By: Kim Quek

The Malaysian polling and research company Ilham Centre, which correctly predicted the opposition Barisan Nasional would win the November 16 by-election in the southern Johor constituency of Tanjong Piai, has correctly interpreted the meaning of this historical electoral outcome.

Its research head Yusri Ibrahim said the Barisan’s spectacular victory, which was caused by the massive swing of Chinese votes from the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan, cannot be interpreted as Chinese support for Barisan or Muafakat Nasional, the new alliance between the Barisan and Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. 

The Chinese were in truth merely using the votes in their hands to vent their anger against Pakatan Harapan, and not to support the Barisan. 

While agreeing with Ilham’s interpretation, I would go a step further to note how this unusual Chinese fury against the ruling coalition has become the gathering storm that has the potential to eventually alter the cause of our history.

Root cause of the gathering storm

In Tanjung Piai, the Chinese electoral support to Pakatan Harapan halved in the short duration of 18 months, resulting in the greatest by-election defeat suffered by an incumbent government in the nation’s history. 

This is primarily caused by irrepressible anger among the Chinese electorate against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for having betrayed them after they gave his coalition near monolithic support – 95 percent national average – that decisively swept the coalition into power against all expectations. Their protest votes were also meant to give their traditionally-trusted Democratic Action Party, which is predominantly ethnic Chinese, a proper thrashing for having abetted Mahathir through its leaders’ timid silence or moral decay.

Instead of implementing sweeping reforms as pledged and ushering in a New Malaysia of greater racial equality and lesser racial discrimination that would have improved efficiency all around, which would, in turn, upgrade education and revive the economy, Pakatan Harapan has done none of this. 

Instead, we see the country plunging into a deeper abyss of racism and religious bigotry, while the people are suffering even greater economic hardships in a stagnant system that continues to be plagued by mediocrity.

Mahathir is the culprit

And the culprit is Mahathir, who, with a docile cabinet under his autocratic thumb, has contemptuously brushed aside Pakatan Harapan’s reform pledges and pursued his devious political agenda – the revival of the former United Malays National Party glory he once built with racist Ketuanan Melayu as its core ideology, and the thwarting of Anwar Ibrahim’s imminent ascension to premiership. 

The 72-year-old Anwar, who has log been Pakatan Harapan’s designated successor to the interim PM Mahathir, and leader of the country’s reform movement for the past two decades, would certainly have led the country in the direction of the promised Malaysia if he had been at the helm, which would make Mahathir’s Umno dream impossible.

That Chinese sentiment in Tanjung Piai is not isolated but a pan-nation phenomenon is most emphatically manifested in Chinese audiences bursting out into spontaneous jubilation even when Pakatan Harapan’s crushing defeat was announced by the coalition’s leaders who happened to be guest speakers at various Chinese community functions held in election night all over the country.

There is no doubt that such an electoral trend will persist in future by-elections, and even intensify if the status quo of the Pakatan Harapan rule continues.

The coalition leaders should realize by now that Mahathir’s “neither here nor there” politics won’t work. Pakatan Harapan can’t outdo PAS-Umno in racial and religious extremism while attempting to retain non-Malay support with fake reforms. That would end up in its Chinese support plunging disastrously and Malay support further receding, as shown in the Tanjung Piai by-election results, in which Chinese votes descended vertically from 75 percent to 34 percent and Malay votes shrank from an already meager 28 percent to 23 percent according to Ilham statistics.

The reason is simple. While the Chinese perceive such treacherous strategy as grand betrayal, the Malays are angered by their increasing economic hardships, which in turn is due to the lack of genuine reforms that would have uplifted the economy to benefit all.

Will Harapan Presidential Council intervene?

Realizing this folly, Pakatan Harapan supporters who propelled the coalition to power in the May 2018 general election are now crying out for Anwar to take over from Mahathir now to save their New Malaysia dream from turning to ashes.

But, to the alarm of all, instead of stepping down at the end of his interim term, which he had promised to be two years, due in May 2020, it now appears that the 94-year-old premier intends to serve full term until the next general election, expected to be held in mid-2023. This is reflected in his objection to passing the baton “mid-stream” and his suggestion of a possible cabinet reshuffle by him before the next APEC Summit in Malaysia at end 2020. 

This presents a dilemma and a challenge to the leadership of the component parties of Pakatan Harapan – Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the Democratic Action Party and Amanah (Mahathir’s party is not mentioned here as it is under the full control of Mahathir).

Should they continue to do nothing while Mahathir continues to play his tricky game of power transition, this time stretching to his limit of full term – which in all likelihood would end in its electoral rout in the next general election?

Or should the Presidential Council of Pakatan Harapan, which has representations from all the component parties, intervene and put its foot down forcibly, if necessary and imperative to protect its vital interests?

And, of course, one cannot completely exclude the possibility that age and wisdom will finally dawn on Mahathir to make a graceful exit that would earn him permanent honor in the nation’s annals, while facilitating the transformation of the country to a progressive democracy.

Kim Quek is a Malaysia-based political commentator