Pakatan Harapan’s defeat to Barisan Nasional in yesterday’s Tanjung Piai polls was the most predictable of all the by-elections held since the 2018 general election.
But the 15,086-vote margin of defeat must have stunned many pundits. Yet, the signs were there that a resounding defeat was on the cards.
What were the main factors behind this pummelling at the polls? How did PH lose a seat – by a factor of 1:2.5 – to a coalition of parties that had propped up a globally derided kleptocracy until 2018?
1. You can’t outdo Umno and PAS in playing the race-religion card
Umno and PAS are masters at the game.
PH, on the other hand, was voted in on a wave of hope for a new Malaysia that goes beyond the old politics of race and religion. And for a while after the general election, it had the upper hand.
The pushback from Umno and PAS came swiftly after they had licked their wounds, culminating in the rally to oppose the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. They have deftly capitalised on Malay-Muslim insecurities about being marginalised under the new administration.
The PH government blinked – and the rest is history.
Tanjung Piai is a sure indicator that PH cannot beat Umno and PAS at their game. Instead, PH will always have to play second fiddle in this game – at great cost to its diverse voter base and the vision for a new Malaysia.
Anxious to win more Malay support, PH has not done enough to promote a more inclusive multicultural narrative for the new Malaysia project.
This must change if it is to offer something different from the Umno-PAS pact.
2. Unfulfilled promises
The failure to repeal oppressive laws and the slow pace of reforms to institutions of governance have fuelled disenchantment.
True, the new administration has reformed the Electoral Commission and put in place the mechanics of institutional reform, which is commendable.
But when it came to the big money, instead of reforming government-linked companies and government-linked investment companies, these firms have been transferred to PPBM-controlled ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Department, complete with a number of political appointees at the helm of some of these companies.
The same thing is happening in state governments like Selangor and Penang, where political appointments to government-linked companies have raised unease while Chief Minister Incorporated outfits remain opaque.
As for the PH electoral promises to repeal repressive laws, many among the public can’t have been impressed with the use of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) to detain those accused of supporting the defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Sosma is one of the laws that allow detention without trial. One of the reasons people voted against BN was that they disliked oppressive laws such as Sosma, the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.
In 2009, four months after Najib Razak took over the reins of government from Abdullah Badawi, the civil society coalition Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (Abolish ISA Movement) organised a huge rally against the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. The large turnout pressured Najib to announce the repeal of the ISA two years later – though he later brought in Sosma and other laws that allow detention without trial.
And here we are in the new Malaysia still making use of these Najib-era repressive laws. What are people to think?
3. Not enough done for the bottom 40%
One of the main issues in the 2018 general election was “barang naik” or the rising cost of living.
Yes, the new PH government removed the hated goods and services tax and restored the previous sales and service tax. But the substitution of these consumption taxes did not make a whole lot of difference to most people’s pockets.
A progressive tax system and wealth taxes would have allowed the government to allocate more funds for essential services that would have benefited a lot more people. Instead, the government remains financially hard-pressed to make substantial improvements to these services.
If the PH government really wants to ease the people’s plight, it should focus on several key areas where people will see an immediate difference.
- It should intervene to raise the supply and quality of genuinely affordable homes below RM200,000. It should stop pandering to high-end developers who are building expensive homes that few locals can afford.
- It should improve our public healthcare system, shorten waiting lists, ease overcrowded areas, increase the space for beds and stem the brain drain to the private sector by improving working conditions for specialists and doctors. The MySalam scheme does not do that. Promoting medical tourism makes the brain drain from government hospitals to the private sector worse.
- It should improve the national schools, though this might take longer. So far, the changes have only touched the surface.
- It should focus on efficient and effective forms of public transport (buses and trams at street level) instead of multi billion ringgit highways and expensive elevated rail projects. This will allow many ordinary people to save money on buying cars and turn to more affordable public transport. Highway tolls should remain but the funds should be used to improve public transport. The third national car project should be turned into a national bus project.
- It should focus on boosting domestic food production and protecting local food security. The prices of basic food items have soared. So we need to protect and support our farmers and fishermen so that they can increase their harvest and fish catch especially in this era of climate change. The last thing we should be doing is converting farmlands to property development or destroying the coastal ecology for massive land reclamation.
See Jeyakumar Devaraj’s “What will it take to address poverty in Malaysia?” to find out what else can be done.
The point here is that focusing on Big Business interests will only concentrate wealth in the hands of a few while the rest will struggle.
4. PH’s costly missteps
PH shot themselves in the foot with several controversial moves. The presence of PPBM politicians and PH coalition leaders – Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Mohamad Sabu, Azmin Ali and Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman – alongside PAS and Umno leaders at the recent Malay Dignity Congress did not go down well with a sizeable segment of the people.
Leaders of PH, in particular PPBM, may have thought their presence at the gathering would raise their profile as champions of the Malay community. Not so. Not only did their presence fail to raise Malay support for PH, but the extreme racial rhetoric at the gathering also undermined support for PH among minority ethnic groups.
The finance minister’s statement that the government would channel RM60 million to Tunku Abdul Rahman University College for this year and the next, provided the MCA gave up control of the college, was seen by some as undeservedly harsh. The university college has provided a valuable alternative to students who want a quality tertiary education at an affordable cost. Who would take over the university college if the MCA relinquished control?
Other controversies which cost the PH dearly included the presence of Dr Zakir Nair and the khat issue.
Many voters showed their displeasure by voting for MCA-BN or Gerakan at this by-election – not that they loved these parties but because they wanted to teach PPBM a lesson. They did not want to be taken for granted. This was entirely predictable.
5. PH factionalism, cosying up to Umno elements rankles voters
PPBM’s attempts at enticing certain Umno elements have not gone down well with voters. People can see what is happening – don’t underestimate them.
PPBM won the fewest seats of all the PH parties at the 2018 general election. Its leader, Mahathir, assumed the prime minister’s post, courtesy of his coalition partners in recognition of the role he played in ensuring smooth regime change. No one else could have overseen the transition better.
But then Mahathir started accepting Umno defectors to increase his party’s seats and strengthen his bargaining power within the PH. His promotion of Azmin Ali and his faction of PKR and the PM’s reluctance to confirm a two-year timeframe for stepping down has grated on the public.
All this has not gone unnoticed and contributed to PH’s chastening defeat in Tanjung Piai. For all his political brilliance, Mahathir, like many other strong-arm rulers, has failed to read the pulse on the ground when it mattered most – knowing when would be the optimal moment to quit and hand over power. He could have gone out in a blaze of glory had he indicated his departure date earlier – never mind if he would have been a lame-duck prime minister for a few months.
Some wit on WhatsApp suggested that Tanjung PIAI now stands for Please Install Anwar Ibrahim. Whether that will help the PH cause remains to be seen.
As it stands, many PH supporters are discontented. The lower-income group, many of them Malays, appear to have drifted back to Umno-BN.
The middle-class and minorities, on the other hand, swung in droves to MCA-BN and Gerakan just to “teach PH a lesson” not to take them for granted.
Even though “BN” (in reality MCA-Umno-PAS) won, the by-election also showed that Umno and PAS, for all their talk of a Malay-Muslim muafakat (consensus), still have to rely on MCA to win over the votes of the ethnic Chinese. This suggests that, in the long run, the Umno-PAS pact will have to make compromises and concessions to ethnic and religious minorities – if not actually work together – if they want to recapture federal power.
In the midst of all this, Siti Kasim’s Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity Foundation (Maju) has tapped into the disillusionment, felt especially among the urban middle class. The group’s inaugural forum in KL the other day drew some 2,000 restless folks.
Maju may yet play a role similar to what Bersih did during the Najib years – but this time in promoting a more inclusive vision whereas Bersih has focused mainly on electoral reforms.
Make no mistake, the new Malaysia project will continue to be undertaken by those committed to its aspirations for greater inclusiveness, social justice and a celebration of diversity.
So, another by-election, another wake-up call for PH leaders. Those who hope for a more inclusive Malaysia won’t rejoice at this BN win. But there are lessons to be learned.
Hopefully, PH leaders will heed the key messages sent out by voters. They cannot play the same race-and-religion card as Umno-PAS and hope to win. They have to come up with their own narrative for a more inclusive new Malaysia and have the courage, vision and statesmanship to stick to it.
The struggle for the soul of Malaysia continues.
Anil Netto is a freelance journalist.
The article first appeared on Aliran.com.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.