Malaysian businessman Stanley Thai says he's joining thousands of fellow ethnic Chinese citizens in abandoning support for Prime Minister Najib Razak and voting for the opposition for the first time in an election next month.
"Why are the Chinese against the government? It's simple," said Thai, 53, owner of medical glove-maker Supermax Corp. "We don't want our children to suffer what we suffered - deprived [of] education, [of] career opportunities, [of] business opportunities."
Chinese, who make up about a quarter of Malaysia's population, are growing weary of affirmative-action programs for Malays propagated by Najib's alliance of parties, the most recent national poll indicates. Any mass defection by Chinese voters raises the risk of the ruling coalition's first election loss since it was formed after race riots in 1969.
The violence of that year helped persuade many Chinese to back Barisan Nasional, which Najib has led since 2009, as they accepted racial preferences for Malays as the cost of peace. Thai said thinking changed when the government's electoral tally fell in 2008 with little sign of renewed social unrest. "Everyone said, 'Wow, the time has come,'" he said.
Now, the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, sees the end of race-based policies that have hindered firms such as Supermax as key to long-term economic growth. Najib counters that his gradual reform of the affirmative-action programs will assure stability and avert a slide in stocks and the ringgit that would accompany any opposition victory.
"It's a contest ultimately about visions - do you believe the country is Malay-centred or a state of all its citizens," asked Clive Kessler, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who has studied Malaysian politics for half a century. "Najib no longer has adequate non-Malay support," said Kessler, who says the ruling coalition must win about two-thirds of Malay votes to stay in power.
About half of Malaysia's 29 million people are Malays, roughly a quarter have Chinese roots and the rest are mostly ethnic Indians or indigenous groups.
In 2008, the ruling 13-party Barisan Nasional coalition won by its slimmest margin since it was formed, with three Chinese parties losing half their parliamentary seats. Anwar's own multi-racial coalition has pledged to eliminate race-based policies to fight corruption.
"What we're seeing with the implementation of the policy is enormous rent-seeking and patronage and corruption," said Edmund Terence Gomez, a professor at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur who edited a book on the affirmative-action program. "The electoral trends clearly indicate that Malaysians are saying they've had enough of race-based politics."
In 1969, Malaysia suspended parliament for more than a year after race riots in the wake of a close election killed hundreds of people. Abdul Razak, Najib's father, then initiated the racial preferences in 1971 as the country's second prime minister.
The so-called New Economic Policy sought to raise the share of national wealth to at least 30 percent for Malays and indigenous groups known as Bumiputera, or "sons of the soil", that made up about 60 percent of the population. They got cheaper housing and quotas for college places, government contracts and shares of listed companies.
While Najib has tweaked the policy, many elements remain intact. The Malaysian government and the country's state-owned enterprises favour Bumiputera companies when they award contracts, the US trade representative wrote in a report in March.