initially a by-election serving as a proxy to test the support for the unity government and Selangor state government has evolved into a classic identity politics poll, says political analyst James Chai.

Oddly enough, a by-election contest in the usually quiet scenic town of Kuala Kubu Bharu in Selangor is getting quite a lot of attention.

The four-cornered fight between Pang Sock Tao of Pakatan Harapan (PH), Khairul Azhari Saut of Perikatan Nasional (PN), Hafizah Zainuddin of Parti Rakyat Malaysia and independent candidate Nyau Ke Xin has also given rise to “birther-esque” claims over some of the candidates’ educational background.

It started with a TikTok user questioning the credentials of PN candidate Mr Khairul. The post, which garnered more than half a million views, questioned how Mr Khairul could have obtained a master’s degree just only a year after obtaining his diploma, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

While Mr Khairul and his alma mater, Universiti Malaysia Pahang Al-Sultan Abdullah (UMPSA), came out to confirm his credentials – an executive master’s degree in business management – it opened up an opportunity to question the credentials of PN’s opponent.

Mr Fadhli Shaari, a former PN youth chief and the current information chief for Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), a PN component party, publicly challenged PH’s Mdm Pang to publicise her primary and secondary school results, specifically the location of the schools.


At first glance, this appeared like a fact-finding mission to establish the authenticity of their education credentials, as allegations of fake degrees and half-truths have persisted among Malaysian politicians.

However, observers have suggested an alternative motive, positing this as a strategic political tactic targeted specifically at the Democratic Action Party (DAP) candidate, to question her credibility and loyalty to Malaysia. If Mdm Pang went to a vernacular school, took a non-national exam (e.g. Unified Examination Certificate), and/or did not score well in the Malay language, it would imply that she is not an “ideal” candidate.

Remaining silent was not a choice for Mdm Pang, as it would be taken as she had something to hide. She publicised her results in full: Not only did she ace her Malay language subjects, she also took the national entrance exams and was a straight-A student.

After Mdm Pang shared her results, Mr Fadhli apologised for raising questions about her educational background, but added: “This has indirectly revealed that the candidate graduated from vernacular schools … I hope that this issue will continue until polling day for the by-election.”

This gives rise to the possibility that for PN, it was never about the results, nor was it a fact-finding mission to legally disqualify Mdm Pang from the polls. It creates an impression that they wanted to show that Mdm Pang was an unsuitable candidate because of her background – that she was not “one of us” – even though she was a Malaysian straight-A student who took the national exam.

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