By Amrita Malhi
This article was originally published on East Asia Forum.
The Merdeka Centre and other pollsters are predicting that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition will come out on top of Malaysia’s election on 9 May. This is hardly a bold prediction after 13 similar wins stretching back to Malaya’s transition to independence in the mid-1950s.
One thing that makes this election different is a focus on the role of two Chinas — the ‘Big China’ of development loans and foreign policy deals and the local Chinese community, which tends to support the opposition. On Facebook and the encrypted carrier WhatsApp, the fracturing of Malaysia’s biggest and once-stable voting bloc — the nation’s majority Malay Muslims — is evident in debates raging in text and video about who is to blame for cost-of-living pressures: China or the Chinese?
‘Big China has begun the process of colonising Malaysia’, reads one message circulating on social media, with a link to a video from one James J Tsidkenu’s Christian Sixth Seal News Network breathlessly outlining China’s Belt and Road plans. ‘Rise, all the races of Malaysia: Malays, Chinese, Indians, Iban, Kadazandusun and others, Malaysian citizens’, the blurb says: ‘Please listen and watch this video and act IMMEDIATELY BEFORE it’s too late. CHINA is targeting LEADERS who are corrupt and kleptocratic for ONGOING bribery, and finally MALAYSIA will be mortgaged… The SIGNS are CLEAR and EVIDENT. Look around us… CHINESE projects are everywhere. This is an early ATTACK of THEIRS against Malaysia’.
The use of the term ‘kleptocrat’ — increasingly common in opposition messaging — is intended to remind voters about the 1MDB scandal. Add to the impact of the scandal the fact that some of 1MDB’s debt has been bailed out by China – and the fact that Chinese projects are altering the Malaysian landscape – and you have all the ingredients of a conspiracy between Beijing and Barisan against ordinary Malaysians.
There is a narrative forming in which 1MDB’s missing billions — billions that could have been spent on more effective social insurance — have helped to bankrupt Malaysia. According to this line of argument, the resulting debt has acted as an invitation to China to finance expensive projects, including an east-coast rail link and a vastly upgraded South China Sea port that uses Chinese labour and serves China’s Belt and Road interests.
The narrative does not stop there. When Malaysia fails to repay its Chinese debts, China ‘will take over the country’. As evidence, opposition leader (and former prime minister) Mahathir Mohamad has repeatedly pointed to Sri Lanka’s leasing of its Hambantota Port to China for 99 years in return for debt relief. ‘We don’t want to sell chunks of this country’, he told Singapore’s Straits Times earlier this month, promising to subject Chinese investments to greater scrutiny should he come to power.
The opposition’s China campaign contrasts strongly with the government’s allusions to the Chinese threat within the nation. The target of the government’s campaign is the opposition Pakatan coalition, which includes the Democratic Action Party, whose membership is largely ethnic Chinese. The government’s argument is that the opposition represents a potential Chinese takeover of sovereignty from within. It is precisely this message that Pakatan arguments are working to flip by shifting the source of the Chinese threat to Big China while Pakatan burnishes its own credentials as a multiracial coalition that will protect local Chinese.
Malaysian Islamist organisations, who often take the initiative in developing Islamist justifications for Barisan rule, have for their part been working to blur the boundary that Pakatan relies on between Big China and Malaysian Chinese. One of them, Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA) hosted a forum in March at which some speakers promoted the idea that the entire Chinese diaspora, no matter its physical or generational distance from the People’s Republic, will fall into line with Beijing as China begins to ‘Sinicise’ Malaysia.
This line of argument dovetails with Barisan’s repeated assertions that the opposition is ‘led’ by the Democratic Action Party, which a state mufti described in 2015 as kafir harbi, or ‘infidels in a state of war against Islam and Muslims’. Malaysia’s previous election result, in which the government lost the popular vote partly because Chinese voters deserted it, was racialised on the following day by the front-page headline of the UMNO paper Utusan Malaysia: ‘What More Do the Chinese Want?’.
‘Which Chinese?’, the opposition might well ask. Pakatan is counting on two things: that Malaysian Chinese will support it at least as strongly as they did last time and that its effort to neutralise the ‘Chinese threat’ by pointing to Big China might further fracture the Malay Muslim voter bloc. Even the Merdeka Centre is predicting a Malay Muslim swing away from the government. The election results will show whether the ‘Chinese threat’ can be countered by the ‘China threat’ to deny the ruling government the increased majority it seeks.
Amrita Malhi is a Visiting Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.
A version of this article originally appeared here on Inside Story.
Image credit: Wikimedia