The newly appointed ethnic Chinese leader of Malaysia’s largest opposition party said he remains hopeful that citizens will reject corruption-tainted political leaders even amid a seeming resurgence in the clout of the scandal-haunted ex-prime minister Najib Razak . The Democratic Action Party, a constituent of the Pakatan Harapan alliance, has long telegraphed that 44-year-old Anthony Loke would be its likely next leader, and the veteran politician assumed the position after internal elections over the weekend. Loke, who honed his multilingual oratory flair while working at his father’s restaurant as a teen, succeeds long-time party chief Lim Guan Eng. The DAP is among a handful of Malaysian political parties that espouses multiracialism, and is heavily backed by the country’s ethnic Chinese minority. The party governs the state of Penang under the auspices of Pakatan Harapan, and is widely seen as one of the fiercest adversaries of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno). It has 42 seats in the 222-seat national parliament, making it the single largest party in the legislature. Loke is taking over the reins at a pivotal moment – the DAP, along with Pakatan Harapan suffered big losses against Umno and its allies in three recent state elections. Analysts say it will be a tough fight to keep their 42 seats. Speculation is rife that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob may call an election this year. Najib, facing multiple criminal trials over his links to the 1MDB financial scandal and already convicted in one of these cases, remains a crucial figure in Umno and has been seen as among the reasons for Umno’s stellar recent electoral performances. In a telephone interview with This Week in Asia, Loke said he was confident voters would reject corruption-tainted leaders in the upcoming polls and instead back good governance. Malaysian PM resists Umno pressure to call general election amid Johor win “We cannot underestimate the wisdom of most Malaysians who are against corruption, even though Najib still has core supporters,” said Loke, who believes most Malaysians are fed up with alleged government corruption. The DAP has ruled in Penang state since 2008, and said it as an example where people supported the party which has ruled with “good governance,” and brought about “transparency and better public services.” Loke also expressed confidence the DAP will be able to win again in Penang. The newly minted DAP leader said he expects a general election to be held sometime “in the second half of this year”. “My first priority as a party leader is to face the next general elections … to give a sense of purpose and a clear direction to all party leaders and members so we are well prepared for next general elections,” Loke said. “Keeping the 42 (Parliament) seats is a big challenge. I will try my best to achieve that objective,” said Loke, noting that the opposition bloc’s poor performance in recent bypolls was due to poor turnout. He said a strong turnout like in the 2018 general election will help the party retain its current seat total. As Najib and graft suspects gain strength, what’s next for Malaysian PM? Analysts said a key dilemma for Loke is connecting with Malay voters, who make-up close to 70 per cent of the population, without “softening” its long-time struggle for equality which won the party much support from non-Malays who form the backbone of its supporters. Under Malaysia’s constitution, Malays are accorded special privileges “DAP has a huge dilemma in its political positioning nowadays. It rode to electoral victories mostly at the back of non-Malays in pursuit of racial equality in a race-centred country, with very little inroads into the Malay electorate,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a think tank. “As it tries in recent years to broaden its political appeal into the Malay electorate and thereby “softens” its traditional political struggles in equality, it risks alienating its long-time supporters,” said Oh. Time to end the educational apartheid facing Malaysia’s ethnic minority groups Oh said DAP ended up situating itself “neither here nor there politically,” with ebbing political support from both electoral cohorts, saying he has his challenges “cut out for him.” James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, said the general consensus is that DAP is losing ground, especially if the elections are held this year. “The strategy for DAP and Loke is to try to hang on to the 42 seats and if possible, not to lose 20 per cent of the seats,” said Chin. During the DAP’s National Congress over the weekend, a Malay member, Young Syefura Othman, was elected to the party’s powerful Central Executive Committee (CEC) which Professor Chin described as a “very good move”. During the interview, Loke however noted the road for the DAP in gaining acceptance by a wider Malay electorate needed time. He said this was a long-term effort as the party’s image among the Malays has long suffered from demonisation by its opponents. “We have to keep on trying to adjust our approach a little bit to convince [voters] that DAP is not a threat to the Malays, that we are here to serve the country and the people,” said Loke. He stressed the DAP respects the special privileges of Malays as enshrined in the constitution and also accepts the realities of Malaysian life where the country’s Prime Minister has to be Malay. Is a new opposition front emerging in Malaysian politics? “The policy that we are working on to be more fair … it will not be at the expense or the interest of the majority race. It is not a zero-sum game” said Loke. Chin, the Australia-based professor, said he believed younger Malay voters, including first-time voters, were willing to give DAP a chance. Loke took over from Lim who served three terms as secretary general. Lim, 61, is the son of long-time party stalwart Lim Kit Siang. The elder Lim, 81, during the weekend meeting announced he was retiring after 56 years in active politics. Chin described Loke’s style as “the polar opposite” to Lim Guan Eng, adding he believed the new leader would be more agreeable with Malay nationalists. “Anthony Loke comes across as a technocrat while Lim Guan Eng comes across as abrasive,” said Chin. “Anthony Loke is very well-accepted. I’ve never heard anything bad or negative stories said about him. He’s always seen as somebody who gets along, who doesn’t try to make too many enemies,” said Chin. Loke said a key task that lay ahead was also to “re-enact hope for the people” amid fatigue among the electorate following years of political turmoil. Pakatan Harapan stunned observers in 2018 when it ousted an Umno-led government – in power at the time for 61 straight years. But the new administration was booted out of power in 2020 following an internal power struggle, and since then the country has changed prime ministers twice. Pakatan Harapan’s influence has fizzled during this state of flux, with growing concern among supporters if it can mount a serious challenge against the Umno camp in the upcoming polls. “The other big challenge is how to fire up that enthusiasm, give our supporters a sense of hope that things can be better,” said Loke. He urged Malaysians living in Hong Kong to come out to vote – either by returning home to cast their votes or via postal voting. “Malaysians living in Hong Kong must value the right to vote and take part in the voting process,” said Loke.