A Rising Political Star Dims in Malaysia

Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party, largely made up of ethnic Chinese voters, was narrowly upset in its gamble to put a young Malay woman on the ballot against an ethnic Chinese in a May 31 by election in the state of Perak.

The DAP was wagering that it could broaden its appeal to non-Chinese voters by pitting Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, an attractive political novice and lawyer, against Mah Siew Keong, the 54-year-old chief of Gerakan, a Barisan Nasional party that has been reduced almost to a splinter, in a race in Teluk Intan to replace Seah Long Peng, a DAP member of parliament who died of cancer.

Since its birth as a nation, Malaysian politics has been characterized by race-based political parties rather than ones built on class, populism or any other traditional issue. The result has been racial polarization as party leaders base their appeal on protecting constituents from the presumed economic threat of other races.

The Barisan Nasional has historically been dominated by the United Malays National Organization, the Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association. Gerakan, which once controlled Penang, has been battered to a shadow of its former self. The DAP now controls Penang.

The DAP, now arguably the best-organized and strongest party in the three-party Pakatan Rakyat headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, wants to strengthen its appeal outside of its traditional Chinese base and has been successful enough to worry Barisan leaders as it attracts young, urban Malays and Indians.

That didn’t carry over in Teluk Intan, a partly rural, partly urban constituency 100 km southeast of the state capital of Ipoh. The party marginally increased its proportion of Malay voters, from 25 percent in the 2013 general election to 28 percent in Saturday’s by-election. But significant numbers of Chinese and Indians abandoned the DAP, with Chinese support for the opposition candidate falling from 85 percent to 70 percent and Indian support from 62 percent to 52 percent.

Overall voter participation in the race dropped off also, with only 66.67 percent of voters turning out, compared with 80.7 percent in the 2013 general election. The Election Commission said it was the second lowest vote total in five by-elections held since the general election.

“There was a swing of Chinese and Indian votes to the Barisan,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “I thought for sure the DAP would win. Chinese voters in the past [in Teluk Intan] delivered huge majorities to the DAP. But the lesson is that the Chinese wouldn’t vote for a Malay, even a Malay in the DAP.”

That may not be wholly right, although Mah won by a narrow 238 votes out of more than 40,000 cast. There were 543 spoiled ballots. As the political analyst pointed out, although Mah had occupied the seat for two previous terms, his victory was considered an upset because the DAP had taken the seat by 7,000 votes in the May 2013 general election.

While the 27-year-old Dyana is considered a rising political star, stirring huge crowds in the district, party politics and factionalism played a role. On the eve of the election, she pulled more than 10,000 people to a political rally against just 70 on the same evening for Mah. Her Facebook page piled up tens of thousands of friends, her name was Googled more than 3 million times and thousands of college students flocked to her rallies. But popularity in social media apparently doesn’t translate into votes, or at least it didn’t this time.

Dyana, the political secretary to DAP chief Lim Kit Siang, was a newcomer to the district, while Mah was a familiar face. The party also turned down Hew Kuan Yau, a popular local DAP figure and fiery speaker, in favor of running Dyana. The Perak DAP is said to be split into factions, with one headed by the powerful cousins Ngeh Koo Ham and Nga Kor Ming, while the other is headed by M. Kua Segaran.

Bringing in an outsider to run, especially an ethnic Malay, didn’t sit well with the Ngeh-Nga faction. Chong Zhen Min, the political secretary of Nga Kor Ming, the party’s state chairman, was another favored possible local candidate. The national party’s decision to pick Dyana over the two triggered reports of possible internal sabotage.

“Neither I nor any DAP leaders blame Dyana for our loss,” said DAP General Secretary Lim Guan Eng, Kit Siang’s son. The DAP, he said, would continue to stick with Dyana, probably fielding her again in the next general election, which has to be held by May 2018.

Dyana came under attack from the Barisan as a traitor to her sex, race and country, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and current UMNO women’s wing leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil criticizing her for standing as a DAP candidate.

"At the local level, Dyana received a tremendous reception from kids and also young people wherever she went. While most of them were not voters, they will be voters in the near future and young leaders such as Dyana are much better positioned to win them over," Ong Kian Ming, the party strategist, told a press conference.

Dyana’s message was targeted at the young voters of all races who are worrying the Barisan Nasional as they join the DAP. But the party was apparently unable to convince them to head home from colleges and universities or work in urban areas to vote in the election. The comparatively low turnout dealt the coup de grace to the party’s chances of retaining the seat. The low turnout has generated concerns in opposition party councils over possible voter apathy in the future. In the May 25 race to replace the late DAP party stalwart Karpal Singh, who was killed in a car accident in April, only 56.04 percent of voters turned out, one of the lowest electoral participation rates in the history of Malaysian by-elections. In that race, the mediating factor was the absence of any Barisan Nasional candidate, on the assumption that nobody was going to beat Karpal’s political heir, Ramkarpal Singh.

Kim Quek, a strategist for Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, argued that a plan by Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, a component party of the opposition, to introduce a bill mandating hudud, or strict Islamic law in the state of Kelantan, also played a role. The Chinese, Quek said, want absolutely no part of hudud, which includes stoning to death for infidelity and the amputation of limbs for theft. Although PAS says the law would only apply to Muslims in Kelantan, other races and moderate urban Muslims fear it will spread from Kelantan to other states and from Muslims to the whole country. That, Kim said, is leading to a flight of Chinese and Indians from all opposition component parties including the DAP.

"There is no guarantee that these problems will not escalate leading up to the next general election and if so, many voters may choose not to come back to vote,” said Ong Kian Ming at the post-election press conference. “The lower turnout which partly caused DAP to lose Teluk Intan may be replicated in many other such seats.”