Malaysia election 2022
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Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks at a Pakatan Harapan convention last month. Photo: Bloomberg

Malaysia election: ethnic Chinese voters long for return of multiracial politics under Pakatan Harapan

  • Malaysian-Chinese have long felt dissatisfaction with pervasive racial policies and politics that place a premium on the Malay majority’s interests
  • A new survey shows many now want multicultural Pakatan Harapan back in power, with Anwar Ibrahim their preferred choice of PM – by a wide margin
Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese voters are expected to turn out in force to cast their ballots in the general election on November 19, as they hope for a return to a multiracial government like the one that was displaced by a political coup two years ago.

Four out of five ethnic Chinese respondents to a survey published last month said they would, or are very likely to, vote in the coming national polls. Just 11 per cent of those answering the survey, which targeted voters in key Chinese-majority constituencies and was funded by the Huayan Policy Institute and the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, said they were undecided about whether to vote or not.

There was even greater consensus among the more than 2,000 respondents about who they want in charge, with nine out of 10 naming the Pakatan Harapan coalition – which briefly held power following a landslide 2018 election win under two-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – in partnership with other political parties or coalitions that are perceived to be multiracial.
Pakatan Harapan supporters celebrate the coalition’s victory in the 2018 Malaysian general election. Photo: Reuters

The survey’s findings are a reflection of underlying sentiments that persist among Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese, who have long felt dissatisfaction with pervasive racial policies and politics that place a premium on the interests of the Malay majority over other citizens, according to James Chai, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“Most Chinese continue to prefer the Pakatan Harapan coalition primarily because of the multiracial promise,” Chai said.

The Chinese vote was a key driver behind the watershed 2018 election result, which led to the country’s first-ever change of government in more than six decades. Voters, angered by rising living costs and allegations of rampant corruption by ruling party leaders, booted out the Umno party and the Barisan Nasional coalition that it leads.

Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan failed to deliver. Here’s what it needs to do in opposition

But the Pakatan Harapan administration collapsed just 22 months into its term, as several leaders in then-coalition partner Bersatu orchestrated a coup – aided by Umno and Islamist party PAS – to form a Malay-nationalist government led by Bersatu President Muhyiddin Yassin.
Muhyiddin was then forced to bow out last year after a clutch of Umno members of parliament withdrew their support, paving the way for the party to reclaim the premiership via its vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
Just days after Ismail Sabri had announced the dissolution of parliament last month to pave the way for the elections, banners bearing the logos of the country’s three largest Malay parties – Umno, PAS and Bersatu – were seen around the capital Kuala Lumpur, calling for the defence of “Malay land” from “communist invaders”.

The term communist is regularly used by right-wing Malay nationalists as a derogatory term for Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese, who have been pegged as sympathisers of the long-defunct Malayan Communist Party that waged a bloody campaign against the British colonial administration after World War II.

Rampant ‘divide-and-rule’ identity politics

Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community is also its largest minority group, accounting for about one-fifth of the 32.7 million population. Most are descendants of Chinese migrant workers that formed the backbone of a 19th century tin-mining boom.

But their history, and subsequent rise as the nation’s wealthy merchant class, have long led to accusations from Malay nationalist parties and groups that ethnic Chinese are trying to take over the country – despite Malays making up well over 60 per cent of the population and being firmly in control of the nation’s politics and government.

Malay nationalist leaders regularly use pejoratives such as pendatang (immigrant) when talking about ethnic Chinese, or chant the phrase balik tongsan (go back to China) when they want to whip up political fervour among the Malay electorate.

Minorities want to be treated equally as Malaysians, nothing more
Pete Teo, Malaysian-Chinese musician and filmmaker

There exists a deep well of suspicion to draw upon. Tensions between Malays and ethnic Chinese peaked with the tumultuous post-election race riots of 1969, which resulted in deadly clashes that left scars on Malaysian society which have yet to heal.

Much of this fearmongering is the result of rampant “divide-and-rule” identity politics, according to local musician and filmmaker Pete Teo, who is ethnic Chinese himself.

“[It’s] the most toxic problem we inherited as a country. Minorities want to be treated equally as Malaysians, nothing more,” he said.

Racial politics: where it all went wrong for the Malaysian Chinese Association?

Denielle Leong, a fellow Malaysian of Chinese heritage, echoed Teo’s view on Twitter, calling for “equal opportunities” and “people who are actually capable to lead the nation”.

“All the cronyism and nepotism hanky-panky and race-based politics are holding us back,” she said.

Umno and the Barisan Nasional coalition it leads began losing the support of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community around 2008, when it was denied a parliamentary supermajority in that year’s election for the first time since 1969.

Its majority shrank further at the next election in 2013, despite a charm-offensive by then-prime minister Najib Razak, who marketed himself to ethnic Chinese voters as Ah Jib Gor (brother Najib) and even went so far as to arrange for K-pop sensation Psy to perform at a Lunar New Year event that the coalition had organised.

Umno was incensed by the 2013 poll result, as evidenced by the front page headline on a party-owned newspaper in the election’s wake, asking: “What more do the Chinese want?”

What do Malaysian-Chinese voters want?

Education is a hot-button issue for many of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese – in particular, the government’s lack of recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), a standardised test used by the country’s independent Chinese high schools.

The federal authorities have traditionally seen the test as antithetical to Malaysia’s nation-building agenda, because it follows a syllabus set by mainland China and Taiwan.

But embracing the UEC has proved to be a vote winner in the past, with then-chief minister of the semi-autonomous sate of Sarawak, Adenan Satem, inspiring support among Chinese voters by labelling the federal policy “stupid”.

“If there is no recognition here, then UEC graduates will go overseas to study and stay back and work there, causing a brain drain here,” he said.

The late Adenan Satem (right), Sarawak’s then-chief minister, casts his vote in the 2016 state polls. Photo: EPA

He made those remarks ahead of the 2016 Sarawak state election, at which Adenan’s party won 16 more seats than it previously held – including eight that had a majority of ethnic Chinese.

Seeking to emulate this earlier success, Pakatan Harapan has made recognising the UEC part of its election manifesto – renewing a pledge that it had in place previously, but retracted after it met with opposition from conservative voters.

“I want to emphasise that we are confident and do not apologise for our stance as we stand with all races,” said coalition chairman Anwar Ibrahim.

“The multiculturalism we have in this coalition, which our rivals want to racialise, will not deter our fight for the people.”

The Chinese cannot stand corruption, and they want to be treated more fairly
James Chin, analyst of Malaysian politics

Despite being a renowned Islamist, Anwar is still many Chinese voters’ favourite for the premiership, according to last month’s survey, with some 20 per cent of respondents naming him as their preferred candidate – putting him ahead of the incumbent by a wide margin.

“Among the declared prime ministerial candidates, they [ethnic Chinese voters] look at Anwar as one who would be most fair towards the minority community in Malaysia,” said political analyst James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

He said they fear the return of Najib, the former prime minister who is currently serving prison time for crimes related to the 1MDB scandal, or the prospect of his lieutenant Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, himself embroiled in a massive corruption scandal, ascending to the top office.

“The Chinese cannot stand corruption, and they want to be treated more fairly,” Chin said.

With Najib behind bars, is Malaysia’s corruption fight finally winnable?

Choo Wei Lynn, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian who now lives in Singapore, told This Week in Asia that she just hoped “whichever” was the least corrupt party wins this month’s election.

“I hope Malaysia will get more progressive so we can all come home,” she said of the Malaysian-Chinese like herself who have chosen to live elsewhere.