Prime Minister Najib Razak addressed Malaysia’s Chinese community at a well-attended gathering last week to urge support for his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government ahead of new national polls.
The leader called for stronger Chinese representation in his United Malays National Organization-led (UMNO) government and doubled down on promises of delivering prosperity and quality education across all of the country’s ethnic groups.
“If the Chinese voice is stronger in BN, then you are able to shape the policies and possibilities of this government even better and even stronger,” Najib said. “Without peace in the country, the Chinese will be the first to be targeted and that is why we are a moderate government committed to peace and mutual harmony.”
While Najib placed emphasis on Malaysia as a multiracial nation and struck an overall moderate tone, others interpreted his remark as a fear-mongering veiled threat. Opposition parliamentarian Liew Chin Tong accused the premier of trying to win votes by “singling out the ethnic Chinese,” a move he said would actually undermine support for his government.
Malaysia’s next election is due by August 2018, though there is speculation that early polls could soon be announced. Najib’s outreach to the Chinese community signals an attempt to re-engage the minority voter bloc following general elections in 2013 where the BN coalition delivered its worst-ever election performance.
At the time, Najib acknowledged how ethnic Chinese voters had supported the opposition in droves, controversially characterizing their voting behavior as a “Chinese tsunami.” Najib initially vowed to undertake national reconciliation following the electoral upset, but instead has moved to burnish his Islamic credentials in a bid to consolidate support from conservative and rural ethnic Malay voters.
Ethnic Chinese communities make up around 23% of Malaysia’s population and are seen to be largely in opposition to Najib’s continued rule. His term has been defined by the international multi-billion dollar money laundering controversies related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund he created and until recently oversaw.
Lesser noticed, however, have been perennial allegations of money politics, elite corruption, stark political polarization and a widening cultural divide between Malaysia’s ethnic and religious groups that some fear could tip towards instability if not effectively reconciled.
Recent studies show nearly half the country’s ethnic Chinese population have a strong desire to leave Malaysia due to perceived discrimination, political disenfranchisement and fears of Islamization. Nearly 88% of the 56,576 Malaysians who renounced their citizenship in the decade spanning 2006 to 2016 were ethnic Chinese.
Shortly after assuming office in 2009, Najib introduced the 1Malaysia national concept, a governing philosophy which placed emphasis on ethnic harmony, national unity and efficient governance. Following the 2013 election, the prime minister has placed less pretense on the talking points of the scheme, opting to posture as a defender of Islam and Malay unity.
“Political parties from both sides of the divide are centered around the Malay agenda, winning votes in Malay majority constituencies. Meanwhile, government efforts like 1Malaysia and its subsequent rebranding has neither substance nor strategy,” political analyst Khoo Kay Peng recently wrote. “The concept of unity is not even at the forefront of societal discussion.”
An important aspect of Najib’s domestic agenda in recent years has been the formation of a loose alliance with the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has an electoral stronghold in Malaysia’s rural and conservative north and advocates a hardline sharia punishment code known as hudud.
Abdul Hadi Awang, PAS’s influential president, was given tacit government approval to table a controversial hudud bill in parliament in 2015, which sought to ease some of the constitutional restrictions imposed on sharia courts in order to implement more severe punishments, subjecting offenders to longer prison sentences and corporal punishment.
Though observers were initially dismissive of Najib’s support for hudud, his government attempted to take over Hadi’s bill last year. The prime minister reversed course in March due to strong opposition from other BN coalition partners – notably from the Malaysian Chinese Association and other ethnic minority parties – and concerns it would dampen foreign investor sentiment.
Against a backdrop of political controversies and a deepening cultural divide, Malaysia’s upcoming general election is expected to be one of the tightest in decades. The political opposition, once a fractured grouping of disparate parties, appears more cohesive under the leadership of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who defected from UMNO and embraced opposition parties to form the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
It remains to be seen whether Pakatan Harapan, a multi-ethnic political outfit comprised of reform-oriented parties, can win over crucial support from rural and conservative Malays.
Mahathir has been accused in the past of appealing to fears of ethnic Chinese economic influence to galvanize Malay support, though as opposition leader he has been more critical of Najib’s handling of huge new investments from Beijing.
China’s investment in Malaysia has increased dramatically in recent years as Najib has developed close ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has channeled billions of dollars towards Malaysian property development, port and rail infrastructure, pipelines and industrial facilities, and a string of infrastructure projects down Malaysia’s eastern seaboard.
Mahathir has lambasted Najib on nationalistic grounds for Chinese-led property projects catering to mainland Chinese buyers and the sale of state energy assets to Chinese commercial interests.
“The closeness with China is an Achilles heel for Najib,” said Mustafa Izzuddin of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studes’ Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “While investment coming in will balloon government coffers and boost the economy, the opposition is using the China card to criticize the government for becoming too close to China and accusing it of selling Malaysia’s sovereignty.”
While observers generally believe Najib could secure another election victory, his credibility has been badly dented among many in the Chinese community alienated by his alleged corruption and pandering to hardline Islamists. As the trust deficit widens, Najib is in the odd position of relying on Chinese capital from abroad while alienating his Chinese community at home.