Pakatan Harapan has its work cut out for it in seeking to defend or even take new seats in Malay-majority constituencies. In such seats, the coalition needs to work close to the ground and address quotidian issues, rather than stressing national-level matters.
In a survey of political attitudes among adult Malays conducted from August to September 2022, the Ilham Centre found that Malays living in the heartland were relatively unperturbed by national issues such as mismanagement, poor governance, and corruption. Respondents regarded these problems as much less important than “rice-bowl” issues such as the cost of living and economic opportunities. With the 15th General Election (GE) in sight, it is safe to assume this attitude remains.
The heartlands refer to rural seats. Only 30 per cent of the population is classified as rural, but such seats are over-represented in Parliament. Of the 222 Dewan Rakyat seats, 125 are considered rural, and 78 of these are Malay-majority and are monopolised by Barisan Nasional (BN) or the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), to be more specific.
The leader of Pakatan Harapan (PH), Anwar Ibrahim, recently announced that he would be running in Tambun, Perak, a semi-urban constituency with more than 65 per cent Malays. However, this may be an uphill battle, as evident from the fact that PH component parties are struggling to gain traction in the Malay heartlands. Should PH wish to reclaim Perak and win in other Malay-majority seats, they must have a rooted approach to win the hearts of the Malays.
Keeping in mind the risks of contesting in multi-ethnic constituencies, the data shows that PH will face a mountain of challenges to defend many of their seats or to capture new seats with more than 70 per cent Malay voters. PH’s victory in GE14 was shared among its component party members: Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, 48 seats), Democratic Action Party (DAP, 42 seats), Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu, 13 seats), Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah, 11 seats) and Parti Warisan (eight seats).
A reprise of 2018 might not happen. In fact, a PH loss in GE15 might lead to its downfall. This could partially be attributed to Bersatu’s departure from PH, as Bersatu was the coalition’s “face of the Malays”. Since its departure, Bersatu joined Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to form the conservative Perikatan Nasional (PN), which now has to face BN.
PH, PN and UMNO are all in fierce competition for 27 critical Malay-majority parliamentary seats. Going by the results of the recent state elections in Melaka and Johor in 2021 and early 2022, PH may continue to suffer in Malay-majority seats. They are aware that they are the third choice for Malays after BN and PN, and that they may not see a good outcome unless they change tactics.
Politics in the Malay heartlands tend to be about whether the leaders are competent at providing for the people. Among other things, people expect good infrastructure, education, healthcare, and efficient administration of matters concerning Islam, such as the haj, marriage, funerals and mosque affairs. National issues such as corruption, inflation and good governance are not as important. MPs are also expected to see their leaders frequently.
This is something UMNO is known for. For example, members of UMNO’s women’s wing are traditionally assigned to visiting and keeping connected with up to 10 households. Long-serving UMNO leaders such as Shahidan Kassim from Perlis are known for accepting personal invitations to interact with constituents.
In this context, PH can adopt three short-term strategies to attract more votes. Firstly, they have to set up candidates who work closely to the ground consistently. Malay heartlanders are hardcore voters who rarely switch sides. Their attitudes towards voting and the role of Members of Parliament (MP) may only change after several generations. In fact, it is not uncommon for voters to have familial ties or long friendships with the candidates in their constituencies. Thus, any effort to question the abilities of incumbent MPs will be futile: their constituents already know such frailties and nevertheless continue to vote for them.
If PH wishes to bank on their parachuted candidates who are sent on special “missions” to capture Malay heartlanders’ votes, the approach is simple: introduce themselves and craft a convincing narrative about how they are rooted in the area, without criticising the other side. They can also emphasise their strengths, such as being more educated, younger, or more knowledgeable in religious matters.
In a nutshell, the only way voters in the Malay heartlands may consider voting for PH is if their candidates are down-to-earth and engage in two-way communication with constituents.
Secondly, as Malay heartland voters are less attracted to national issues, PH candidates in those constituencies should look into local issues such as the high prices of insecticide, the low selling price of crops, or even seemingly small matters such as the upgrading of cemeteries. In other words, if PH wishes to attract enough Malay votes, they must demonstrate that their candidates can come up with the goods and provide voters with essential services.
Finally, PH should avoid giving grand political speeches (ceramah) as Malay heartlanders have made it clear that they are uninterested in such speeches. These ceramahs are often regarded as one-way and tend to be laden either with a discussion of national issues, or personal attacks on other politicians. PH is aware of this. During a PH convention in Ipoh, Perak, on 20 October 2022, PH youth chief Dr Kelvin Yii urged campaigners to “adopt two-way forums engaging the voters, especially the young ones, instead of ceramahs.”
In a nutshell, the only way voters in the Malay heartlands may consider voting for PH is if their candidates are down-to-earth and engage in two-way communication with constituents. Malay heartlanders do not need overly charismatic trailblazers who pontificate to them about national issues from on high. They need leaders who work close to and with people on the ground, and are willing to listen to their grievances on a daily basis.
Mohd Faizal Musa was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and is an Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.