Perikatan Nasional chairman Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a press conference at Concorde Hotel in Shah Alam, Aug 13, 2023 (Screengrab: The Star / Facebook)

Malaysia’s State Elections: When “Referendum” Takes Precedence over Reformasi


It may well be true that not much has changed after the six state elections in Malaysia last week. But much of the political ground – specifically among Malay voters – has shifted towards the opposition.

Most media commentaries about Malaysia’s state elections underscore the “status quo” nature of the results. To a certain extent, this is true. The Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition­ — which mirrors the current Unity Government at the federal level — won and held on to their bastions in Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. The opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) won and retained their strongholds in Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu.  

That said, the “status quo” narrative does not reflect the true state of play in terms of how the political ground has shifted under the feet of PH-BN.  Considering the Malay-first rhetoric during the campaign, and the new alignments in the six states, it appears that PN’s narrative about a “referendum” on the PH-BN government has gained some traction. This may well reconfigure political coalitions going in the next general election.  

As soon as the results were announced, both coalitions sought to put down their imprimatur on the outcome. The PH-BN post-election media conference was more muted than the PN’s. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim urged leaders to accept the results, called for unity, and assured Malaysians that his government would remain until the end of the term in 2027. His speech touched more on the federal government’s status and less on that of the state governments. It was not a firebrand speech, unlike the ones Anwar delivered throughout the campaign. His remarks were not accompanied by energetic applause either.

By contrast, PN chairman Muhyiddin Yassin’s comments sounded like a victory speech. His ten minute speech was interrupted by loud applause and chants of “referendum”. To set the context, PN cleverly equated this election to a referendum on the unity government, which is only eight months old. The 15th general elections of November 2022 had witnessed a hung parliament that led to a government between strange bedfellows PH and BN, long-time opponents, and working coalitions in Sarawak and Sabah. Perfunctorily, PN drummed the term “referendum” into the minds of its supporters as opposed to PH’s popular reformasi (reform) slogan. In truth, however, PN’s tactic was a veiled reference to a Malay referendum to bring down Anwar’s Unity Government. In the eyes of PN’s rank and file, the PH-BN coalition has marginalised Malay interests by collaborating with secularists and the anti-Malay Democratic Action Party (DAP), a party in PH and arch nemesis to PN (and previously, BN).  

PN further entrenched the image that it has replaced the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) as the Malays’ spokesperson. Avoiding the “3-3” or “status quo” description of the election results, PN supporters prefer to compare the total number of seats it won vis-a-vis PH and BN and the inroads it made in the Malay majority seats. This is in line with its Malay referendum narrative. PN’s performance was far superior: of the 245 seats on offer in the six states, PN won 146 against PH’s 80 and BN’s 19. PN remains ahead even with PH and BN combined. And to add insult to injury,  PN did way better than BN, which only won 19 out of the 108 seats it contested. In this election, only UMNO contested on behalf of BN; its Chinese and Indian partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress respectively, sat it out.  

Solid victories in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah have strengthened PN’s Malay referendum narrative. The signs of PN’s progress were already seen in GE15 when PN swept all Kelantan and Terengganu parliament seats, and won 14 out of 15 seats in Kedah. Traditionally, the contest in these Malay-dominant states was between UMNO and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), and the former could still win some seats, or form the government in Terengganu and Kedah. In this series of state elections, PH lost all 32 seats it contested in Terengganu, won only two of 45 seats in Kelantan, and three out of 36 in Kedah. UMNO’s big guns were defeated in the process. The Malay unity message PN played during the campaign brought together former rivals and Malay-Muslim nationalist leaders Mahathir Mohamad, Hadi Awang, and Muhyiddin Yassin. This consolidated PN’s hold in the Malay belt.

Perfunctorily, PN drummed the term “referendum” into the minds of its supporters as opposed to PH’s popular reformasi (reform) slogan. In truth, however PN’s tactic was a veiled reference to a Malay referendum to bring down Anwar’s Unity Government.

The Malay referendum narrative also gained traction in PH-BN’s strongholds in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Penang. PN increased its seats in Selangor from five to 22, and the increase came from Malay-majority constituencies. It also denied PH-BN the two-thirds majority in the state. PN also made significant inroads in Penang, a PH (DAP) stronghold, by securing 11 seats. This is quite a coup, considering that PAS (now in PN) only managed to secure one seat in 2018. BN could only win two seats in Penang. Rubbing salt into Anwar’s wounds, Muhyiddin stressed that PN won all three seats in the Permatang Pauh parliament constituency, traditionally the prime minister’s and his family’s seat until the last general election.  

PN’s gains were not enough to affect the federal government. If PN had won the polls in Selangor or Negeri Sembilan, its referendum messaging would have been even stronger, and had gone as far to complicate further collaboration between PH and BN.  

Still, PN will continue to use the Malay referendum narrative to take potshots at the unity government. Muhyiddin has blatantly called for Anwar to step down as prime minister. The electoral outcome could persuade UMNO’s rank and file to call for its president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also Anwar’s deputy prime minister, to step down. A key ally of Anwar Ibrahim, Zahid’s ouster could trigger UMNO’s departure from the government (prior to its unlikely partnership with PH, the party had previously said no to collaborating with Anwar and the DAP). PH may feel that since UMNO could not win the Malay ground, it may have to do it themselves. This could alienate hardcore multi-racialists in DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (another PH party) who are against playing the racial card.  

In the end, it might well be “status quo” as PH-BN has described it. But going by the state election results, it would be an uphill task for PH-BN (and UMNO) to reclaim the Malay referendum narrative that PN has set.  


Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.