Malaysia’s three Chinese-majority political parties have been in the news this month as they step up preparations for the upcoming general elections.
Following the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition’s convention on Jan 7, it announced that the Democratic Action Party (DAP) will be contesting 35 parliamentary seats in Peninsula Malaysia, one less than in the 2013 elections.
It will be defending 30 seats it had won in 2013 and seeking to edge out the ruling coalition in five other seats.
Within the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) announced at an unprecedented joint rally on Jan 6 that they will work together to win back support among Chinese voters.
“We have good consensus and strategies have been drawn up on how to strengthen the rights and opportunities of the Chinese community to ensure it plays a greater role in the nation’s development,” said Gerakan secretary-general Liang Teck Meng.
Despite the brouhaha expressed by the Chinese component parties in BN, it is unlikely that they will win back the support of the Chinese communities.
This will in turn fundamentally alter the power-sharing model that has long defined Malaysia’s political system.
BATTLE FOR THE CHINESE VOTES
The seats allocated to the DAP were strategic in quelling the BN rhetoric that DAP controls the four-party PH. DAP’s 35-seat allocation was far lower than those of Malay-based parties such as Bersatu (52 seats) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (51 seats).
If DAP is to maintain the same seat allocations in East Malaysia in the 2013 general election, it will con-test a total of 50 seats. This will still be lower than the total numbers of seats allocated to Bersatu and PKR.
Ironically, while the ruling United Malays National Organisation attacks PH by accusing the DAP of con-trolling the alliance, MCA has issued contradicting statements aimed at showing that the Chinese rep-resentative in PH is marginal.
For instance, MCA president Liow Tiong Lai had stated that with DAP given fewer seats, Bersatu is the party that controls the opposition pact.
On the other hand, MCA and Gerakan are expected to contest up to 45 parliamentary seats.
Interestingly, MCA also seems to target seats in areas with weaker PKR support, including Selayang, and Alor Setar, and Gopeng. All three seats will be defended by PKR in the upcoming elections.
The MCA-Gerakan pact might do little in regaining the Chinese voters’ support as Chinese’s voters are more focused on issues such as inflation, rising cost of living and corruption.
Internal conflicts, the lack of younger leaders and fresh policies have resulted in a crisis of credibility in the two parties.
Both MCA and Gerakan have done little to change their image of being subservient to Umno, which is a main concern for Chinese voters, who will also not quickly forget the virulently anti-Chinese senti-ments expressed by Umno leaders during the infamous Red Shirt rally in July 2016.
Overall, what is likely to further erode support for Umno amongst Malaysian Chinese is the more Is-lamic posturing of the party in support of more conservative Islamic norms and the plan by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia to implement Islamic criminal law.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s claim at the Umno General Assembly that the role of Islam in Malaysia will be decimated if the opposition comes to power is one such example.
In the 2013 election, Malaysian Chinese contributed a total of 2.92 million votes for the opposition par-ties which accounted for more than 50 per cent of the popular votes won by the previous Pakatan Rakyat pact.
While numerically a minority, Malaysian Chinese remains a crucial vote bank, especially in a close election fight.
The continuous Chinese support for the DAP and a split in Malay votes which could see the opposition losing more seats may also mean that the DAP could emerge as the strongest opposition party.
In the likely scenario that support for BN continues to plummet amongst Chinese voters and it returns to power as a result of the split in the vote for the opposition, MCA and Gerakan will become even more relevant.
Chinese representation within the next government will continue to be weak and it is likely that the community will become even more politically marginalised.
With demographic changes which will see Malays accounting for an even bigger majority within Malaysia coupled with the more conservative Islamic outlook of Malaysian Malays, there is little incentive for the Umno-led government to try to win back Chinese support.
A strong Malay dominated government with a strong Chinese dominated opposition does not bode well for the Malaysian social fabric in the long run.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is Coordinator of Malaysia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), where Chan Xin Ying is a research analyst.