In the run-up to elections in six states, Malaysia’s Prime Minister is seeking to improve his coalition’s electability among Malay voters. The crux of the issue is less about a ‘green wave’ sweeping across the country than a wider discontent over the lack of economic direction.
With only a few weeks remaining until Malaysia begins another set of elections — this time in six states — the spotlight is now on the highly contested Malay electorate. This segment of voters is of vital importance to the seven-month-old Unity Government. In the general elections, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) secured a meagre 11 per cent vote share among Malay voters. He needs to make solid gains on this count during the state polls.
The state polls are being framed as an early referendum on his premiership. But the premier is facing two perils: an almost fatal internal flaw in PH as well as a formidable external threat.
From within his Unity Government, Anwar has to carry with him the liability that is the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its unpopular leader, Zahid Hamidi. UMNO was initially seen as a complement to PH. It was seen as potentially leading the charge into Malay majority strongholds. This now looks less likely, as UMNO continues to struggle to explain to its members why it is part of a government that includes its long-time ideological bogeyman, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). UMNO’s youth leader recently conceded that the party is at the “lowest point” of its history. The party’s annual party congress demonstrated little desire to reform. It focused on justifying the party’s support for Anwar’s government and sought to rally delegates for incarcerated former prime minister Najib Razak to get “justice.”
On the external front, Anwar faces a formidable foe in the form of Perikatan Nasional (PN). The coalition comprises former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and the Islamist party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). In parliamentary debates and political rallies, PN has doubled down on rhetoric focusing on the “3Rs” of race, religion and royalty. A recent case in point is PN’s attack against Anwar’s government for dropping a legal appeal against a 2021 High Court ruling, which had allowed the word “ Allah” to be used in Christian religious publications. PN’s social media narrative is also heavily exploiting unease among Malay voters towards the DAP’s presence in government. Political parties in the Unity Government have failed to counter such narratives (which is ironically the product of years of UMNO’s own vilification of the DAP).
Without betraying his multiracial and progressive base, Anwar has tried to stem Malay discontent by addressing some of the 3R issues head-on. Anwar himself made a statement in Parliament addressing the “Allah” issue, which is traditionally the preserve of the Malay rulers. He has sought an audience with them to seek a final decree on the matter. This is a departure from his position prior to becoming Prime Minister, where he agreed that non-Muslims could use the word.
This palpable Malay anger is amplified by the perceived hypocrisy of the present administration, which talks about eradicating corruption and upholding good governance, but accommodates a tainted UMNO leadership.
Anwar’s administration will bring a bill to strengthen Malaysia’s religious Shariah courts. The law has long been championed by PAS. By passing the bill, it is clear that Anwar does not want to be outflanked by the Islamists.
Are there any indications that Anwar’s tactical moves to reclaim Malay support are working? In an April 2023 nationwide survey in peninsular Malaysia, Anwar’s approval rating across ethnic groups was 62 per cent. It was, however, telling that his approval ratings among Malay respondents fell to 54 per cent. While 62 per cent of Malaysians surveyed said their view of Anwar’s leadership had improved, less than half of Malay respondents agreed. Recent PN rallies in the PH strongholds of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan have seen unprecedented but almost exclusively Malay crowds showing up. PN has hinted that they will be fielding former UMNO bigwigs in the polls.
Referring to PAS’s party colours and indicating a possible rise of a more extremist form of political Islam, some analysts have described these developments in Malaysia as a “Green Wave”. DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang is casting the state polls as an existential choice for Malaysians. This view could backfire and drive more Malay voters to support PN.
Unlike the rise of PAS in the 1980s and 1990s, PN’s popularity today has more dimensions than merely increased religiosity among Malays. Malays in Malaysia have become more outwardly observant of their religious duties but this does not mean there is a tide of Islamic extremism sweeping through Malaysia. During the last general election, PN won seats beyond PAS’s traditional Malay heartland and extended its gains by winning in some urban centres, which have lower concentrations of Malay voters. The victorious candidates campaigned under a new PN banner and eschewed the green full moon symbol traditionally associated with PAS and political Islam.
What is happening in Malaysia today is less the rise of an extremist “Green Wave” than the expression of genuine discontent in the Malay community that goes beyond the 3R issues. Over the last seven months, there has been a clear lack of economic direction: the Malaysian ringgit continues to weaken and the cost-of-living crisis continues to erode the people’s purchasing power. This palpable Malay anger is amplified by the perceived hypocrisy of the present administration, which talks about eradicating corruption and upholding good governance but accommodates a tainted UMNO leadership. What we may see at the state polls is less a “Green Wave” than a tsunami of discontent.
Khairy Jamaluddin is an Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.. Previously, he served as Minister at Malaysia’s ministries of Youth and Sports, Science and Technology, and Health. He was also the Coordinating Minister for the Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.