Malays will play kingmaker

The Malay ground will be the next big battleground and the fight will be between traditional arch rivals Umno and PAS.

POLITICIANS everywhere have been talking about an early general election although there has not been the faintest hint from the man who will decide when it will be.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has been typically tight-lipped. But no one doubts the seriousness with which he is approaching the big event because it will be pivotal to his political career and the future of his party and coalition.

With a large segment of the Chinese said to have made up their minds about voting for change, the battle ahead is likely to be for the Malay vote.

The Malays are a big group (about 60% of the voting population) and they form the majority in 62% of the 222 parliamentary seats.

Moreover, they are no longer confined to the kampung and the outskirts. Up to 70% of Malays are urban-based and are now an urban force to be reckoned with.

At the same time, there are some four million people who are eligible but have not registered to vote: 80% of them are Malays, four-fifths of whom live in towns and cities. There are now attempts to get these people to sign up in time for the next elections.

“The battleground in the general election will not only be a contest for the Malay vote, but it will also be about convincing young, urban Malays,” said DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong.

Given that, the urban battle will be between the two chief Malay-based parties, Umno and PAS, with the multi-racial PKR playing back-up to PAS.

Urban Malay voters are going to be harder to read and predict than their kampung cousins.

Patronage politics does not have the same effect in urban areas as in rural areas where the penghulu knows everyone and where, as some joke, the penghulu’s wife knows all the women in the kampung and even the names of their cats.

“It’s a whole different ball game in the city. Urban complexities make the kind of social control that Barisan is familiar with in rural areas quite impossible to replicate. Neighbours don’t even know each other’s names let alone each others’ politics in the city,” said Liew.

Basically, the Malay battleground is divided into three entities – urban/semi-urban, rural and Felda schemes.

Urban politics takes place on a more level playing field where the information flow is more diverse and people are more independent and aware of their rights.

The influences on the urban Malay electorate will be more complex unlike in rural areas where life revolves largely around the home and the surau.

Urban politics, said Liew, is about issues and political figures who can command support but he reckoned that both Pakatan and Barisan have a 50:50 chance with this group.

A Merdeka Center survey in Selangor some time ago showed that more than 60% of those between 30 and 50 years of age favoured Pakatan whereas those below 30 years were split down the middle between Barisan and Pakatan.

The younger set has no attachment to Umno nor are they particularly attracted to Pakatan. In other words, the younger Malay voters are open to persuasion.

But it is still uphill for Pakatan, and even PAS, on rural Malay ground.

As MCA’s sole assemblyman in Terengganu Toh Chin Yaw pointed out, the Umno political and social machinery in rural areas is unrivalled and the party takes good care of its traditional bedrock.

“Umno is very much the Malay guardian in the kampung,” said Toh.

The third Malay entity, the Felda schemes are Umno’s bastion. Malays make up 98% of the Felda population and their loyalty to the government is still staunch.

But the third generation of Felda settlers is beginning to show hints of independence as evident from some of the vote flow in the Hulu Selangor by-election.

Urban Malay concerns are not very different from that of urban Chinese – jobs and economy, crime and security, transportation and cost of living. Perhaps an additional Malay concern would be Malay issues like Malay rights, religion and morality.

For instance, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s controversial commentary on his Facebook, “To be or not to be a racist”, drew more than 1,400 comments while more than 2,000 people liked it.

“It’s unfortunate that Ibrahim Ali has become the thought leader in Malay rights issues but to say that younger Malays or the Tweeting generation have abandoned the Malay thing, that I cannot agree,” said an Umno Youth official.

New challenges

The Malay Agenda is still important, said Temerloh MP Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, but it is more complex now because not all Malays buy into it.

“It has to be addressed in a more relevant and contemporary way, not that shrill, from the gut style of the years when the NEP was born. Society has changed, the kampung has become a town and the town a city. That is the challenge for Umno,” said Saifuddin who is also Deputy Higher Education Minister.

But, said a Malay lawyer and Umno member from Kuala Lumpur: “Issues like the economy and quality of life are important but Malay rights and racial issues do not really sell among the Malay middle class. Actually, the thing that bugs us most is corruption. People want clean leaders.”

According to Datuk Wan Albakri Mohamed, a company chairman in Kuala Terengganu, corruption is as big a concern among Malay voters as it is among the Chinese electorate.

The only difference is that the Malays express it a little differently. They talk about the excessive lifestyle of some politicians, their luxurious homes and expensive cars and the way they spend money to win a party post. They look at the way the wives of these politicians dress and even the habits of their children.

All these add up to a giant question mark about how these politicians, some of whom do not even have real jobs, are able to afford such a lifestyle.

This becomes critical in states like Kelantan and Terengganu where PAS politicians live quite simple, even austere, lives.

Albakri is an Umno man but he is also part of the new Malay middle class, a growing segment of Malay society who think, are well informed and look at things rationally rather than go off-tangent on conspiracy theories and rumours.

“Umno has an image problem even among the Malays. There is the perception that many Umno politicians go into politics for themselves and that helping the race is second to their own interests.

“It’s Umno’s biggest setback. Even Malay concerns over the New Economic Model and all that debate over Perkasa and Malay rights will take a back seat if Umno can show it is an upright party,” said Albakri.

Actually, every political party today, whether in Pakatan or Barisan, knows how ordinary citizens feel about it.

For instance, said Rita Sim, co-founder of the Centre for Strategic Engagement (Cense), one of the top three reasons for why Selangor fell to Pakatan in 2008 was the Zakaria Deros issue or, rather, his illegally constructed mansion which was seen as a blatant abuse of power.

It was an issue that cut across race and class lines.

“Racial politics is still a reality but generally people want good governance and responsible leaders,” said Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad.

Of late, Liew has been airing his “10% theory”, that a 10% vote swing could either cripple Pakatan or topple Barisan.

It is based on the fact that both coalitions have about the same number of parliamentary seats that were won with a majority of less than 10% – 56 in Barisan and 54 in Pakatan. These seats would be most vulnerable to contentious issues and mood swings.

Given that the Chinese votes had swung as much as they did in 2008, the 10% swing will have to come mainly from the Malays.

The only trouble with the theory is that vote swings tend to go one way one election and another way the next:

> 1995 – 11.8% swing to Barisan following Dr Mahathir’s liberalisation policies

> 1999 – 8.7% swing to opposition because of the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim

> 2004 – 7.4% swing to Barisan because of incoming Prime Minister

> 2008 – 10.7% swing to Pakatan because of political tsunami

Given the precedents, it would require something pretty phenomenal for Pakatan to secure another 10% swing to its favour even if that swing is needed only in some 50 or so parliamentary seats.

Will the Malays deliver the 10% that Pakatan is looking for?

And given that this is a Malay tussle, it may be PAS which will emerge with the most seats, thus begging the question whether it will be Datuk Seri Hadi Awang rather than Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim who will be Prime Minister.

But the thing is that popular votes have never swung 10% or so in one direction for two elections in a row, so it looks like Najib is most likely to hold on to Putrajaya.

“If Najib can impress upon the people that he is serious about fighting corruption, the support will come back,” said Albakri.

The Star

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