Until recently, I always thought of myself as half-Malay. When people would ask where I was from, I would rehearse the tired phrase “My mum is from Malaysia and my dad is from Indonesia, but I was born in Australia”. “You’re Malay/Indonesian then?” people ask. Sure.
When I found out quite recently that my mother was Chinese, not Malay, I was shocked. An assumption I held about my cultural heritage all my life, was wrong (which explains why I was (briefly) sent to Chinese school). It is not that my parents tried to hide this from me. They simply did not think being Chinese was an issue – “We’re still from Malaysia, we’re Chinese-Malays.”
For many Malaysians, race is a non-controversial part of everyday life. The acceptance and co-existence of Malaysia’s three ethnic groups including the Chinese, Indian and indigenous Malays or bumiputera (literal translation ‘sons of the soil’) is a unique form of multiculturalism. There is widespread recognition that the bumipetera (Malays) are clearly favoured by the Malay-dominated government; this has largely been accepted by Chinese and Indian Malays. However, Malaysia’s 13th election shows a re-surfacing of racial tensions, instigated by a government losing legitimacy.
The re-election of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, for the 56th year of unbroken rule, was won at a close margin, with 72% of seats incurring a less than 5% difference. Although the BN managed to win 133 out of 222 seats, forming government in a constituency based system (as opposed to proportional representation) the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won the popular vote at 50.87%.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim mobilised people in rallies to contest the elections from allegations of fraud in the unusually close election. Reports have found not-so-indelible ink, unidentified ‘phantom’ voters, a badly managed electoral roll and of course, the estimated 40,000 people flown in from Borneo to the Malaysian peninsula, confirming fraudulent activity. While only time can tell the result of Ibrahim’s nationwide rallies, it becomes clear that the BN needed to use dishonest methods to win, as their racialbased policies and racial politics were insufficient to convince voters.
Race has been brought up in the government-owned media as the main issue concerning voters in reports following the election. But according to Dr. Khairudin Aljunied from the University of Singapore, voters were more interested in policies that would ensure good governance; social and political liberalisation; economic progress; and the end of corruption, and the urban-rural, rich-poor divide. The shift towards the opposition indicates a currently unsatiated need for transparency and equality, with Chinese and Malays as well as first and second time voters voting for PR’s commitment to replace the affirmative action program has favoured Malays in areas such as housing, education, employment, scholarships, business and savings in the past.
While a large percentage of PR voters are Chinese-Malay, Dr. Aljunied shows bumipetera Malay voters changing their preferences from the extreme-right, Malay dominated Perkasa organisation candidates to the Pan-Islamic Malaysia Party, part of the PR coalition championing equal rights and liberal democratic policies. Malays are choosing a more multicultural and more liberal Malaysia through the PR and PAS despite the BN’s pro-Malay policies.
However, the shift in votes has been characterised in racial terms. First and second time voters, younger voters and the Malays and Indian-Malays who voted PR have been disregarded in post-election discourse. The focus has been on the Chinese-Malays who have been labelled “ungrateful” by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and largely to blame for the loss of BN votes.
They have been scorned by the Umno, dominant political party controlled newspaper Utusan Malaysia, with one headline reading “What more do the Chinese want?” The Chinese were voting for a more plural Malaysia. They were not voting because of because of racial animosity towards Malays, as the BN suggests. Placing the blame on the Chinese-Malays in an election based on issues of justice and equality, is an attempt to re-assert race as ethnicity, to garner conservative Malay support.
Racial politics is nothing new, but the difference is this year’s election had a strong opposition offering democratic alternatives to the BN’s affirmative action program for Malays, packaged as attempts for national reconciliation for a ‘1Malaysia’.
While race is still undoubtedly an issue (results show high percentage of Malays voting for BN), it is more about the implications of race-based policy (i.e. discrimination under certain policies, rather than racial/ethnic divides). Campaigning on racial divisions in attempt to conjure racial sentiment is a political tactic voters have rejected in a racially tolerant society. Malaysians are more concerned about anti-corruption, plurality and inequality – they would rather vote for the PR. Hence why the BN could not win without rigging the results.
The closest election in Malaysian history indicates change is near. The BN’s legitimacy has been challenged by electoral fraud and racial fearmongering. Unless the BN turns around its racially-biased policies and attitudes, Malaysians will not buy into a party which contradicts calls for unification with exclusively pro-Malay policies.