Will Malays always support UMNO?

Photo: Firdaus Latif/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Holly Reeves

“The Malays now do not weigh their own beliefs,” former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad complained this week, saying the country’s largest ethnic group will instead “blindly” support the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lead party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. He said, “They tie themselves to the party. Even if the party does a huge wrong they will continue supporting [them].”

Of course, Mahathir is nowhere near as loyal. As the impending twin by-elections in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, in the states of Selangor and Perak respectively, have heated up this week, Mahathir has stepped out for the other side – he is publicly supporting the Parti Amanah Negara candidate, Azhar Shukur.

Mahathir’s target, as ever, is Najib, “UMNO is supposed to champion race, religion and country, but now it champions Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.”

The plan by Mahathir to work with the opposition, and with the political activists he once shunned, is part of his strategy to put public pressure on Najib to quit. The man he has endorsed will take on candidates from Barisan Nasional and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), in a three-way race that will culminate on 18 June.

In the other seat, Kuala Kangsar, voters will also go to the polls, having lost their representative, Wan Mohammad Khair-il Anuar Wan Ahmad, in the same helicopter crash. His widow will seek to defend his majority of 1,082 votes against candidates from PAS, the National Trust Party (PAN), and an independent.

A terrible accident has opened up this race to parliament – which has again opened a battleground for Mahathir to peacock his anti-Najib rhetoric. But does he have a point? Do Malays feel more loyal to UMNO than to their own opinions?

Malays above all?

According to Bridget Welsh, associate professor in the Southeast Asian Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, “UMNO as a party draws its legitimacy from articulating the interest of the Malays, as they define it.”

“Securing Malay support is portrayed as the legitimate marker of the right to hold onto power by those who conceive of political power as primarily ethnicity-driven. One of the ironies of UMNO in office is that it has set the terms of its own legitimacy, opening itself to challenge when it loses support among the Malay community.”

As such, UMNO leaders have stepped up their rhetoric in recent months, emphasising Malay identity and bumiputra privilege, alongside a renewed Islamic vigour that in contemporary times has become associated with “Malayness”.

The purpose of this has been to use ketuanan Melayu, or “Malay dominance”, to evoke ethno-nationalist sentiment and galvanise Malay support for the party, while dividing the populace along ethnic lines.

The problem other parties then face is that, in a nation of over 60% ethnic Malays, how do you convince them you will better represent their interests in comparison to a party that considers them special above all others? And then there is the no small matter of the power and influence UMNO can wield as the ruling party.

For example, according to supreme council member, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the people of Sungai Besar will “lose out” if their candidate is not elected in this latest ballot. He said, “I hope the voters will understand when choosing an elected representative, choose an individual capable of bringing the voice of the people to be heard at a higher level as this is not a state seat.“

“I believe and I am confident if the voters of Sungai Besar give victory to BN (Barisan Nasional), development projects would continue to flow into the constituency,” he told reporters. But what does that mean? Malaysian politics is known for its patronage. An easy reading of these comments is; vote for us and get what you need.

This is a persuasive offer for the voter but a cold reality for UMNO. It needs to rally support in the ways it always has because if the Malay community is split, or rather switches loyalty to opposition parties, then the legitimacy of the party itself is questioned.

The fear factor

So will Malays always support UMNO at all costs? If we are talking about just these two by-elections then, barring a string of 1MDB indictments against Najib personally, the BN coalition should see fairly easy victories. And this may set the stage for a snap nationwide election that would keep them in power for another five years.

And former minister Zaid Ibrahim makes an interesting point on why this loyalty seems to be so unwavering. He says Malay support for the ruling party is less about allegiance and more about fear. Settlers fear that if things change they might get evicted; Malays fear shifts to entry requirements for the higher education admission system; contractors fear their quota of contracts will shrink; and the elites fear the largesse they get from making big donations will end.

In this light you can conclude Malays are not “blindly” supporting anything; whether that is Najib, or UMNO, or Budiman Mohd Zohdi. Instead they are supporting their own self-interest; and that is human nature – there is no fear that will ever change.