Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday sought to cast the coming general election as a binary battle between his party Umno and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), a strategy that he hopes will counter former premier Mahathir Mohamad's recent formation of a Malay-based party, analysts say.
Datuk Seri Najib, in his speech at the Umno assembly yesterday, said 10 prominent bumiputera and Islamic bodies would be dismantled or weakened if the DAP's "extreme liberalism" became government policy.
Bumiputeras, or sons of the soil, refer to the Malay majority and aboriginal tribes - such as the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia and others in Sabah and Sarawak - but exclude ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Mr Najib, who is Umno president, described the DAP in stark terms.
"If you study the DAP Constitution, there is no mention at all of Islam as the federal religion, respect for the Malay royalty, and not a single sentence about protecting the rights and privileges of Malays and bumiputera," he said in his keynote address.
Analysts said the attack on the DAP could kill two birds with one stone for Umno.
First, it could dilute the impact of Tun Dr Mahathir's four-month-old party, as Mr Najib equates support for Dr Mahathir with empowering the DAP. Second, it is a familiar message from Umno that the DAP, once in power, will roll back many of the affirmative action plans and state-endorsed privileges enjoyed by the bumiputeras.
"The idea that government largesse for Malays will disappear can scare a lot of voters, who may revert back to Umno," Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told The Straits Times.
He added that this was especially true of poorer rural voters, who have found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in economically trying times.
Rising cost of living has been a key cause of public unhappiness with Mr Najib's government, according to opinion polls, and the threat of things getting worse may cause voters to "play safe".
The DAP today is no pushover.
The party and its two allies in the 2013 General Election - Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) - nearly defeated the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition. The opposition won the popular vote for the first time in 13 nationwide polls since Malaysia gained independence. In that ballot, the DAP won 38 seats in the federal Parliament, with only Umno having more seats with 88.
The Chinese-led party's success was largely due to its increasing hold on urban Chinese voters, while other opposition parties have struggled as Malay support for them dwindled.
After the DAP and PKR parted ways with PAS two years ago, a group of PAS leaders formed Parti Amanah Negara to try to capture some of the votes from religious Malays.
And now, with Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the opposition hopes to gain other Umno dissidents.
This plan could be in jeopardy if many Malays buy into Mr Najib's argument that the DAP will be the biggest winner if the opposition gains strength.
The Najib strategy is a familiar one, according to Ideas policy think-tank head Wan Saiful Wan Jan, as it was employed by British colonialists.
"If implemented properly, the 'divide' strategy will almost certainly result in 'rule'," he said.
But he warned that the divisive strategy could "destroy the sense of Malaysian-ness among citizens" and further divide them into ethnic silos.