The perceived threat of losing their political clout is often posed by Malay political parties as a threat to the survival of the entire ethnic group. We can expect ethnic-based political parties to hype up this issue as we get closer to GE14.
As an example, in the last Umno general assembly on 1 December 2016, Dato’ Seri Najib Razak in his Presidential Address claimed that Malaysians are presented with only two options, a government that is led by Malays through Umno on the one hand, or non-Malays through DAP on the other.
Najib also said that if the country were to fall into DAP’s hand in GE14, Malay special position will be abolished and many Malay agencies will be shut down. The Malays are expected to be “fearful and concerned” about this risk and they should continue to support Umno because Umno is the only party that can stem the rise of the DAP.
In my interviews with villagers in several rural areas, studying the sentiments among Malay voters, this fear is a strong influence on how they would vote and the same fear is also the reason why they always voted for Umno.
The analogy most often cited by the villagers I met is that the Malays might become like their counterparts in Singapore if the DAP wins. They perceive the Malays in Singapore as being oppressed and discriminated against by the Chinese-led government in Singapore.
Among the villagers I interviewed, no hard evidence was supplied to back up their claim. And when pressed to be more specific, many simply stated that they heard this from their political leaders, or this is their understanding from media coverage and media commentaries.
When pressed even further, none of them are able to cite which specific media report they were referring to or which specific politician have made those claims. Even though many of them used the example of Singaporean Malays, none of the villagers interviewed have actually visited the country or know any Malay from Singapore.
Nevertheless, even though they were unable to substantiate their claims with proper evidence, fear of losing the special status accorded to ethnic Malays is clearly an issue of concern for many rural Malay villagers. And that fear is all that is needed to influence their voting decisions.
All of them associate the Chinese-majority DAP with the risk of further erosion of Malay special privileges, and they insist that they, as Malays, will only vote for a political party that will guarantee the privileges are secured.
Interestingly, in all my interviews, the name DAP and the phrase “orang Cina” (ethnic Chinese) were used interchangeably by the villagers. It was as if for the them, the rise of the DAP is equated to the rising strength of Chinese political power, and by extension the erosion of Malay political power.
In other words, when these villagers read media coverage or hear speeches from politicians about how the DAP’s strength is on the rise, they almost instinctively treat it like a code word to mean the Chinese are increasingly threatening to special position of the Malays.
And, to them, voting for any party that could help DAP get into government is the equivalent of jeopardizing Malay special position as a whole.
The truthfulness of this assumption will surely be challenged by many. But, when it comes to political sentiment at least among the Malay villagers I met, their current perception towards the DAP and the fear generated by that perception matter a lot in determining how they vote.
This fear, and the perception towards the DAP, plays directly into the way the new Malay party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), is perceived by some Malay voters.
DAP is a major party in the Pakatan Harapan coalition. In fact, in our parliament today, DAP has the biggest number of seats among Harapan members. And many of their leaders are vocal too.
While this might be a strength to the DAP itself, it is ironically a weakness to PH coalition especially in the eyes of rural Malay voters. The problem is particularly acute for PPBM because rural Malay voters is their core target audience.
PPBM leaders whom I met are well aware of this challenge and that is why they argue that their party must be given the driving seat in Harapan. They argue, logically, that for them convince the Malay voters, they must become the face of Harapan. If they are not put in the driving seat, neither they nor Harapan would be able to sway sufficiently large proportion of Malay votes.
That partially explains why all the Harapan parties were quick to accept PPBM leaders like Tun Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as the public faces of Harapan, despite protests from some of their own ranks and files. But how this will translate into seat allocation for GE14 is yet to be seen.
(Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, IDEAS, and Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.)