Middle Malaysia has arrived?

One Malaysia

In the remains of the long day that stretched well towards the dawn of Monday, the results of Malaysia’s 13th general elections suggested a few clear trends that reinforce the sentiments I found across the peninsular in the final weeks of a febrile campaign.

The momentum for a change from business-as-usual politics is well underway. This is reflected in the big successes of the opposition coalition - Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan) - wins in urban and even outer-urban areas where Malaysia’s globalised industrialisation is often found. The end of racialised politics is well within sight, and for the many Malaysians I met who volunteered their reasons for supporting Pakatan, the racialised rhetoric and reasonings for Barisan Nasional’s (BN) policies no longer hold much sway against demands for better governance. As I wrote a few days ago in The Malaysian Insider, a great number of so-called ‘ordinary’ Malaysians seemed determined to do an extraordinary thing, to take a chance on the ideals sketched out by Pakatan over the material blandishments and the literal infrastructure of the BN.

The opposition coalition won the popular vote, 51 per cent overall and a significantly higher portion if only the peninsular is counted. Pakatan also significantly improved its state-level representations, and just missed out by a seat or two in adding Terengganu and Perak to their side of the ledger. The BN also lost another seven federal parliamentary seats. Despite BN leader Najib Razak’s attempts in his first speech following BN’s narrow overall win to frame the question of the UMNO-led coalition’s losses as the fault of a “Chinese tsunami” of disapproval, the facts are more clearly about an urban ‘tsunami’ or swing against the BN – in many ways, BN suffers from the similar predicament as the Republicans in the United States following its electoral losses last year, increasingly trapped by demographic change and a narrower, ageing vote bank.

Moreover, the losses at the polls of some of Pakatan’s key leaders responsible for crafting and advocating its avowedly non-racialised message were slender. Curiously, many are the articulate modernisers of PAS such as Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and deputy leader Mohamad Sabu ‘Mat Sabu’, both targeted by BN in allegedly big bouts of ballot rigging and fraudulent actions experienced on polling day in urban constituencies like Lembah Pantai and Klang (both of which eventually won by Pakatan leaders Nurul Izzah Anwar and Charles Santiago respectively).

Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad lost his Kuala Selangor federal seat by barely 400 votes in a constituency of over 62,000 voters, where about 900 votes were considered spoilt. The Returning Officer allegedly refused a recount and this looks set to head to court. Mat Sabu is also in a similar predicament.

The problem now lies in driving the centrist, so-called ‘Erdogan’ faction of PAS forward following the loss of leaders like Dr Dzul and Mat Sabu. The progressives are well represented on PAS’ central committee but face frequent contest within from several of the party’s spiritual and youth leaders.

As the reformasi-era PAS supporters such as Amri in Perak’s Bruas village and Mat in Sungei Siput explained days before the elections, PAS campaigners had found advocating the Pakatan message challenging in rural, traditionally UMNO strongholds such as the FELDA settlements, and inside the rugged interiors of Orang Asli settlements.

In a sweltering kampong tent in Bruas, Amri told me a tale of a younger generation curious about alternatives, used to days spent daydreaming about swapping to the latest smartphones in a frantic marketplace. There wasn’t much loyalty to any particular brand anymore, Amri said, whether it’s Samsung or Nokia, or BN or the idea of ‘reformasi’. Amri admitted he came of age during the reformasi era but these days led “a quiet life” as a father working in Kuala Kangsar. He was back in his village visiting relatives and came to hear today’s lunchtime speakers assembled by his aspiring state assembly candidate from PAS, Dr Khairuddin Malek, and incumbent parliamentarian and DAP state leader Ngeh Koo Ham.

Amri said it was a tough struggle to persuade this Malay and Indian village to back the “Ubah!” or change message of the opposition at the federal level. But he was cautiously optimistic that the community’s sense of betrayal over the toppling of the Pas-led state government following a series of defections and the Najib government’s alleged inducements would win back Perak. “We understand the difference between state and federal issues,” he said, “and unfortunately for us Pas supporters, many people are happy with the promises of more BR1M payments to come.”

On the other hand, he was convinced his village’s loyalties could no longer be taken for granted, that no one was talking anymore of UMNO’s vaunted “dulu, kini, selamanya” slogan, that the traditional abiding loyalty to independence-era UMNO has frayed beyond repair.

Over 70 per cent of Malaysians live in urban areas, and most are plugged into the online news and rumours networks whether directly or through relatives and co-workers. Malaysia is a demographically young country, with over half under 40 years old, as frantic using social media and swapping to the next smartphone model as they are trying to make ends meet in the now expensive cities.
Urbanised, non-racialised pop and youth cultures have evolved hugely from the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the onset of the economic boom that grew the middle-classes who have fuelled a series of linked but distinct and globalised urban tribes at ease with ‘logat bandar’ or patois based as much on Malay as it is on Hokkien, Cantonese and Tamil.

It’s within this frame that we should consider the snapshot voters took into the elections, where the issues many parliamentary and state incumbents had to deal with (over and above fixing the daily grind of urban infrastructure)  centred on the economy’s management and the soaring costs of living, and the problems of crime and corruption.

We would do well to consider this change in the conversations many voters had on the eve of polling day, with a great majority voting accordingly for a less-than-perfect non-racialised agenda Pakatan represented, despite the threats, intimidation and brazen electoral bribery that were much accentuated in the rural and outer suburban sprawls of Malaysia.

For that reason alone, there is no doubt Malaysia has changed. And as a young first-time voter named Bavani in Sungei Siput told me, late one steamy evening at a Parti Sosialis and Pakatan talk her unwell Tamil grandmother insisted on going to because Bersih2.0’s co-chair Ambiga Sreenevasan was speaking, “We are all Malaysian now!”. Pakatan’s non-racialised virus has spread but perhaps for some, not quite far enough.

Kean Wong is a Malaysian journalist who covered the 13th general elections for The Malaysian Insider online news portal and Al-Jazeera English, and is usually based in Washington, DC. You can see the campaign trail’s photos through his twitter feed @keanmwong 

About Kean Wong, Guest Contributor