How Malays voted

Speaking at a news conference a day after the release of the results of the recent Malaysian general elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak stressed that:

“On the whole, the people’s decision this time shows a trend of voting polarisation…This worries the government, because if it’s not handled well, it could spark tension.”

These comments were made in light of the premier’s knee-jerk observation that the increasingly politicised Chinese community have now swung towards the opposition unlike Malays who are firmly in support of the Barisan Nasional (BN).

Compelling as such reasoning can be, Najib Razak’s reflex reaction towards BN’s worst defeat since 1969 masks the deeper nuances of voting patterns and trends in Malaysia. While the results of the 13th general elections (GE13) provides evidence that the Chinese-Malay divide in Malaysian politics have indeed manifest itself at the ballot box, there are other developments within the Malay populace in the country that have become more apparent and may follow a more protracted course in the coming years.

The rural-urban divide is the most obvious phenomenon that has emerged among the Malay electorate. Cash, food and other gifts dished out by the BN to the rural Malays, coupled by the promise of more development projects have yielded expected outcomes in terms of the strong support shown by the rural Malays for the party. While such carrot and stick tactics worked well with the rural folk – at least for this year’s elections – and have found expression in terms of BN’s victory in rural parts of Malaysia, Malays in urban areas showed opposing reactions. Good governance, fair and clean elections and putting an end to corruption are issues that the establishment have found difficult to address to meet up with rising expectations of the urban Malays. The upshot of this is declining Malay support in urban towns such as Kota Laksamana (Malacca), Kota Alam Shah (Selangor) and Pasir Bedamar (Perak).

The elections also signalled the looming decline of the old-generation communal-based religious elites in place of young, pluralistic and dynamic preachers and activists in politics. The defeats suffered by the once-famed Mohamad Sabu, Haron Din dan Husam Musa of the Islamic party, PAS, are clear indications of this. Even though the rising BN ulama, Ustaz Fathul Bari, had lost his bid to win over Sanglang, the thin margin of 121 votes clearly showed that the Malays are open to accepting a new crop of urbanite members from the laity into the parliament. Nik Abduh Nik Aziz’s easy win over Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali drives this point home and much more.

The complete wipe-out of Perkasa in the elections by two PAS candidates bears testimony that Malays in Malaysia are generally not keen on extreme racialised politics, particularly the kind promoted by the BN old-guards. Indeed, given a choice between Islamised politics with an eye towards building a multicultural Malaysia to one that advocates Malay dominance at the expense of other races in the country, Malays are keen to see the former in place.

Celebrating multiculturalism does not however entail an easy acceptance of celebrities in politics. The losses suffered by two all-time favourites in the Malaysian entertainment industry, Wan Aishah of PAS and Dayangku Intan of PKR, sends a strong message to Pakatan Rakyat that Malay politics have matured beyond the lure of superstars. What Malays want which have somewhat fell on deaf ears are people who can deliver beyond sound and fury. For most Malays, it is the candidates’ ability to manage their respective constituencies rather than their vocal cords that colour their voting behavior.

Above all, Malay voting patterns in GE13 exhibited a strong predisposition towards political families. Sons, daughters and those who share familial ties with known politicians on either side of the political spectrum gained much headway in their respective constituencies with Mukhriz Mahathir clinching the Ayer Hitam seat for the BN and sworn in as the Menteri Besar of Kedah. Nurul Izzah Anwar Ibrahim, in turn, slayed a BN giant for the second time at Lembah Pantai, enhancing her image as the “Princess of Reform” and soon-to-be Leader of the PKR. These two significant examples, along with Nik Abduh Nik Aziz and, to a lesser extent, Khairy Jamaludin, make obvious the fact that emotional bonds between Malay leaders in Malaysia could easily be passed on from one generation to another, influencing Malay voting patterns during the elections.

Najib Razak openly mentioned that his new government “will undertake a process of national reconciliation so we can set aside any extremism and communalism with policies based on moderation.” The recent election has shown to us that the point made by the Prime Minister is rather belated. Malays in Malaysia have and will continually move along the path of moderation, shunning the extremist and communalist tendencies that are bound to emerge along the way. GE13 has laid bare the end of money politics and made it plainly obvious that the days of old school racial politics are numbered. The new breed of Malays have their eyes now set on cosmopolitan leaders, regardless of which party they are from, leaders whose forebears have had Malay interests in mind and, above and beyond that, the interests of all Malaysians at heart.

Dr. Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied is an assistant professor at the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.