A Nagging Question about Malaysia’s GE

There’s a question that’s been bugging me since the surprising victory of Pakatan Harapan over Barisan Nasional in Malaysia – how big a change is this?

It’s certainly monumental in that it’s the first change of government in 61 years. This means a change in policies, as well as new faces in parliament (not including the PM of course). From what I’ve seen on social media, there’s also a renewed faith in the democratic process after years of disillusionment.

But does it really signal the end of racial voting and the diminished relevance of identity politics in Malaysia? This is suggested in a commentary by Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow in the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Malaysia Programme.

The author claims that “voting has moved away from racial boundaries”, and that “daily difficulties may have pushed voters to override concerns over Malay rights”. The article also implies that rural Malay voters were not swayed this time by BN’s assertions that “a vote for Pakatan would mean the loss of Malay rights and Islam as the primary religion of the federation.”

But in this election, the opposition coalition included PPBM – a party with the word “Indigenous” in its name, regarded as a splinter group from UMNO, led by the longest-serving UMNO leader. According to its party constitution, only Bumiputeras are allowed to be full members with full voting rights. Its aims include maintaining the special position of Malays and upholding Islam as the religion of the Federation, and its manifesto reiterates its pledge to champion the special position of Malays and the Bumiputera in line with the controversial Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

Could it be that PPBM has become a substitute for UMNO in the minds of many Malay voters? Perhaps it’s not the case that the nation’s economic problems pushed these voters to “override concerns over Malay rights”, but instead, these concerns were negligible since both coalitions had parties championing Malay rights.

Of course, it’s not logical to expect decades of race-based politics to be reversed in one election. But significant progress has been made towards the ideal of a colour-blind democracy. After all, the inclusive DAP and PKR parties are part of the ruling coalition, while the clearly segmented UMNO-MCA-MIC coalition is now out of power.

Time will tell how much of a sea change this election has been for Malaysia.

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