Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) agreed yesterday to formalise their long-standing pact to cooperate in the name of Malay Muslim unity, bringing together the two biggest parties representing Malaysia's majority community.
This came after top leaders from the two opposition outfits met for four hours at the headquarters of Umno, which ruled Malaysia for six decades until it was ousted at last May's election by the Pakatan Harapan (PH), led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad .
Umno acting president Mohamad Hasan told reporters that while "we want to unite the Muslims and Bumiputera", a term referring collectively to the Malay majority and aboriginal natives, "our agenda is not to create a Malay pact versus the non-Malays".
"We exchanged rings in Sungai Kandis, were engaged in Seri Setia and then we decided we want to get married," he said, referring to two by-elections last year when the two parties first embarked on an electoral pact, to avoid contesting against each other as they did at the May 9 general election.
The strategy finally bore fruit this year as it retained the Bumiputera-majority Cameron Highlands parliamentary ward by a wider margin in January, and then snatched back the Malay-dominated Semenyih seat in the PH stronghold of Selangor last weekend.
However, race-based rhetoric used in these campaigns has sparked fears of stoking racial tensions and hardline pro-Malay and Islamic policies being pushed at the expense of others.
In response, the Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress had on Monday announced they would look to form new alliances, signalling their unhappiness with Umno, their long-time partner and fellow founder of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which was in power until last year.
At the news conference, PAS deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man insisted "we are not only for the Malay Muslims but the interests of the whole country when we say ummah (Muslim nation)".
The two parties will now form committees and a parliamentary caucus to "find meeting points" and finalise a framework for their cooperation but will not form an official coalition like BN.
Umno and PAS were fierce rivals for decades as they tussled for supremacy but both found themselves outside of federal government despite analysts believing that PH would struggle for Malay support at last year's national polls against the two traditional giants of the community.
While Malay backing for PH was widely credited to Dr Mahathir's standing having been Malaysia's longest-serving leader, approval for his administration has slowly deteriorated since the early euphoria of the unprecedented change of government.
Malay voters are a crucial vote bank as they form the majority in more than half of parliamentary districts and are also a significant portion of the electorate elsewhere. PH would not have won the last election if Umno and PAS tallies were combined.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat president Anwar Ibrahim downplayed the development, insisting Malays would still support PH. "What is important is not only Malay unity but strengthening the position of Islam, uphold the Malay language and taking care of the public," he said, emphasising that PH's focus is on poorer Malaysians and not just a single race.