Many cannot understand why Najib Razak, convicted and jailed on corruption charges, remains so popular with the electorate.
Although he is now incarcerated at Kajang prison, he is still very much part of the upcoming general election (GE15), through his massive social media presence.
Whether Najib plays a major role in the elections, or becomes just a marginal sideshow, brings to the fore an issue that many leaning towards the opposition do not see.
Malay politics will be the cornerstone of the outcome of the general election. Around 40% of the 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat can be considered to be from the Malay heartland, while some 51% of Malaysia’s population are classified as Malay.
The winner of the coming election will be the party or party grouping that best understands the Malay heartland. This is primarily Umno’s stronghold.
The logic of corruption
Many see corruption as a serious crime that is morally repugnant. They cannot understand why corrupt politicians can be accepted and even admired.
People in the Malay heartland have a different view of corruption. A political leader helping a friend in trouble with a government contract is considered a noble act, not an act of corruption.
One Umno MP is regularly seen by many within his electorate as a “Robinhood” character: he reportedly travels around the state handing out gifts and money, supporting orphanages, visiting hospitals, and making donations to mosques.
The 1MDB financial scandal is extremely complex and understood by very few. Najib’s jailing is seen by many as a selective and political prosecution, contrived by Dr Mahathir Mohamed, who is perceived as having also unjustly jailed Anwar Ibrahim more than 20 years ago.
Thus, the issue of justice for politicians is seen as political rather than judicial. Thus, Najib is seen as a political prisoner, and not as a felon.
How many voters think along these lines will be partly understood from the election results.
It will not be easy to overcome the “adat” (custom), that “pemimpin” (leaders) can do no wrong, and should be respected. Malaysia has the widest power-distance relationships in the world.
Corruption, especially within government institutions, is regularly covered up. Those who expose corruption publicly can be seen as rebelling against Malay cultural norms. This is why corruption will not be a major issue within the Malay heartland.
Pushing these issues too hard might even be counter-productive.
Malay social identity
There are three major aspects to Malay social identity: the monarchy, religion and language.
The dominating aspect of Malay social identity is Islam, which defines how a Malay sees the world. Many believe being a Muslim is more important than being a Malaysian. Anything outside this view can be seen as threatening.
Secular politics doesn’t work in the Malay heartland as it conflicts with the views of Malay social identity. Any arguments that Malays will be better off under a secular government will be viewed with suspicion.
To win the Malay heartland, one has to be Islamic. This is the prime battlefield for hearts and minds. Mahathir has played this card for decades.
The DAP has long been portrayed as the bogeyman, and an enemy of an Islamic way of life. This has been a winning political narrative.
Umno has branded itself as the party that looked after the interests of the Malays. Umno gained independence for Malays, developed the kampongs, provided schooling, and defends Islam.
Umno uses the narrative of gratitude, an important trait in Malay culture.
What do heartland voters really want?
Malay culture and perspectives have been socially engineered over decades to create a need for protection.
Umno has become the protector against the ‘evil forces’ aimed at changing the Malay way of life. Umno plays the role of provider. Infrastructure, education, health, and even the haj. Local MPs are facilitators and problem-solvers for their constituents.
Some can see through these narratives, and this is why PKR is able to develop some degree of support. This is a growing trend, but ever so slowly.
However, the young are not jumping on board, as many had assumed, because they see the world through the Malay social identity.
The Malay heartland is far from homogenous. Umno’s arch nemesis PAS has broken into Umno’s strongholds, where there are now Umno and PAS kampongs existing side by side.
This even filters down to mosques, where some mosques become Umno mosques and others have become PAS mosques. Divisions in support for Umno and PAS have split apart families.
The arrival of Bersatu in the Malay heartland has also split support. Bersatu has soaked up those who were for many reasons dissatisfied with Umno. Bersatu has become a flag of convenience, rather than a sign of any new ideological direction within the Malay heartland.
Many pundits believe Bersatu may be wiped out this election, with support reconsolidating behind Umno, once again.
Can the opposition penetrate the heartland?
This is the question many are considering right now. There are some who believe issues of corruption will sway voters in this election.
However, based on the concepts within Malay social identity, it’s difficult to see how the voters within the Malay heartland will be persuaded by exposures of corruption and wrongdoing by politicians in office.
If there is going to be any change, it must be generational with the youth.
However, this will not be easy, as the younger generation has been educated within a system reinforcing Malay social identity. Many are even more religious than their parents and grandparents.
The opposition must learn that even Bersatu, a Malay-centric party, couldn’t penetrate deeply into the Malay heartland. Last general election it very much relied on the help of Pakatan Harapan.
A new generation of PH politicians needs to engage the youth within the paradigm of Malay social identity.
This is not going to happen in the coming general election. It will take a generation. However, the aspiration for secular politics within the Malay heartland is a tall order, unless some charismatic visionary politician arrives on the scene.
This is an issue for the new generation of PH politicians.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.