Will Mahathir emerge as a kingmaker for the Malay vote in Malaysia’s next election?

HE_Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, Prime Minister of MalaysiaPhoto: Chatham House

Mahathir Mohammad wants the Malaysian government to take the country’s ethnic diversity into account when making national policies. His comments appear to be an effort to appease voters—including the Malay majority—as the country prepares for the next election.

By Umair Jamal

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad has said that the country’s growth could face a setback if prevailing racial divides are not addressed.

In an interview with Free Malaysia Today, Mahathir said the government should consider the ethnic and racial diversity of Malaysia when making national policies.

“People will leave this country”, the former prime minister said, if we continue to prioritize racism and ethnicity in national policy making.

Mahathir’s statement comes as political parties in the country are vying for the votes of ethnic groups, particularly ethnic Malays, in an effort to prepare for the next election likely to take place later this year.

It is possible that Mahathir’s statement regarding the country’s identity politics, particularly the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)’s status as a Malay party, is intend to exploit the issue for political gains.

Is Mahathir attempting to appease both Malays and non-Malays?

Mahathir’s interview with Free Malaysia Today reveals significant details about the two-time former prime minister’s inclinations as far as the next election is concerned.

In the interview, Mahathir openly recognized non-Malay’s contributions towards the country’s development. He said that despite being minorities, the Indian, Chinese and other communities have prospered economically in a country where identity politics remain pervasive. “Whatever you say about the non-Malays, there is no doubt that they have contributed towards the development of this country. If you remove them, the growth of this country will be hampered, it will even turn negative,” said Mahathir.

However, he noted that the rise of non-Malays has created an economic gap in the country. Malays make up around 68% of the population but remain the poorest group, with the lowest average income in Malaysia. “There’s a need to balance [the wealth] between the non-Malays and the Malays. Because as you know, even if it’s a mono-ethnic country, if there is too big a disparity between the rich and the poor, there will eventually be violence,” he said.

“We have to bring [the Malays] up so that there is a balance in terms of distribution of the national wealth between all the different communities,” he added.

Mahathir’s statement on the economic divides along racial lines come at a time when the country’s major political parties are looking to appeal to the large Malay vote.

Photo: Firdaus Latif, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Did Mahathir use the identity politics reference to voice frustration about his waning political influence?

Mahathir also voiced frustration about the division of the Malay vote in the last election, saying that politicians have been more interested in personal gains than national unity.

According to the former prime minister, the more recent founding of new political parties, particularly among the Malay community, has been a disaster and has has divided the community from within. According to Mahathir, UMNO remained successful for decades because it was the only powerful Malay party and received the demographic’s substantial support. But today, he said, “Everybody wants to become the PM or to form their own government. This has diverted their attention from the interests of the country.” He proposed instead a non-partisan government to replace the current government.

It is important to note here that in his interview, Mahathir didn’t talk about what led to the demise of the UMNO, a traditionally Malay party, in the 2018 general election.

Mahathir’s entire focus was apparently on the fact that key Malay political leaders such as current Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin, former Prime Minister Najib Razak and others have been competing for the top post rather than uniting around the platform of a single party. Ironically, Mahathir was one of the first prominent UMNO leaders to quit the party in 2016 over allegations that the party was “supporting corruption.” To some extent, Mahathir’s departure encouraged other political leaders to leave the party and form alternative alliances that then divided the Malay vote. In another interview last month, Mahathir revealed that his decision to quit his role as president of UMNO will go down as one of his biggest regrets. 

In the Free Malaysia Today  interview, Mahathir didn’t talk about UMNO’s corruption scandals, poor governance record and other controversies that forced Malay voters to push the party out of power.

Though UMNO ruled the country for more than five decades, the party couldn’t adequately address the economic concerns of the majority ethnic community. This is partially because UMNO’s Malay ruling elite were busier trading favors to stay in power rather than addressing the concerns of the community itself. To a greater extent, UMNO itself has weaponized racial divides by barring legislation that could offer equal constitutional rights to ethnic minority communities.  

Perhaps Mahathir’s statement is meant to show his large Malay voter base that voting for him or the new Malay party that he leads (Homeland Fighters’ Party, or Pejuang) could restore their place at the center of the policy making process.

Malaysia’s volatile political environment since the 2018 election has exposed the deeply-rooted racial divides in the country as political parties try to exploit identity politics to win support. Unfortunately, Mahathir’s strategy is not likely to improve the situation as parties prepare for an election, likely later this year.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15