Steering towards national cohesion—The coalition’s challenge in regaining Malay votes in Malaysia

By: Dr Ahmad Zaharuddin Sani Ahmad Sabri

In the complex and ever-evolving landscape of Malaysian politics, the coalition government, comprising primarily the Pakatan Harapan (PH) components such as PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), AMANAH, and the traditional Malay party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), faces a daunting challenge – regaining the confidence and votes of the Malay majority. Despite concerted efforts by these political entities, their strategies have thus far faltered in convincing a significant portion of the Malay electorate. Understanding this predicament requires an analysis that intertwines the historical political context, the unique socio-political fabric of Malaysia, and a forward-looking approach that integrates political theory with evidence-based strategies.

To explore the political and socio-cultural landscape of Malaysia, especially in the wake of the critical Kuala Kubu Bharu by-election, is to delve into the heart of a nation grappling with its identity, governance, and the aspirations of its predominant Malay populace. This by-election, far from being a mere political contest, has emerged as a referendum on the trust and expectations of the Malay community towards the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, and significantly, the role of UMNO within this alliance.

The shift of Malay votes towards Perikatan Nasional (PN), specifically Bersatu and PAS, can be analyzed through multiple lenses – protection of Malay rights, preservation of Islamic values, and crucially, economic assurances for a primarily agrarian demographic. These parties have adeptly tailored their rhetoric to amplify these themes, resonating deeply within the Malay electorate, and presenting a formidable challenge for PH.

To pivot from this trajectory and recapture the Malay electorate’s trust, a multifaceted strategy is essential. This encompasses not only a reassessment of narrative and policy but also a critical introspection within UMNO, a linchpin in the quest to regain Malay support.

The Historical and Sociopolitical Context

Malaysia’s political scene has been traditionally dominated by race-based politics. The formation of the country’s political landscape, post-independence, saw UMNO playing a central role within the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, appealing largely to the Malay-Muslim majority on issues of religion, race, and royalty—collectively known as the 3Rs. Over the years, the effectiveness of such appeal has seen fluctuations, shaped by changing socio-political and economic conditions. The dramatic shift in the 2018 General Elections saw PH, a multi-ethnic coalition promising reform and anti-corruption, coming to power. However, the fragility of this coalition became apparent with its collapse in 2020, leading to political realignments and the emergence of a fragmented political landscape that reflects deep-seated ethnic divisions and differing visions for Malaysia’s future.

Understanding the Malay Electorate’s Concerns and Values

Malay voters, comprising around 60-65% of Malaysia’s population, are not a monolithic bloc. They possess diverse concerns ranging from economic issues such as unemployment and the cost of living, to socio-political issues like education, language, and the preservation of Malay rights and Islam’s place in society. Any attempt to regain their support must start with a genuine understanding of these varied concerns. The failure of PKR, AMANAH, and UMNO’s current efforts in convincing the Malays, perhaps, stems from a perceived neglect or misinterpretation of these core concerns.

Additionally, the perpetual promise of reform has been marred by political instability and a perception of unfulfilled promises. The constant political manoeuvring and shifting alliances have fostered a climate of distrust and skepticism among voters, particularly within the Malay community, towards the coalition government’s ability to address their long-term interests and values.

Political Theory in Action: Engaging the Malay Electorate

From a theoretical perspective, the challenge of regaining Malay votes can be approached through the lens of political mobilization and identity politics, alongside the practical application of public policy that aligns with the electorate’s concerns. Here are strategies, underpinned by theory and evidence, that could reshape the coalition’s approach:

  1. Reaffirming a Commitment to Shared Identity and Inclusivity: Drawing on the principles of Social Identity Theory, the coalition could work towards a more inclusive narrative that transcends ethnic boundaries while respecting the constitutional rights and privileges of the Malays. This involves fostering a stronger Malaysian identity that emphasizes diversity as a strength, rather than a source of division.
  2. Economic Policies That Address Root Concerns: Economically empowering the Malay-majority can significantly alter political allegiances. This includes targeted policies that address rural underdevelopment, enhance educational and employment opportunities, and ensure equitable participation in Malaysia’s economic growth. Evidence from other multiracial societies suggest that policies achieving tangible improvements in living standards and opportunities can mitigate ethnic tensions and bolster political support.
  3. Engaging with Grassroots Movements and Civil Society: Building coalitions with grassroots movements that have strong connections within Malay communities can provide the government with greater insights and legitimacy. Active engagement with civil society organizations that champion the cause of good governance, anti-corruption, and social justice—core tenets of PKR and AMANAH—can also align with the Malay electorate’s broader aspirations for fairness and integrity in public administration.
  4. Strategic Communication and Messaging: The coalition’s efforts must be complemented by a sophisticated communication strategy that effectively conveys policy successes and future plans in a manner that resonates with the Malay-majority. This means leveraging traditional and new media to reach out to different segments of the Malay electorate, addressing misinformation, and engaging in a constructive dialogue.
  5. Leveraging UMNO’s Historical Appeal: UMNO, with its historical significance and ingrained presence in Malay politics, can play a pivotal role in the coalition’s strategy. However, this requires a careful balancing act—leveraging UMNO’s appeal while ensuring that the coalition’s broader reformist agenda remains intact. This might involve reforming UMNO from within, emphasizing a return to its original foundational ethos that prioritized communal welfare and national unity.

Towards a Resilient and United Malaysia

The road to regaining the confidence of the Malay electorate is fraught with challenges, requiring a multifaceted approach that respects Malaysia’s complex socio-political fabric. The coalition government, with its diverse composition, has at its disposal the unique opportunity to bridge divisions and chart a course towards a more inclusive, prosperous, and united Malaysia. This necessitates not just short-term political gains but a long-term commitment to addressing the structural issues that have long polarized Malaysian society.

In deploying these strategies, grounded in political theory and backed by empirical evidence, the coalition would do well to remember that the strength of Malaysia lies in its diversity and the collective aspirations of its people for a better future. The task ahead is monumental but not insurmountable, with sincerity of purpose, strategic insight, and an unwavering commitment to the well-being of all Malaysians being key to navigating the complexities of Malaysian politics towards a more stable and cohesive future.

The author is an independent political analyst. He is also the last director general of JASA.