Malaysian elections: a “powder keg” of ethnic tension and societal cracks

The country's first ever hung parliament is a case study in "pseudo-unity" undermining long-term stability

Stephanie Wild
December 15, 2022
Malaysian elections: a “powder keg” of ethnic tension and societal cracks
Anwar Ibrahim, chairman of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), shows his inked finger after voting at a polling station during the general election in Permatang Pauh, Malaysia's Penang state. Photo: Arif Kartono/AFP

Malaysia swore in its fourth prime minister in four years amidst a climate of ongoing political instability in November. The sudden dissolution of Sabri Yaakob’s government and prompt snap election also resulted in the country’s first ever hung parliament.

According to Malaysia’s constitution, a party or coalition is required to win 112 of 222 seats in order to form a majority government. But by winning only 82 seats, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition emerged as the frontrunner leaving the country in a state of political limbo. Ultimately, the constitutional monarch of Malaysia, Yang di-Pertuan Agong, stepped in to declare Anwar Ibrahim, the leading candidate, prime minister to  an opposition-led government. 

While the Malaysian electorate seemingly aligned themselves to political candidates, parties, and coalitions along the lines of economic policy and trustworthiness in the build-up to the election, the hung parliament revealed that political instability triggers a return to societal division and fragmentation along ethnic lines. 

Ethnic marginalisation is a constitutional issue

Ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians are broadly considered ‘second-class’ citizens, with political elites benefitting from special safeguards in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution, which privileges Malays, as well as the native populations of Sabah and Sarawak, over the country’s ethnic minorities.

Unemployed Malaysian Indian, Mahendran Kelepan, 41, poses with his daughter Sharmati Mahendran, 5, a month before the 2018 elections. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP 

While the Malay population represents 50.4% of the total population,  23.7% is Chinese and 7.1% is Indian, many of whom came to Malaysia as labourers in the 18th and 20th centuries. While Malaysia was rich in natural resources, its population was small, with its labour force being below 2 million until the 20th century. To fill this gap, British colonialists brought Indian labourers to Malaysia to work on rubber plantations and Chinese labourers to work in tin mines, leaving most economic development to Indian and Chinese immigrants. 

Ultimately, ethnic Malays found themselves at an economic disadvantage upon independence, leading the post-colonial government to create provisions to promote and protect the Malay majority. 

As a result, ethnic Malays have enjoyed constitutional privileges since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, as well as other provisions that include the safeguarding of public service positions, scholarships, educational and training privileges, and permits and licences, for the Malay population. Originally intended as an affirmative action programme to correct the economic marginalisation of ethnic Malays brought on by British colonial rule, these provisions now breed resentment with many ethnic minorities calling it oppression. There are growing concerns over the country’s segregated schooling system, due to religious schooling requirements, language divisions and restrictions, and even affordability, with some calling it an “educational apartheid”. According to Index Mundi’s Racial Discrimination Survey, Malaysia features as the second most racist country globally, second only to South Africa. 

This latest record-setting political turmoil resulted in a resurgence of ethnic tensions, with both police and social media platform TikTok urging Malaysians to refrain from publicising violent and inflammatory content online after a series of videos featuring weapons and referencing the country’s history of bloody race riots. The videos referenced the 1969 13 May Incident in which an estimated 800 died on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

And so, it seems that ethnic tensions in Malaysia are simmering just below the surface, ready to boil over and dissolve any ‘pseudo’ unity, when political instability becomes too much. It is only a matter of time before the powder keg explodes again.

Malaysian queue inside a polling station in Bera, during the 15th general election in Bera, Malaysia’s Pahang state on 19 November, 2022. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Political unrest

While the nation has experienced rapid modernisation and economic growth, race relations continue to be fragile. The trauma of the 13 May Incident continues to live on in the nation’s collective memory, with many politicians warning against challenging Article 153 and its privileging of the Malay population, in the name of peace.

This fragility was sorely felt in the country’s most recent constitutional crisis in February 2020. Ultimately, political elites reconfigured coalition alliances, removing the then-prime minister Mahatir Mohamad from office and overturning the outcome of the 2018 federal election. Not only did this undermine the electorate’s decision, but the resulting political turmoil also greatly hindered its ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbating the challenges of many Malaysian citizens. Legislators were slow to determine restrictions and regulations, and vaccine shortages were rampant. This saga has also led to soaring inflation and food prices. 

This crisis was not as short-lived as everyone expected. The resignation of Mahatir Mohamad in 2020 after only two years in office led to the appointment of Muhyiddin Yassin as the new prime minister placing one of the opposing coalitions, Perikatan Nasional, in power. But unelected  by the Malaysian people and subsequently struggling for legitimacy, Yassin resigned in August 2021, leaving the office to Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who reinstated the dominant coalition Barisan Nasional back in power. Only one year later, Yaakob’s parliament was dissolved and the November 2022 snap polls resulted in the election of Anwar Ibrahim, known for his zero tolerance attitude towards corruption, as a new political leader. 

This result represents only one of a series of quick, successive changes in administration, ultimately signalling a period of great political turmoil and coalition fragmentation. Many are now hoping that the government borne out of this year’s snap election, the 15th general election (GE15), will represent a period of political stability. Malaysians can only hope that Anwar will complete his five-year term and give the economy a chance to recover. 

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim signing documents on his first day at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya. Photo: Wazari Wazir/AFP

Trust as a key to stability?

A Universiti Utara Malaysia survey conducted prior to the election suggests that the Malaysian electorate was primarily concerned with a candidate’s trustworthiness and perceived capacity for corruption, rather than with ethnic allegiances. Given the surge in ethnic tensions in the aftermath of the hung parliament, however, this ‘pseudo’ unity quickly evaporated with the onset of political turmoil. The survey showed that Muhyiddin Yassin and Anwar Ibrahim were perceived to be the most trustworthy leaders in the country. This focus on trust is unsurprising in a country where corruption is a growing concern.

As recently as 2015, Malaysia was marred by a state capture scandal, known as the 1MDB scandal. Billions in the state development fund, the 1MDB fund, were syphoned off and used to buy luxuries – such as jewellery, property and art – and even to fund the Golden Globe award-winning film The Wolf of Wall Street. The proliferation of corruption and embezzlement scandals in the Malaysian newscycle appears to have led to the electorate prioritising anti-corruption policies over the correction of ethnic marginalisation.  Given his pledge to fight corruption, it is unsurprising that Anwar came out as the frontrunner in the GE15. However, his victory short of 30 parliamentary seats and the hung parliament triggering a resurgence in ethnic tensions, it seems that anti-corruption and economic policies were unable to sufficiently unite Malaysians across ethnic groups.  

Corruption, however, is not the only way that money played a major role in this year’s election. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Malaysian economy has struggled,with inflation increasing by 3.1% between January and August 2022. Similarly, according to a Fitch Solutions prediction, the country’s GDP growth will drop to 4% in 2023 from the 9.4% growth characterising the first three quarters of 2022. And so, the promotion of economic growth and job creation was at the forefront of most voters’ minds.

The importance of the state of the economy in the GE15 was further exacerbated by the increase in youth voters. This being the first general election since a 2019 constitutional amendment lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, an additional 6 million constituents were added to the voters’ roll. Moreover, these constituents were particularly concerned with economic growth and the proposed policies put forward by the various candidates. This is unsurprising given that youth unemployment has been steadily increasing since 2019, currently standing at 15.6%. Moreover, the memory of the 1969 race riots is, naturally, fading in the minds’ of Malaysia’s 20-year olds. And so, these young voters no doubt prioritise their own job opportunities and economic prosperity over ethnic divisions. 

Economic and anti-corruption policies were therefore top of mind for the Malaysian constituency – not the reformation of Malay affirmative action programmes, which disadvantage Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian populations. But with civic and political rights informing economic rights and opportunities, these marginalised groups will not be able to improve their economic prospects while  jobs and scholarships continue to be reserved for the Malay community. A cap on economic freedoms will remain firmly in place.

Keeping this inevitability in mind, the sooner the marginalisation is addressed, the better. Suppression will only grow resentment and anger. This year’s hung parliament is a clear example of how these two emotions continue to build in Malaysia – any semblance of unity over anti-corruption and economic policies is a fallacy. Unless this marginalisation is addressed, it is only a matter of time before these ethnic tensions manifest into physical violence. Steam must be released slowly before society combusts.

Stephanie Wild is assistant editor at the Journal of Political Risk and a creative copywriter for The Dandelion Philosophy, a a socially-conscious, global enterprise.

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