This 2-day hybrid conference organised by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung examined the impact of the fluidity of allegiances in Malaysia’s political landscape and factors affecting the votes and results of GE-15 with six presentations.
MALAYSIA STUDIES PROGRAMME HYBRID CONFERENCE
Tuesday and Wednesday, 4 and 5 April 2023 – The hybrid conference on “Malaysia’s GE-15: Capturing Hearts, Cobbling Alliances, Crafting Power”, held from 4 April to 5 April 2023, was organised by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) with support from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). Over 100 participants attended the two-day hybrid event on the Malaysian 15th General Election (GE15) online and on-site.
The conference broadly covered six main themes, (1) The Big Picture for GE15, (2) Youth Politics, (3) Campaign Outreach, (4) East Malaysia, (5) Key Interest Groups, and (6) Peninsular States. These themes were discussed by 20 speakers and 6 moderators.
Mr Choi Shing Kwok (Director and CEO of ISEAS) kicked off the conference by highlighting that Malaysian politics has been extremely fluid since 2018, with unprecedented political change and unexpected twists. He provided some context to Muhyiddin and Ismail Sabri’s administration leading up to GE15. Referring to ISEAS 2018 Conference on GE14, Mr Choi asked if GE15 was “another case of “missed signs” or a “late surge?” He explained that the calculations for GE15 were unlike 2018, since, for the first time, Malaysians had a choice of three viable coalitions. When the results were announced, Mr Choi said that the results once again caught observers by surprise since “Pakatan shrank, Perikatan soared, and Barisan who was supposedly resurgent actually sank.” Mr Choi concluded his speech by saying that the conference, therefore, has a three-legged theme: Capturing Hearts, Cobbling Alliances, Crafting Power.
Panel 1: Big Picture
Dr Francis Hutchinson (Senior Fellow, ISEAS), moderator of panel 1, kickstarted the first panel by explaining the outcomes of GE15. Through a series of cartographic visualisations, he set out the expansion of seats won by Perikatan Nasional (PN) in the central and eastern regions of Peninsula Malaysia. Apart from that, Pakatan Harapan (PH) dominated the Western flank of Peninsula Malaysia, where urban and mixed seats are located. Meanwhile, Barisan Nasional (BN) suffered the greatest decline in seats from 80 seats in GE14 to 30 seats in GE15.
Dr Kai Ostwald (Senior Visiting Fellow, ISEAS) delivered his presentation “Coalitions Before and After GE15: Fragmentation and Unity”. He observed a breakdown of the traditional two coalition system (BN and PH) in GE15 and the presence of vote splitting among the Malay electorate. Dr Ostwald gave a detailed breakdown of the political parties involved in GE15, stating that the modal number of parties contesting in each seat was 4 contestants. Sarawak and Johor were the only states that had less than 4 parties contesting in the GE15 elections. This was a historically new phenomenon as Malaysian elections historically have not had that many multi-coloured fights. Vote splitting was the most obvious among the Malay parties and the combined votes won by BN and PN were larger than PH for 15 seats in GE15. Moreover, there was greater distribution of seats across coalitions in GE15, especially in Malay majority peninsular seats. This had thus led to the eventual formation of the Unity Government as no coalition was able to cross the 112 seats threshold to form the government. Dr Ostwald concluded that the present Unity Government had become the main vehicle for stability, but also opened up more questions on the sustainability of this electoral system in the long run.
Dr Ong Kian Ming (Senior Visiting Fellow, ISEAS) presented “The Devil is in the Detail: A Deep Dive into GE-15 Polling Stream Results”. He introduced his research methodology to analyse stream (saluran) level for the key questions – how age and race affect turnout and voting patterns. Through a simple regression, the turnout for voters in the ‘under 22 years old’ category was higher than the other age groups (30 to 40 and 40 to 50 years old). In terms of voting by race trends, the overall Malay support for PH is at 11%, PN at 53% and BN at 33%. There were few variations for Chinese voters across states, and broadly speaking Chinese voters throughout Malaysia supported PH at 95%. Indian voters demonstrated a similar trend where overall support for PH was 86%. On the other hand, significant differences were observed for Malay voters across different states. Dr Ong also noticed that there was a significant increase in PN supporters among older to younger Malay majority polling streams. BN, however, suffered a significant drop from the Malay population, especially among the 20 to 30 years age group. Dr Ong therefore believed that the upcoming state elections would be crucial in understanding other voting trends, especially among Malay voters. This included the possibility of Malay voters shifting to PH in the coming state elections and whether Anwar’s overall positive ratings among the communities could translate to more gains in the Malay voters.
Dr Cassey Lee (ISEAS) presented on “Politics, Pandemics and Economics: Malaysia’s post-Covid Election”. Merdeka Centre poll findings show that economic concerns ranked the highest concern among voters, with inflation and political instability being the top two economic issues. Dr Lee elaborated on his research’s methodology, stating how he had incorporated various electoral data together with two economic indicators (GDP growth and inflation) into his analysis. Results showed economic issues can influence voters’ support towards the incumbent, evidently seen where vote share for the incumbent decreased with higher inflation and slowing GDP growth. Dr Lee further broke down his analysis according to the influence of non-economic and economic factors to each party’s vote shares. As for non-economic factors, his analysis showed interesting findings where party incumbency had worked well for Bersatu, but not for PAS and UMNO. In fact, having individual incumbency was a disadvantage for UMNO, potentially due to the perception of corruption with their leaders. In terms of economic factors, voters from the higher median income tended to vote for PKR while the reverse voted for PAS. Interestingly, DAP’s vote performance seemed relatively unaffected by economic issues. Dr Lee, therefore, concluded his presentation with a summary of his result findings, stating that ethnicity had played an important factor in GE15 results while economic factors tended to affect PAS’s vote share more than other parties.
During the Q&A session, participants inquired about whether the Anwar administration would survive for a full term, the importance of upcoming state elections, transition to a mature democracy, and differences between 2018 and GE15.
Panel 2: Youth: Political and Social Dynamics
The second panel was moderated by Dr Azmil Tayeb (Lecturer, Universiti Sains Malaysia). Mr James Chai (Visiting Fellow, ISEAS) shared his presentation “Newfound Voices, Surprising Choices: How Malaysia’s Young Voters are Shaping Politics”. He began by sharing that the implementation of UNDI-18 made Malaysian youths the most keenly watched demographic group in GE15. He stated that there are two assumptions about the youths: they are politically apathetic and support parties with progressive ideologies. However, both assumptions were debunked in GE15. In GE15, turnout was highest among the youngest age groups. The Malay youths also voted conservatively and contributed to the green wave. Mr Chai shared that there were two reasons why it was hard to foresee that the Malay youths would vote for PN. He shared that, in his surveys, PN youths were shy to indicate that they would vote for PN. Some respondents shared that they would vote for BN in the survey, but in actuality, they voted for PN. Mr Chai also shared that pro-BN respondents are the least loyal and hence there was a tendency for them to swing to other parties. Mr Chai shared that the most overwhelming responses he gathered from youth surveys revolved around the topics of corruption and religion. He shared that the survey respondents perceived a clean government as essential and an “Islamic” government as advantageous. He shared that PN seems to fulfil the clean and Islamic package with PH lacking the “Islam” credentials and BN lacking the “clean” perception among Malay youths respondents. He also shared that PN voters were higher on active political engagement. Nonetheless, he concluded that the clean and Islamic package is favourable to PN but not a given in upcoming state elections because of the corruption charges levied against PN senior leaders recently.
Dr Azhar Ibrahim (Lecturer, National University of Singapore) presented on “Cultural Right Is Not Right”: Malay Youths in the Era of Populism in Malaysia”. He shared that the public domain is an interesting site for observing the socio-political and cultural dynamics. Amidst rising ethnoreligious populism, youth circles are targeted by various interest groups. In the past, political parties used the student union and political affiliations as machinery to operate on the campuses. He shares that these mechanisms are less salient now. Dr Azhar argued that youth groups are not so forthcoming in the public domain because of security surveillance and intimidation. Dr Azhar shared that the power elites have also aligned themselves with the production of culture. He shared that cultural production is the most productive site to gain support and acceptance for the populist narrative. The elites have also endorsed academics who clamour to defend Malay rights. However, there are liberal and progressive pockets in the production of discourse. The rise of PH has also been fermented, all political parties do not rise in a vacuum. Malay populist rights intensified when the dominant power establishment is subject to pressures from the opposition. He shared that the discursive market is already flooded by material from the cultural right and that the discursive materials are limited to the Malay reading market. Dr Azhar concluded by sharing that youth political literacy needs more players in the public sphere.
During the Q&A session, participants inquired on whether Malay youths will swing away from PN considering the recent corruption charges against Muhyiddin, the differences between English-educated and monolingual Malays, the absence of class discourse among Malay youths.
Panel 3: Campaign Platforms And Voter Outreach
The third panel was moderated by Mr James Chai (Visiting Fellow, ISEAS). Mr Ooi Kok Hin (Executive Director, Bersih) presented “Transitional Reforms, Reformational Transitions: Understanding the Reform Agenda during Malaysia’s Political Transitions”. He began with an overview of the three types of reforms: Institutional reforms, Rights reforms and Policy Reforms. Mr Ooi shared that there were high expectations back when PH introduced the Buku Harapan, particularly on the abolishment of GST. He shared that it got off on the right foot and exemplified how public participation played a part in the institutional reform committee. One example also involved the inclusion of experts and civil society actors in the Electoral Reform Committee. Mr Ooi then shared that reforms were suspended under Muhyddin’s Premiership with the COIVD-19 outbreak and declaration of emergency rule. Mr Ooi shared that states can adopt different trajectories from federal politics, with Perak and Johor providing equal allocations for state assemblypersons and the opposition. This testifies to how different political conditions generate appetite and incentives for reforms. He concluded that transitional reforms have the characteristic of being transitional. Hence, when proposed, they should be locked in quickly since rollback risks exist. With regards to reform transitions: transition periods are a great window of opportunity for reform advocacy.
Dr Elvin Ong (Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore) and Ms Chan Xin Ying (PhD candidate, National University of Singapore) presented on “Useful or Useless? Competing Coalition Logos, Manifestoes and Slogans in GE-15”. Dr Ong shared that political communication is the bedrock of how political parties signal their ideology and how voters perceive them. He added that party logos are important because it is simple brand identification for the respective parties. In 2018, PH used the PKR logo. In 2022, the common logo of the alliances was well agreed upon in advance and parties camouflaged under the coalition logo. Meanwhile, there was also explicit use of party’s logo in some seats to ensure that the voters could recognise and vote accordingly. Ms Chan shared on the GE15 campaigns based on her fieldwork. For PN, they lambasted BN for endemic corruption while contrasting to the “clean” PN. He shared that PAS is famous amongst the youths, particularly because of how the youths are concerned about corruption. PN used the slogan Prihatin, Bersih dan Stabil (Caring, Clean and Stable) and such campaigns are more aggressive in the urban areas. With regards to PH electoral strategies, they utilised the progressive image and continuous effort. They do not mention PN and the most negative campaigning was focused on BN. Some narratives include the national debt issues, and that the money was put into BN pockets instead of being spread to the people. BN’s tactics was defensive and did not at all deny the corruption allegations but tried to refocus on the “good old times” such as high economic growth during the BN government.
Dr Gayathry Venketiswaran (Lecturer, University of Nottingham Malaysia) presented “Role Of Media In Elections: Weaving The GE15 Narrative On News and Social Media” through social media research findings by herself and Dr Zaharom Nain. Dr Gayathry’s research was informed by Christian Fuchs on his study of social media and politics (protests, movements) which fundamentally challenges the utopian views of ICT and brings back discussions of political economy. She explained that after GE14, there was not much change in the information ecosystem because the GLC and political crony ownership of media companies are still high. Dr Gayathry also shared that there was an increase in self-censorship, particularly on race, religion and royalty. The latest data show that trust in news has improved over the years prompted by COVID-19 when many people were dependent on the news. The findings saw that Gender and LGBTIQ issues were highly politicised and were coupled with labels such as “liberal” and “anti-Islam”, and were used largely to dissuade voters against political actors such as PH, DAP and Anwar Ibrahim. Refugees and Migrant issues were not a key issue however. Among key politicians, PAS and Hadi Awang were the biggest amplifiers of race. For example, Hadi’s TikTok content that said that Malay candidates were being used by DAP had 2.5 million in engagement, the highest across the platforms. She concluded that offence-taking or manufactured indignation was evident in the case of GE-15.
During the Q&A session, participants discussed the role of personality (agency) or political incentives (structural) as most important impetus for reforms, the absence of ideological differentiation between BN, PH and PN for economic development, and social media tactics for PN and PH.
Panel 4: Sarawak and Sabah
The fourth panel was moderated by Dr Lee Hwok Aun (Senior Fellow, ISEAS). Dr Lee Poh Onn (Senior Fellow, ISEAS) presented on “Sarawak in GE-15: GPS Consolidated, PH Consoled”. On the demographic front, Dr Lee commented that Sarawak is very different from Peninsular Malaysia due to its diverse ethnic make-up with non-Muslims comprising more than half of the population. The main contestants in Sarawak for GE15 was the ruling GPS and the opposition PH. In GE15, there was widespread voter apathy with low turnout at election rallies. Dr Lee commented that during his fieldwork, he observed that Sarawakians were more concerned about economic issues than voting. GPS campaigned on a “Sarawak first” platform and promised to secure greater concessions from the federal government on the condition that Sarawakians unite behind GPS and provide a strong mandate. GPS also continued on its traditional campaign strategy which ties developmentalism with a strong Sarawak-based party in the federal parliament. Nonetheless, GPS’ campaign was noticeably more subdued compared to previous general elections due to widespread apathy. PH campaigned on “Kita Boleh” which promised to serve as a check and balance against GPS.
Dr Tony Paridi (Lecturer, Universiti Teknologi MARA Sabah) and Dr Arnold Puyok (Lecturer, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak) presented on “From Friend to Foe and Back Again: Inter- and Intra-Party Relations in Sabah”. Dr Tony started the presentation by saying that Sabah politics is complicated from a national perspective, with Sabah Bersatu supporting the Federal unity government even though Bersatu is in opposition. He shared that GBS was formed comprising of BN, PN and PBS to counter the Warisan-led state government in the aftermath of GE14. Since the 2020 Sabah state election, GBS is reconfigured as GRS as a formal coalition and won the state election. In GE15, the coalitions contesting in Sabah are namely PH, Warisan, GRS. Even though UMNO is fighting against Bersatu at the national level, UMNO Sabah collaborates with Bersatu Sabah under GRS in many seats to avoid direct contest. Dr Arnold shared the campaign issues in Sabah for GE15. Infrastructure remains the key campaign issue in Sabah, due to limited connectivity and roads compared to Peninsula. GRS attempted to draw reference to GPS with both parties’ slogan appearing side by side in Sabah – even though GPS is not contesting in Sabah. By modelling itself after GPS, GRS is attempting to replicate the Sarawak model in Sabah. GRS slogan for “Sabah first, foremost, prosperous, united” similarly taps into Sabah nationalism and desire for state-based autonomy. GRS is expected to cut ties with Bersatu and be listed as a Sabah-based entity, similar to GPS in Sarawak. PH faced difficulties in Sabah due to perceptions that it is closely associated with the Peninsula.
In the question-and-answer segment, participants discussed: whether GPS and DAP will collaborate in Sarawak since both are major partners in the Federal Unity Government; if GRS would successfully emulate GPS and gain dominance in Sabah; and the future of Warisan.
Panel 5: Interest Groups
The fifth panel was moderated by Dr Ong Kian Ming (Senior Visiting Fellow, ISEAS). Dr Serina Rahmah (Lecturer, National University of Singapore) presented on “The Rural Malay Battleground – Change of Heart, Change of Ground?”. Her fieldwork was carried out in Mukim Tg Kupang in West Johor, Felda Tenggaroh in East Johor and Yan in Kedah. All three locations have similar poverty incidences (and are classified as Bottom 40 or “B40”). She reported that GE15 was received with much anger, distrust and frustration from the onset due to political fatigue among the rural Malays. The constant power grabbing among politicians has resulted in an economic standstill. Dr Serina also highlighted the issues raised among her interlocutors during GE15: Malay rights, distrust of the Democratic Alliance Party (DAP), and power-grabbing and corruption, which led them to focus on individual personalities rather than party manifestos. She went on to describe the sentiments of prominent party leaders in the respective field sites, with poignant quotations gathered from her conversations. Ultimately, Dr Serina concluded that the outcome of GE15 which saw Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim rise as Prime Minister reflects her interlocutors’ sentiments for desiring stability in the country. She also commented that post-GE15 may see a reversal towards loyalty to the parties again, nevertheless, a growing lack of faith in leadership may witness yet another round of political uncertainty.
Dr Faizal Musa (Lecturer, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) joined online to present “PAS vs Anwar Ibrahim: The New Battle Front for Political Islam”. He started by sharing the mission of political Islam is to reclaim sovereignty and embrace the liberalism of theocracy. The issues surrounding hudud laws, RUU355 and the perceived discrimination of Malays persist. Dr Faizal periodised Anwar Ibrahim’s involvement in propelling political Islam into two chapters: ‘during his ABIM leadership’ and ‘after his dismissal from UMNO’. Anwar in the 1980s helped mainstream Malays to normalise the politicisation of Islam in Malaysia. Since then, however, PAS rose ‘from a village anti-government party to a national opposition force’. Dr Faizal concluded his presentation with an optimistic new line of research where the battle between PAS and Anwar Ibrahim over political Islam occurs beyond the elections but, into Islamic schools across the country. He raised questions if Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity Government and his “Madani” approach will be strong enough to compete against the deeply entrenched political Islam ideals such as the implementation of sharia and hudud laws.
Mr Danesh Chacko (Tindak Malaysia) delivered his presentation on “Minorities Under the Microscope: Chinese, Indian and Indigenous Voters”. He shed light on the voting trends of minority ethnic groups during GE15. He focused on four hotly contested seats: Sungai Siput, Cameron Highlands, Ayer Hitam and Sibu, where the ethnic minority population are most significant. Mr Chacko commented that, since 2018, the delineation of seats and the introduction of Undi 18 (where voters’ minimum age was reduced to 18 years old), saw the rise of minorities. In these seats, no single political parties dominate. In Sungai Siput, he observed the decline of Indian support for the PH/PKR candidate and alluded this to the failure of having Dr Jeyakumar (a popular member of the Socialist Party of Malaysia) contest under the PH banner. In Cameron Highlands, he observed that there has been a sharp increase in voting participation by the Orang Asli since the passage of Undi 18. He also asserted that while BN continues to command more than 50% of the Orang Asli votes, the voting trends among the younger Orang Asli seem to be hinting at an opposing dynamic. In Ayer Hitam, he differentiated between rural and semi-rural Chinese votes when he observed lower votes for PH among the Chinese in rural areas. Among the Iban voters within Sibu, Dr Chacko observed a shift from supporting SUPP to DAP and attributed this to the appeal of “check and balance”. However, he noted that the ethnic variation in urban areas makes this observation less conclusive. In conclusion, Mr Chacko conceded that while his research suggested the ethnic breakdown of voting trends, he believes that further study must be done on differentiating communities by their urbanization levels.
In the question-and-answer session, participants discussed the declining support for BN among the Orang Asli in Cameron Highlands, the role of limited information in peeling away support for BN among rural Malays, and the attraction (or lack of) towards Malaysia Madani and political Islam.
Panel 6: Peninsular States
The sixth panel for Peninsular States was moderated by Dr Kai Ostwald (Senior Visiting Fellow, ISEAS). Dr Lee Hwok Aun and Mr Adib Zalkapli (Senior Analyst, BowerGroupAsia) shared their presentation entitled “Fortress Cracked Not Breached: Pakatan’s Defence of Selangor and KL”. Dr Lee set out each party’s tactics for GE15. UNMO’s moves in Selangor were coordinated but dysfunctional as key players such as Khairy Jamaluddin were side-lined in GE15. MUDA’s decision to contest in Tanjong Karang was another surprise. Breaking the results down, popular votes for PH and BN had shrink compared to GE14 while PN continued to gain substantially. PH won by wide margins on average and remained competitive in mixed seats and seats with under 60 per cent Malays. That being said, PN had made significant inroads in GE15 in a state which PH has governed for more than a decade. Mr Adib continued with the second half of the presentation where he attributed three major themes to explain the election results of Selangor and KL: Party infighting, UMNO high profile challenges to reclaim Selangor/KL; and the rebranding of PAS. There were multiple incidences of party infighting, evidently seen in cases such as the “Anti-Zahid” campaign and the ouster of Azmin with his protégé, Amirudin.
Dr Azmil Tayeb presented “Kelantan and Kedah: Perikatan Sweeps the North”. He began by laying out the PN campaign in Kelantan and Kedah. For GE15, PN had developed a series of electoral tactics to secure more votes. A mixture of veterans and fresh candidates were employed in the contest, especially with the deployment of retired civil servants as Bersatu candidates to directly run against UMNO. There was a brand recognition where the PAS logo was used in both states instead of PN, and their campaigning focused on the coalition’s “corrupt-free” image in contrast to other coalitions’ corruption charges. Apart from that, PN had effectively utilised social media, especially through Tik Tok which attracted many young voters. These tactics had proven to be effective as PN won all 14 seats in Kelantan and an almost clean sweep for Kedah. PN also did well in areas with a sizeable number of non-Malay voters, thus siphoning votes away from PH. One example would be Alor Setar where the winning candidate was the first Malay candidate to win in a non-Malay dominated seat. Dr Tayeb also discussed the implications that arose from the Anwar-led federal government such as rising Islamic conservatism with the need to draw back Malay voters, as well the need to bridge ethno-religious polarisation, given that there is increased presence of non-Malays within the coalition.
Dr Francis Hutchinson and Mr Kevin Zhang (Senior Research Officer, ISEAS) shared their presentation “Johor GE15: Same Same but Different”. Dr Hutchinson began his presentation by highlighting the dominance of BN in Johor up till the 2018 elections, mainly due to the coalition’s successful consociational model, which entailed a disciplined and consistent sharing of seats between the various members of the coalition. At the same time, the dispersed distribution of Chinese voters also made it challenging for PH to hold secure a strong foothold in Johor. However, things changed in the GE14. PH was able to expand into BN areas, with PH winning 18 parliament seats while BN only won 8 seats. This victory was however short-lived as BN was able to gain 40 out of 56 state seats in the 2022 state elections. Dr Hutchinson, however, quantified that the voters’ turnout rate in 2022 state election was much lower than GE14. Mr Zhang continued with the second half of the presentation by providing an in-depth analysis of young voters’ motivation in three selected case studies: Tanjong Piai, Muar and Pagoh. Results have shown that BN core supporters remain supportive of the party, even though there were massive defections from Malays voters in GE14. Apart from that, the party was able to gather about 20 per cent of Chinese voters in rural areas. However, there was a minimal increase in vote share since 2018, and the inclusion of UNDI-18 did not help increase BN dominance in the region, suggesting that young voters were moving away to support alternative parties. PH, on the other hand, had benefited immensely from the massive Malay swing against BN in GE14 but these voters had left to support other parties in GE15. As a result, voters’ sentiments toward PH had been mixed and they demonstrated volatile behaviour, resulting in a fluctuating vote share for the coalition. PN, on the other hand, had significant growth in new voters, mainly Malay voters who were disappointed with BN and PH. The traction of Chinese voters, however, was marginal as there was a perception that Muhyiddin (Bersatu) had instigated the Sheraton Move. Overall, PN’s vote share had increased sharply since 2018, significantly enabled by the damaged UMNO brand name.
The question-and-answer session discussed: DAP’s new tactic of targeting Malay dominated areas; PAS’ camouflage tactics and ties with Bersatu; and PAS’ candidate election mechanism.