As 2020 looms, is right-wing politics on the rise in Malaysia Baharu?

Kenneth Tee
Umno President of Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang during the launching of Muafakat Nasional Selangor in Shah Alam November 23, 2019. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 30 — As Malaysia enters 2020 under the administration of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, pockets of discontentment have begun to surface, with the political right seemingly gaining momentum mere months after GE14. 

The Opposition seems to have been able to rally many disgruntled Malaysians in particular during post-GE14 by-elections over the government’s apparent inability to introduce effective policies particularly on economic concerns and the rising cost of living.

While PH may have won on a wave of populism in May 2018, political experts have noted that Umno-PAS’ Muafakat Nasional charter has also adopted a populist stance reinforced by race and religion politics — a move which appeals to some within the Malay-majority populace.

While experts may not view Umno-PAS’ politics as right-wing, one thing that is unmistakable is that race-based politics has a ubiquitous presence in the Malaysian political landscape.

“I’m more inclined to see the Umno-PAS style of politics as more towards the populism type of politics that is based on race and religion,” Azmi Hassan from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia told Malay Mail.

Azmi cited how US President Donald Trump is still popular even though he currently faces impeachment charges, a testament to the president’s style of politics.

“So I see the Umno-PAS style of politics as being here to stay because the post-GE14 political scenario has forced both parties to find common interest so that they can work together politically and no surprise, race and religion are what that binds them together,” he added.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia associate professor Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid also echoed Azmi’s views, stating it was hard to perceive Umno-PAS as right-wing politics as Malaysian politics have always been race-based.

“Being race-based is not necessarily racist. Even with the new Malaysia, race-based politics remains vital because we are hardwired to be united in diversity and be accommodating rather than being assimilated,” she said.

Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said it is inevitable that right-wing politics will carry on for some time to come.

“Appealing to racial and religious supremacy is a relatively effective political antic for both budding and veteran politicians, and on both sides of the political divide,” he said, adding that right-wing politics has been further exacerbated by the rise of Islamic radicalisation worldwide and the continued enforcement of racial differentiation.

An increasingly polarised Malaysia

Azmi said it was “sad” that race- and religion-based politics is making a comeback after GE14, as evident with the success of the Umno-PAS Muafakat Nasional coalition.

To a certain extent, Azmi pointed out such politics was also promulgated by PH as Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is meant to replace Umno and Parti Amanah Negara emulating PAS in terms of upholding Islam.

“Not that I’m squaring the blame on PH but that is the reality,” he said.

Oh went as far to suggest that political parties — in particular those in West Malaysia — have no incentive to rise above the racial and religious divide as doing so would not detract them from their traditional political support.

To counter the rising polarism, Kartini said the PH government must strengthen cross-ethnic relationships on the national level, improve ethnic boundaries, promote the national ethos, as well as practise clean governance and transparency in order to regain the people’s trust.

Rising populism in GE15

As Kartini puts it, populism may well once again take centre-stage in GE15 with every political coalition doing its best to woo voters as the rationale of an election is to win and rule.

“Money politics (in the form of vote-buying) and democracy have been moving in tandem and supporting one another not just in Malaysia but in every country that practices it including the US,” she said.

This was also affirmed by Oh who said the act of giving away free stuff was a basic political necessity, particularly in rural constituencies, which make up the majority of voters.

Azmi, however, disagreed that people would be influenced by populism motivated by “the giving away of free stuff”, stating that political parties that favour certain races or religions may have the upper hand.

“Look at the Opposition now. They seem to be riding high even though they can’t offer ‘free stuff’ since they are not the government but instead they can offer promises that they will protect anything concerned with race and religion,” he said.

Related Articles Analysts see no real gain from making Muafakat Nasional official For Umno, clearer skies in path to GE15 with Muafakat Nasional We must not 'win the battle and lose the war', Umno youth delegate warns party on seat negotiations with PAS