Malaysia’s ruling coalition is reeling from a by-election loss that saw voters opt for an opposition candidate associated with ex-premier Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which was toppled at May 2018 polls after decades of consecutive rule.

Mired by factional infighting and uncertainty over a leadership succession plan, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government is increasingly perceived to be backsliding on promised reforms to advance inclusiveness and democracy.

Critics had even cast the weekend’s poll, staged in the southern state of Johor, as a referendum on the 94-year-old’s premiership.

While political watchers did not expect his governing Pakatan Harapan (PH) to retain the parliamentary seat for Tanjung Piai, the stunning majority obtained by the opposition BN coalition – reportedly the largest seen in any by-election in Malaysia’s history – far exceeded expectations.

Wee Jeck Seng, a former two-term parliamentarian with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a BN component party, won with 65.6% of the vote. Mahathir had personally campaigned for Harapan’s candidate, Karmaine Sardini, who took just 26.7% of the ballot.

“It is too early to say whether this is a bellwether. But nonetheless, if I were in the ruling coalition, I would be concerned,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar, a former deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), now the ruling coalition’s largest party. “I would be concerned largely because of the magnitude of the defeat.”

The defeat marked the worst electoral showing in a parliamentary by-election of Mahathir’s decade-spanning political career, including a previous 22-year stint as prime minister leading a BN coalition.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during the official launching ceremony of the 2019 Proton X70 SUV in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Ethnic Chinese-majority polling districts previously seen as supportive of the ruling coalition abandoned it at a rate more than twice that of ethnic Malay-majority polling districts, post-election data showed.

Strong backing from the nation’s ethnic Chinese community, representing around 23% of the multi-ethnic nation’s population, helped bring Harapan to power at last year’s historic general election.

The young coalition was voted in with the support of about 95% of Chinese voters and only 25% to 30% of the total Malay vote share. Around 62% of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Malay.

Mohamed Farid bin Md Rafik of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) won the seat for Tanjung Piai, where Malay and Chinese electorates are almost equally split, with a slim majority of 524 votes in 2018.

Mohamed Farid died of a heart attack in September, triggering the by-election vote. Analysts view the swing in ethnic Chinese support away from Harapan as a sign of frustration with its unfulfilled promises and stances on communal issues, and not necessarily an endorsement of the opposition’s more right-wing political agenda.

“It’s actually a warning to PH that people are tired of the politicking,” said Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow from Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “This is a rural community with many fishermen and they have always voted BN. People on the outskirts feel that the PH government doesn’t know, or care to know, what they need.”

The researcher pointed to economic pressures compounding local grievances. “[The] cost of living hasn’t come down, things are harder. [Voters] don’t understand issues like institutional change that PH say they want to do. For them, it’s bread and butter issues, and those haven’t been dealt with,” she told Asia Times.

A Malaysian woman waits in the queue to cast her vote at a polling station in Kuching on May 7, 2016. Malaysia's largest state went to the polls in an election that poses a test for a ruling coalition deeply shaken by allegations of massive corruption linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak. / AFP PHOTO / STR / Malaysia OUT
Malaysian voters queue to cast their votes at a polling station in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Nine parliamentary by-elections have been held since May 2018, with two seats changing hands to the opposition since. Voters have supported BN in four out of five contests this year, retaking Tanjung Piai with a record majority.

Chinese voters were upset with “the government’s need to outdo the Malay ultra-nationalists,” said Serina, amid posturing on matters of race and religion by Mahathir’s PPBM and its stance on issues affecting Chinese education, concerns that have put the ruling coalition’s ethnic Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) in a bind.

Some feel that Harapan’s second-largest component party has been rendered “unable to stand up for the Chinese cause,” she said.

Opposition politicians accuse the party of masterminding a conspiratorial agenda to undermine special privileges accorded to the country’s Malay Muslim majority with the aim of denying them political power.

Though not backed by evidence, this oft-repeated mantra pedaled by critics from the BN’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the two largest ethnic Malay-based opposition parties, undergirds the already widespread skepticism of Harapan among ethnic Malay voters.

Ahmad Faizal Azumu, chief minister of Perak state and a member of PPBM, even controversially appeared to pander to this narrative while campaigning in Tanjung Piai, telling residents that he is fighting a “lone battle” against coalition partner DAP to defend Islam and Malay land, a remark that suggests deepening intra-coalition cracks.

Harapan now finds itself on the horns of a dilemma, says Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) think tank. “On the one hand, the Malay voters are blaming PH for not preserving and even enhancing their special rights and privileges as much as UMNO used to do, or not advancing a hardline religious agenda enough,” he said.

“On the other hand, the Chinese voters who voted overwhelmingly for PH in the last general election were sorely disappointed in PH’s inaction on an otherwise progressive social agenda, but rather stern actions to promote a regressive social agenda,” Oh told Asia Times, referring to stances taken by Harapan that critics view as a bid to win back Malay support.

MALAYSIA, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on June 5, 2016. In Muslim nations and regions around the globe, this is the first week of the holy month of Ramadan, a time for followers to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity during the day, breaking their fast each sunset, with traditional meals and sweets. - Aiman Arshad
Malaysian Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur in a file photo. Photo: AFP

They include a government proposal to teach Malay-Arabic calligraphy, or khat, in constitutionally protected Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools that caused an uproar among the local Chinese community in August, leading Mahathir to label Chinese educationist group Dong Zong “racist” for opposing the inclusion of the script lessons into school syllabi.

While the Cabinet eventually opted to make the calligraphy course an optional elective, the leadership’s slow pace in keeping its promise to recognize the United Examinations Certificate (UEC), a standardized test administered by self-funded Chinese independent high schools, shored up perceptions of it having a pro-Islamic bias in public education.

“I think there was that underlying expectation [among non-Malay voters] that once you get rid of UMNO, you’re going to get rid of all those elements related to the Malay position as it affects the Chinese and others, whether its education or business, or social mobility and so on,” Muzaffar opined. “That was not going to happen.”

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng’s calls for MCA to relinquish its ownership over a non-profit private university in Kuala Lumpur in order to be eligible to receive public funding was also seen as a misstep. Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching reportedly said the issue was among the reasons why Chinese voters embraced the MCA’s candidate in Tanjung Piai.

At face value, the Chinese vote swing there was validation for Malaysia’s race and religion-based opposition bloc. UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said as much, calling the outcome a recognition of Muafakat Nasional (MN) – a political pact formed between UMNO and PAS in September – as the “defender of their (voters’) future.”

Some analysts see it differently. “The Chinese vote swing is by no means an endorsement of MN’s racially supremacist and religiously extremist agendas,” said Oh regarding the pact’s exclusivist positions on Malay rights and Islam. “The Chinese voters want to send a strong protest message to PH, and a by-election is a ‘safe’ occasion for doing so.”

PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, who Mahathir has promised will eventually succeed him, described the by-election result as “a shock” and a message to the coalition’s leadership.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak leaves the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2018 after being charged in court. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

BN’s Wee, meanwhile, celebrated his victory hand-in-hand with scandal-plagued former premier Najib and Zahid, who served as his deputy prior to their election defeat last May.

Both men could potentially spend the rest of their lives in prison if found guilty on various charges relating to money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power. Najib and Zahid are similarly adamant in denying any wrongdoing. Analysts believe a resurgence of support for the opposition could be their get-out-of-jail-free card.

“They’ve not cowed down” despite various legal cases against them, said Serina said of Najib and his former deputy who, in her words, are “constantly declaring their innocence, perhaps delaying court proceedings in the belief that they might win back power before they can be charged, then everything will be forgotten.”

“They are hoping they can come back to power and avoid jail,” Muzaffar concurred. “It is a shame that voters, both Malays and non-Malays, failed to pronounce judgment on blatant corruption, and from what we know, the kleptocracy, theft and manipulation that had taken place (under BN),” he told Asia Times.

“Not only did they not pronounce judgement, they seemed to give the impression this wasn’t something that they should stand up against,” he said.