Malaysia’s Chinese Dilemma

In the last days of August, Bersih, or Clean, the coalition for free and fair elections, held one of the biggest rallies the country has ever seen, with hundreds of thousands of people expressing their disgust over the levels of corruption exemplified by the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal and the US$681 million that was mysteriously deposited in Najib’s bank account in 2013.

However, the organizers of the two-day rally miscalculated badly by not bothering to seek Malay representation after Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the fundamentalist rural component of what was then Pakatan Rakyat, pulled out of the opposition coalition over religious differences. The 90-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s most implacable foe, realized what was happening and rushed to the rally to publicly denounce Najib on both nights of the event to highlight ethnic Malay participation – and earn himself the threat of arrest.

It wasn’t enough. The result was that a powerful message to the ruling coalition was wasted and in fact turned back on the reformers. Despite the presence of Malays in the crowd, a large proportion of ethnic Malays regarded the event as Chinese-inspired and Chinese-driven to force an ethnic Malay government from power despite the overwhelming evidence, both domestic and international, of unprecedented levels of corruption both on the part of Najib and within the United Malays National Organization, the leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional.

That is the hill that the fractured opposition Pakatan Harapan Rakyat must climb – the deeply embedded belief that the Chinese are seeking to destroy a Malay government.

The three-party coalition is made up of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the largely urban Malay moderate party headed by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim but run by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail during his imprisonment, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the nascent Gerakan Harapan Baru salvaged by Islamic moderates from the ruins of PAS.

Despite 40 years of the New Economic Policy, the affirmative action program to aid poor Malays, and its successors, the Chinese continue to occupy the economic heights in the country. The rally reinforced decades-old Malay suspicions that the Chinese now were seeking to take over political power as well. The fact that Najib had cashiered his own Malay deputy prime minister, a Malay attorney general and neutralized a long list of other Malay critics of his administration, the impression imbedded deeply into Malaysia’s ethnic Malay community is that the campaign against Najib is Chinese-inspired.

Since ethnic Malays hold such a numerical advantage – 62 percent of the population, combined with the loyalty of the tribal powers in East Malaysia, where the Barisan holds sway despite equally potent corruption in both Sarawak and Sabah – it is difficult for the Chinese to muster a challenge for their share of political and economic power. Today the Chinese represent only about 22 percent of the population, down from as much as 35 percent in the 1960s. While their numbers have stayed about the same, their proportion of the electorate has plummeted as millions have voted with their feet, as the saying goes, immigrating to Australia, Singapore and other destinations. Indians make up about 7 percent of the population, with the rest drawn from ethnic tribes in Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia

Thus a recent call by Najib to the Malaysian Chinese Association that if the country’s Chinese do not return and show their support, they will be permanently excluded from sharing political power. It is a potent argument. A decade ago, the Chinese strongly supported the MCA. But they have been driven away by massive scandals such as the multi-billion dollar Klang multimodal port fiasco and infighting between party factions.

Poisonous racial rhetoric from segments of UMNO has also caused them flee the Barisan en masse. One poll by the Merdeka Center suggests that the Barisan now only enjoys the support of 5 percent of ethnic Chinese voters.

By contrast, support for the DAP by the Chinese community has never been so high. The warning by Najib is causing a real quandary. Historically, most Chinese have sworn their allegiance to the Barisan, which has held power exclusively in this country since it obtained independence from British colonialists in 1957. From 1957 to now the Barisan has ruled and the MCA has been part of their machinery.

The Barisan actually lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election, 51.39 percent for the opposition and 47.79 for the Barisan. The MCA won only 7.85 percent of the vote, the Malaysian Indian Congress only 2.59 percent.

But while showing strong support for the opposition, the Chinese are in a real quandary. It doesn’t appear that the opposition, with its leader in prison, has the organizational ability to put together a winning coalition any time soon. The problems have been compounded by infighting between the factions led by Anwar’s wife, Wan Aziziah Wan Ismail, and Selangor Chief Minister Mohamad Azmin Ali and the failure to articulate a strong message that would pull the ethnic factions together and dispel Malay suspicions.

Given the overwhelming numerical advantage – combined with the loyalty of the tribal powers in East Malaysia, where the Barisan holds sway, it is difficult for the Chinese to muster a challenge. That is why MCA officials are pleading with the members of the Chinese community to return to the fold and to share power with UMNO. But there is still strong resistance on the part of the majority of the Chinese community. The Chinese, like the Indians, are frustrated and disappointed at a range of issues such as educational opportunities, affordable housing and employment and business opportunities that have been denied them.

Najib’s call for unity under the Barisan umbrella is being closely monitored and watched by both the Chinese and the Indian communities and it is hard to say in which direction they will swing towards as more and more Malays are also losing hope in UMNO. The latest poll by Merdeka Center found that only 35 percent of ethnic Malays approve of the party.

These sentiments and rising feelings of uneasiness and discomfort have precipitated a crisis in the country that is set to linger until the next general election, which must be held before April of 2018. Until then the feelings of distrust and suspicion between the majority Malays and the minority races are set to continue.

If the opposition wants to appeal to a wide enough segment of the population to win that race, the DAP and Parti Keadilan will have to figure out a way in turn to tell the wider ethnic Malay population in a way that will gain their confidence that they will not be buried by Chinese influence in a new ruling coalition. That is a tall order. Only a groundswell of support by Malays for Pakatan Harapan Baru might witness the necessary changes Malaysians of all walks of life want to actually see. Stopping that groundswell is the ace that Najib will play.