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Can Malaysia’s Mahathir survive by-election humiliation?

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 22 November 2019


By-elections are the traditional arena where voters are able to show their dissatisfaction about the government without changing it. Hence, it’s not unheard of in any democracy to see large swings against government candidates in favor of independents or the opposition. On November 16, Malaysia’s voters appear to have done just that in the Johorean federal constituency of Tanjung Plai, where the government’s candidate was not just drubbed but humiliated.

The surprise win by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in last year’s general election over the Barisan Nasional (BN) was met by shock, euphoria, and hopes for a new Malaysia. Many at the time saw the event as equivalent to Merdeka, Malaysia’s Independence Day. Mahathir Mohamed, as leader of the Pakatan coalition, was regarded as a savior, driving out the tired, corrupt, Malay supremist UMNO.

Eighteen months later, PH has lost five of nine by-elections and is generally perceived to have failed to deliver its promises. It is the target of not just disappointment, but a growing anger out of a feeling on the part of the voters of having been cheated.

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The Tanjung Plai by-election became necessary after the sudden death of Bersatu MP Mohamed Farid Md Rafik in September. Farid narrowly defeated the sitting Malaysian Chinese Association MP Wee Jeck Seng, who had held the seat from 2008-18. The demographics of the constituency – 57 percent Malay, 42 percent Chinese and 1 percent Indian – broadly represent the ethnicity of the Malaysian peninsula at large, so the election was seen as a litmus test of the popularity of the Pakatan government and particularly the leadership of Mahathir, against the popularity of the recently formed alliance between the United Malays National Organization and the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. Into the Muafakat Nasional-BN.

Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia selected a local religious figure, Karmaine Sardini, as their candidate, hoping he would appeal to the Malay vote and believing Chinese voters would never vote for the Muafakat Nasional, with its racial and religious overtones. However, UMNO revigorated its connection with the Malaysian Chinese Association and brought back Wee Jeck Seng, who had been a popular grassroots MP during the decade he represented the district.

The roles of Pakatan Harapan and Muafakat Nasional-BN appeared to reverse during the campaign. Observers on the ground noticed that the Muafakat didn’t campaign on racial issues at all. In contrast, Pakatan ministers made promises to their constituents and played up racial issues. Just a few days before voting, the Perak chief minister, Ahmad Faizal Azumu, a member of Bersatu, made comments on a film clip circulating around social media that Bersatu would withdraw from Pakatan because of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP).

With Mahathir’s appearance at the controversial Malay Unity Congress early last month, the prime minister came to symbolize ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and everything wrong with the Pakatan government.

For months on end there has been disappointment after disappointment to the ubah (change) voters who supported the government in the mixed constituencies like Tanjung Plai. For Chinese voters in particular, the failure to recognize the United Examination Certificate (UEC) for vernacular schools, the inclusion of khat calligraphy – basically Arab calligraphy – in the primary school syllabus, and the funding cuts to the MCA-owned Tun Abdul Rahman University College were issues that brought out anger.

Other issues that angered the constituency included the failure to extradite the fugitive firebrand Islamist preacher Zahir Niak back to India, the renewal of the Lynas operating license for a controversial heavy metals processing plant, the return of crony capitalism, the arrogance and lavish lifestyles of ministers, the Malay-centric rhetoric, and most importantly rising living costs. This also motivated many Malay voters to come out and vote. Anger enough to motivate a sizeable 74.3 percent voting turnout.  

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In contrast former Prime Minister Najib Razak attracted large crowds at campaign meetings around Tanjung Plai. The weapon that won the last general election, the US$43.8 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal has fatigued voters. People are starting to ask if Najib has done so much wrong, why isn’t he already in prison? After the lengthy on again, off again trial, many see Najib as being selectively prosecuted.

The result on Saturday night surprised all the pundits. There was a common belief that Wee would win with a comfortable majority, but not a 15,086 vote drubbing of Sardini, who polled only 10,380 votesto Wee’s 25,466. 

Muafakat leaders were very quick to hail the result as an acceptance of the UMNO-PAS-BN electoral pact. However, as by-elections go, this was more an attempt by the voters of Tanjung Plai to express their dissatisfaction with the government. The failure of Gerakan candidate Wendy Subramanian to garner more than 1,707 votes indicates the constituency wanted to punish PH rather than think about any third force in politics this by-election. The voters wanted Wee to win to inflict maximum damage on PH.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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All articles by Murray Hunter

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