The outcome of Malaysia's next general election will be determined not by billion-dollar scandals or headline-grabbing deals, but by bread-and-butter issues, speakers told a panel discussion yesterday.
Malaysia was rocked by a massive scandal in 2015 when billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned illegally from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), while in recent months, questions have been raised about the necessity and affordability of billion-dollar investment plans by China.
Issues surrounding 1MDB are generally "approaching historical status now", Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent opinion polling firm Merdeka Centre, said at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum panel discussion.
"Many Malaysians have actually gone beyond the issue, and this has been bundled together in what they perceive to be leadership weaknesses," he said.
Mr Ong Keng Yong, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large and former high commissioner to Malaysia, said that while the 1MDB scandal has affected Kuala Lumpur's standing, it has not greatly harmed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak or his ruling Umno party.
Yesterday's forum, titled Malaysia's Next GE: The Perils And Prospects, was sponsored by OCBC Premier Banking.
China's investment deals and soft loans to Malaysia - which include the sale of 1MDB's power plants and loss-making national carmaker Proton, and a RM55 billion (S$17.8 billion) railway project and new ports - have been controversial.
Datuk Seri Najib has denied accusations that he is "selling out" the country, saying that these mega projects will create jobs and result in economic expansion for South-east Asia's third-biggest economy.
While these huge deals have sparked criticism of the government, the panellists believe that the biggest challenge for Mr Najib going into an election is the more mundane issue of the cost of living.
Malaysians are suffering from the double whammy of a 6 per cent goods and services tax and a weak ringgit that has increased the price of imported goods.
Mr Ibrahim said young people are worried about finding a good job, married couples are concerned about whether they can afford a home and whether they can get a pay rise, while most retirees do not have sufficient savings to tide them over.
Ms Selena Ling, head of Treasury Research and Strategy at OCBC Bank, noted that while Malaysia's headline economic data looked healthy, this would not be the main concern for most voters.
"When it comes to elections, people are going to vote on bread-and- butter issues. It is not going to be because growth is 5 per cent or less than 5 per cent," she said.
The next election has to be held by August next year, but views are divided over whether Mr Najib will call for elections around October to November, or wait until next April.
While opposition parties continue to bicker over who should be their prime ministerial candidate, Mr Najib has been dishing out cash aid to voters and rolling out new MRT and LRT lines. He has also promised more affordable housing.
With Sabah and Sarawak states expected to deliver about a quarter of the 222 federal parliamentary seats for Mr Najib's Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the Prime Minister needs only to tie down Malay votes in Peninsular Malaysia to win the next election.
"I don't think that it will be worse than what Najib or the BN obtained in 2013," said Mr Ong. "For the Malay voters, I think they will stick with what they know."
Mr Ibrahim said that even though Mr Najib's popularity remains low, BN remains the most trusted brand among Malay voters.