Will Malaysians accept a Chinese prime minister

Little is certain about the next general election in Malaysia. However, the country is unlikely to elect a non-Malay leader.

By John Pennington

Malaysians will cast their general election votes before August 2018, perhaps as early as March or April.

Four years ago, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won a majority and claimed 133 seats in the lower house of the parliament despite losing the popular vote to the Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak blamed a “tsunami from the Chinese community” after thousands of Malaysians decided against voting for his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Chinese votes were one reason for UMNO’s drop in popularity. Other analysts believed the country’s division on rural-urban lines was a more critical factor in the shift away from UMNO. The change raised the question of whether Malaysia is moving closer to the day when a non-Malay could ever become PM.

In theory, it is possible. “Any Malaysian can aspire to be Prime Minister, and that position must be supported by all of us who want this country to prosper,” argued former minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim. “The only qualification for the premiership is that this person must be acceptable to the majority of the people of this country.”

Malaysia remains divided along ethnic and religious lines

Malaysian society divides along ethnoreligious lines; Malaysian politics is similarly divided. Article 153 of the country’s constitution affords Malays, the country’s majority ethnic grouping, a “special position”.

Source: CIA World Factbook

In previous elections, Malays voted for Najib’s UMNO party while ethnic minorities, including Chinese and Indians, voted for the opposition.

Penang Chief Minister Lin Guan Eng recently stated his belief that no non-Muslims want to become the country’s PM. The counter-argument is that many Malays would refuse to accept a non-Muslim leader.

The leading contenders are all Malays – despite the BN’s attempts to prove the opposite

All six of Malaysia’s Prime Ministers were Malays. Najib, People’s Justice Party (PKR) leader Anwar Ibrahim, and his wife Wan Azizah identify themselves as Malays.

The reemergence of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as an opposition figurehead changed the political picture. Many Malays revere the former PM. As a result, many may vote for his party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), instead of UMNO.

In previous elections, no party has been able to claim enough support from both Malays and non-Malays to counter BN. Najib and UMNO may view his resurgence as a threat because PPBM could split the Malay vote.

This perceived threat may explain why Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi went on the offensive by calling Mahathir’s ethnic credentials into question. He alleged that Mahathir’s father was Indian. The attack was ill-timed. Weeks beforehand, Najib said he wanted to give Indian Muslims the same status as Malays.

“The contradiction between the PM and DPM’s remarks has opened up a Pandora’s box of race,” Eddin Khoo, a Malay cultural expert, said. The outrage that followed Najib’s comments is another indicator that Malays will not follow non-Malay leadership.

The Islamist Muslim Party’s (PAS) recent split from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition and subsequent move towards BN leave the PH parties more vulnerable at the ballot box than Najib’s. UMNO will be favourites in three-horse races across the country.

As yet, PH has not decided whether Mahathir, Anwar or somebody else will become PM if they win the election. Their final choice will not be a non-Malay.

The increased politicisation of Islam reduces the chances of a non-Malay PM

Abdul Hadi Awang, the PAS leader, believes that Malays should govern the country due to their position as the ethnic majority. “In Malaysia’s politics, it should be taken into account that the Bumiputera Malay of the Islamic faith are the dominant race that are appointed as the leadership pillars of the country with the strengthening of the position of Islam in the country’s Constitution and the constitutional ruler made up of Malay Muslims,” he argued.

At the same time, Najib stands accused of cosying up to hardline Muslim groups. When a laundrette in Johor banned non-Muslims, he was silent until after the local Sultan acted to force an end to the practice.

Karima Bennoune, United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, criticised the growing influence of religious authorities. There is a sense that those in power are keen to prevent non-Malay and non-Muslim rule in the future.

The UMNO and PAS have little in common but could come together

UMNO adopted a siege mentality and claimed that another party winning the election would be a disaster for Malays. The UMNO believes that if the opposition came to power, they would undo decades of work that promoted Malay and Muslim interests. UMNO and PAS may now form an electoral pact which will effectively keep the former in power.

“My take is that there will be no formal electoral pact but an understanding that PAS will put up a candidate in all the Malay-majority seats (about 110-120), thus dividing the opposition vote,” forecasted James Chin, director of University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “If this were to happen, it is almost certain that UMNO will return to power.”

As both UMNO and PAS deliver stronger pro-Malay and pro-Islam rhetoric, it makes for an environment in which non-Malay rule is highly unlikely. The more those in power reinforce the idea that Malays must govern, the less palatable the alternative appears.

Malaysia may one day be ready for a non-Malay PM

Malaysian politics is chaotic. Najib is battling allegations of corruption. Anwar is in prison. Mahathir is back. However, UMNO is still the favourite for next year’s 14th general election (GE14), and Najib is likely to win another term.

There are few prominent non-Malay candidates and none in the running to become Prime Minister. Malay voices will determine Malaysia’s future.

The emergence of a non-Malay PM would depend on a considerable collapse in voting numbers for UMNO, PAS and PKR. Such a situation is difficult to envisage within the next nine months.

Malaysia may not currently be ready for a non-Malay Prime Minister. However, that does not mean the ruling coalition should use the Malay Agenda as the justification to prevent non-Malays from governing in the future. If they do, in the words of Zaid, Malaysia risks becoming a failed state.