Barisan Nasional’s political gamble on Malaysian anti-Chinese sentiment

Key figures in Barisan Nasional criticised Chinese-Malay billionaire Robert Kuok. It was a political gamble that may come back to haunt Najib on polling day.


The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is backpedalling. Najib is trying to make amends after key figures in his party criticised Robert Kuok. Malaysia Today published a series of articles accusing Kuok of financing the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Many BN members were quick to jump on the allegations. Tourism minister Nazri Aziz accused Kuok of hiding in Hong Kong. He used an offensive Malay term meaning effeminate man to describe him. He also called him a “coward” and said if he was “man enough” he should return to Malaysia and run for elected office.

Sources: Forbes, SCMP

It was a deliberate attempt from BN to stir up anti-Chinese sentiment

Anti-Chinese sentiment has been creeping into Malaysian politics in recent years. In 2016, Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) accused the DAP of undermining the position of ethnic Malays. This prompted a “pro-Malay” rally in Kuala Lumpur.

The recent attacks on Kuok were an attempt to whip up anti-Chinese fervour against the DAP. The Chinese-Malay population are generally wealthier. This has increased resentment towards the ethnic Chinese population. Many Malay Muslims receive preferential treatment. They are more likely to get public sector jobs than their Chinese counterparts. Landlords often charge Chinese tenants more.

By denouncing Kuok for financing the DAP, BN hoped to capitalise on these feelings. But it may have underestimated the role Chinese voters will have in this election.

It could come back to haunt BN

Malaysia is home to 7.4 million ethnic Chinese. In previous elections, BN has not had to rely on swing voters to carry it to victory in previous elections. In 2013, it won with 133 seats to the opposition’s 89. In 2008, it won by an even greater margin.

However, this election will be much closer. The 7.4 million ethnic Chinese may have a significant impact on the election. Wealthier Chinese voters will be unimpressed by BN’s recent conduct.

Opposition candidate, Mahathir Mohamad, recognised the need to win the ethnic Chinese vote. He has been working earnestly to dispel the accusations he is anti-Chinese. In 2017, he said, “it’s a political label used by my opponents. In fact, I have defended China all over”.

BN is backpedalling, but it is too little too late

Najib has already recognised his party’s error. He has lauded Kuok’s business acumen in the press since the tirade from his tourism minister. He also expressed pleasure at Kuok’s denial of funding the DAP. However, Nazri Aziz has refused to apologise for his remarks.

Najib looks like a leader trying to control the damage. He is trying to make amends for a severe political miscalculation. Najib can try to rectify things. He can spout BN’s past involvement in constructing Chinese schools. He can also talk at length about his role in promoting Chinese investment. But on polling day, the 7.4 million ethnic Chinese will not remember any of this. They will remember how his party ridiculed a pillar of the Chinese-Malay community. They will remember how Nazri Aziz would not apologise for his unfounded remarks. Then, they will use their vote to attack BN where they can hurt it the most; a vote for the opposition.