By-elections reveal new Malay politics

On May 5, in the midst of the Sarawak state election campaign, a helicopter crashed in the jungle and killed five people, including Malaysia's Deputy Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities Noriah Kasnon and the Member of Parliament for Kuala Kangsar, Dr Sundaran Annamalai.

Two simultaneous by-elections will now have to be held, one in Kuala Kangsar in Perak state, and the other in Sungei Besar in Selangor. They are scheduled for June 18.

While technically minor battles, they are part of bigger political wars being fought in Malaysia.

These conflicts were demonstrated earlier this week when Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and unofficial opposition leader, issued an eight-page letter to his followers. This urged them to exercise caution over the attempt by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - Anwar's long-time nemesis - to unseat Prime Minister Najib Razak through "Mahathir's Citizens' Declaration". This declaration calls for Datuk Seri Najib to resign amid accusations of corruption, and has already exceeded its one million-signature target.

The distrust between the two men is understandable, but there is also fear of Tun Dr Mahathir effectively usurping the role of opposition leader.

Such incidents say something profound about Malaysia's present socio-political situation.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (centre) with Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem (left) and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi at the press conference after the Sarawak state election results were announced on May 7. The Barisan Nasional
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (centre) with Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem (left) and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi at the press conference after the Sarawak state election results were announced on May 7. The Barisan Nasional stormed to victory in the polls. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Only diehards now imagine that significantly more non-Malay support for the opposition is forthcoming than that it so impressively garnered in the 2013 elections. In the recent Sarawak state election, it was the Democratic Action Party (DAP) - a basically Chinese party that is trying to be re-recognised as a multiracial one - that was the main loser. It had been hoping to show it could win votes from Sarawak's diverse communities.

What has been taking place over the last two decades - perhaps since the fallout between Dr Mahathir and Anwar in 1998 - is persistent socio-political diversification in the Malay community. This is expressed in various ways - in the founding of at least two new Malay-based parties, in the fervent establishment of Malay-language magazines, newspapers and publishers, and in the apparent crisis in Malay leadership. And that is not even taking into account the rise of social media and news websites , and their effect on young Malays.

And in this context, the coming by-elections carry great significance. The DAP already realises that its role can only be supportive, as these are Malay majority seats. What becomes manifest, then - and this reflects the larger national picture - is that these battles will be fought totally between Malay-based parties and between Malay personalities.

The results promise insight into how the Malay ground in the key states of Selangor and Perak has been affected since the 2013 general election by Mr Najib's turn to the right, by the many scandals involving him, by the top-level strife within the all-powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and by the break-up of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. They will shed light on the effect of the split in Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) which led to the formation of the more progressive Parti Amanah Negara, the second jailing of Anwar, and on Dr Mahathir's Citizens' Declaration, which has seen him performing more and more like the opposition leader.

And most importantly, they can give an indication of how the political sentiments of rural and semi-urban Malays have been affected by recent economic travails; and how much of this is blamed on the implementation of GST and the government's general mismanagement of the economy.

PAS, which is now without official coalition ties and which narrowly lost in 2013 to Umno both in Kuala Kangsar, where Malays make up 68 per cent of voters, and in Sungai Besar, with 66 per cent Malays, wants fervently to contest against Umno again in both constituencies.

Amanah, its breakaway party, sees a good chance to test its potential for the first time since its recent founding, and may be willing to compromise and concentrate on one seat and leave the other to PAS. But even that is not certain yet. It may want to give both seats a go. And then there is Anwar's PKR, which runs Selangor state, and which may not be too willing to play merely a supporting role in Sungai Besar.

Dr Mahathir, in turn, has surprised everyone by calling on opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights (in the by-elections) and to focus on the task at hand - which is to defeat his own former party, Umno. His latest statement has him sounding like a self-appointed leader of the opposition, and this may have precipitated Anwar's eight-page letter.

What may have forced Dr Mahathir's hand could be the concern that Mr Najib, buoyed by Barisan Nasional's landslide victory in Sarawak earlier this month, may be tempted to call an early general election should the BN win the by-elections by a strong margin. A bad showing by both Pakatan Harapan (represented by Amanah) and by PAS would confirm worsening voter disenchantment with the opposition and its agenda for change, and that would convince Mr Najib that a snap election is to be preferred.

Should he then lead the BN to win a new federal mandate, and if that turns out to be a stronger one than what he managed in 2013, any hope his detractors have of removing him, would be buried.

• The writer is the deputy director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

• SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian Affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'By-elections reveal new Malay politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe