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Keeping the BN afloat

Corrected on 14 Jan 2009, 3.30pm

I ARGUED previously that the Kuala Terengganu by-election is a battle in which Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has little to gain and much to lose.

A real turning point would happen only if Umno can seriously bring down PAS’s support to below 45% among Malay Malaysians and 25% among non-Malay Malaysians. These figures are the estimated average levels in the 55 peninsular seats with 75% or more Malay Malaysian constituents. Without mysterious developments in the electoral process, such as the record 98% voter turnout in the provisional result of the 2004 polls, this looks almost impossible now.

However, if PAS wins this battle with the same 628-votes margin that the Barisan Nasional (BN) won by in March 2008, PAS, Pakatan Rakyat and numerous bloggers will proclaim this swing of 1,256 votes as the beginning of Najib’s end. They will carry this euphoria to Sarawak, which they hope will be the sixth Pakatan Rakyat state. As the saying goes, politics is all about perception.

Who else stands a chance to be the winner from this fight? As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I would say the MCA, Gerakan, the MIC, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the BN, and ultimately Umno itself.

The next elections

Before anyone accuses me of hallucinating, let’s remember what most by-elections are really about.

Kuala Terengganu, like most by-elections, is like a surprise quiz test in class before sitting for the final examination. No matter how badly you do in the quiz, it does not override your final examination results. It is not a do-or-die battle unless you are still entertaining the crossover fantasy.

Hence, what really matters is the next general election. And what is it that would decide the fate of the BN and its individual component parties at the next moment of truth when the general election is called?

The cruel answer, for Umno and the likes of Datuk Ahmad Ismail, is the non-Malay Malaysian voters from the peninsula.

Why the BN suffered in 2008

Assuming no redelineation, which is possible at the earliest only in 2010, and no significant changes in ethnic composition, the 222 seats in Parliament can be divided into four groups (see chart below):

The first group is the 70 seats, approximately 30% of Parliament, with a minimum two-thirds Malay Malaysian majority. The logic is that “theoretically”, Malays can split equally among themselves yet need not worry about the emergence of a non-Malay minority winner. In other words, these constituencies are the natural ground for open competition among Malay-based parties. In 2008, the BN dominated over the opposition, with Umno winning 44 of these seats and Gerakan, one. On the opposition side, PAS won 17 seats and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) eight.

The second group is the 44 seats, approximately one-fifth of Parliament, with a Malay Malaysian majority smaller than two-thirds. “Theoretically” Malay Malaysians, if united, can solely determine the winner, but a Malay ultra-nationalist can be easily upset by non-Malay voters with a little help from their Malay friends. Conventionally, Umno “gives” some of these seats to its non-Malay partners who are in return expected to be grateful. In other words, this is how the MCA, MIC and Gerakan are held to ransom by Umno. This is the electoral basis of Malay supremacy or more precisely, Malay suzerainty. In 2008, Umno lost 12 out of 32 seats contested, while its non-Malay allies lost seven out of 12 seats to PKR and PAS.

The third group is the 51 seats, less than a quarter of Parliament, in which non-Malay Malaysians form the majority. “Theoretically” the non-Malay Malaysians, if united, can solely determine the winners. Traditionally, these are DAP strongholds and minefields for Umno’s non-Malay allies. In 2008, it was not only the DAP and PKR that made unprecedented gains of 26 and nine seats each. Even PAS took one seat, Kota Raja, with incidentally the highest vote share in the party.

The last group is, of course, the 57 seats in East Malaysia, approximately a quarter of Parliament. This is the traditional bastion of BN support. In 2008, among the opposition, only the DAP managed to grab two seats.


Parties’ electoral strength by region and ethnic composition, based on March 2008 general election results

Where exactly did BN lose ground in March 2008, almost costing its power? The average BN vote share indicates that they lost badly, only winning 42.95%, in the non-Malay majority areas. The BN won only marginally in the Malay-super-majority seats (55.57%) and Malay-majority mixed constituencies (55.45%). Only in East Malaysia could the BN claim a strong mandate, which was, however, soon shattered by talks of crossovers to the Pakatan Rakyat.

Looking closer at the ethnic composition and voting pattern, one finds that the BN’s almost-identical vote shares in the first and second groups resulted from different forces. The BN’s defeat in the Malay-majority mixed constituencies, all in the west coast, is commonly recognised as being inflicted by angry non-Malays. On the other hand, the BN’s setback in the Malay super-majority seats, 28 of which are in the east coast and 14 more in Kedah and Perlis, was due to a Malay revolt that is possibly smaller than the non-Malay one but nevertheless still sizeable.

The BN’s non-Malay saviours

In the Malay heartland areas, the non-Malay population (averaging at 10%), whose support for the BN remained as high as between 60% and 80%, surely helped to save the BN in a number of marginal seats. Kuala Terengganu, with an estimated 65% Chinese Malaysian support for the BN, was a case in point.

Why? One reason might be that non-Malay Malaysians living in Malay heartland areas did not realise how pivotal their votes would be. They therefore decided to vote for whom they thought the majority would, to avoid punishment by the expected winner. In other words, if the opposition votes were largely protest votes, sizable votes for the BN were arguably also votes of fear rather than of love. They could not see the possibility of having another federal government.

That explains the unprecedentedly warm reception now of Pakatan Rakyat leaders, especially Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the menteris besar of Selangor and Perak, and the Penang chief minister, in the Chinese settlement in Kuala Terengganu. If you like, this could be the time-lagged, Ah-Chong-come-lately residual shock of the March 2008 political tsunami.

Umno needs non-Malay allies

The one-billion-ringgit question is that if sizeable numbers of Malays continue to reject Umno in the Malay heartland, will the non-Malays come to Umno’s rescue again? Will they join their cousins elsewhere, who would likely vote even more strongly against the BN come the next elections?


A PAS banner during the March 2008 general election (Pic by Danny Lim)

For many in Umno, the solution is to arrest “Malay disunity”. So long as the majority of Malays return to Umno’s fold, then an Umno-dominated government is a fait accompli. Non-Malays will have to join the government on Umno’s terms or face political marginalisation, or even social unrest à la 13 May 1969.

Hence, the fiery words, the demonstrations, the provocative agenda, the ethno-religious competitiveness by the likes of Ahmad Ismail, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, Khairy Jamaluddin and the propagandists at Utusan Malaysia. They forget the naked truth. In the age of new media where censorship and news blackouts are no longer possible, whipping up Malay-Muslim sentiments inevitably causes uproar among ethnic minorities.

As the Malay proverb warns, “Yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendung keciciran.”  This saying is akin to Aesop’s fable of the greedy dog that loses its bone to its own reflection.

Before winning back Malay Malaysians in the Malay heartland, a more hardline Umno would have lost non-Malay votes everywhere. Umno would perhaps lose all the non-Malay-majority seats, two-thirds of the Malay-majority mixed seats, and a couple more marginal seats in Malay heartlands like Kuala Terengganu.

Getting the message across


The BN’s campaign in KT takes to the air

Is Umno really becoming more extreme, as a PAS banner in Kampung Tiong, Kuala Terengganu claims?

Politics is really about perception. Najib may think not; the likes of Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon may argue that the BN and Umno have learned and reformed post-March 2008; but most non-Malay Malaysians and even many Malay Malaysians would disagree.

And so long as Umno does not wake up to this cruel reality and change substantially, it will lose many marginal seats even in Malay heartland areas. (Corrected) Worse still, the MCA, MIC and Gerakan will probably fail to keep the 20 seats they currently hold.  

Let’s say Umno’s parliamentary dominance dwindles to only 55 seats in the peninsula — 10 seats down from its current total — and its non-Malay peninsula partners are completely wiped out. Can Umno count on its East Malaysian allies to fill the maximum 57 seats there to make up a simple majority of 112 in Parliament?

No. Therefore Umno needs the MCA, MIC, and Gerakan more than they need Umno, for Umno has everything to lose.

Umno needs to treat its non-Malay partners fairly to sustain their raison d’etre now that DAP has effectively established itself as an equal partner in the Pakatan Rakyat, with veto power on issues like hudud.

Only a defeat of Umno, especially due to a disastrous loss of non-Malay votes, will get the message through to Umno.

If I were a leader of the MCA, Gerakan, MIC, or PPP, I would campaign hard for one outcome but pray harder for the opposite.


Wong Chin Huat believes that voters are the bosses of politicians. They must cast their ballots to indicate their preference — even if they dislike all the candidates.

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7 Responses to “Keeping the BN afloat”

  1. Eric says:

    Chin Huat, such foresight.

    Whatever the outcome in the by-election, what matters is Malaysia’s politics becomes more mature. This improvement process indeed has to happen in the largest coalition, the BN, and especially its leading party Umno.

    If this does not happen, all Malaysians will lose out. It is not good to have a bi-partisan system where the minority party is a bunch of extremists, as what BN would look like if a fair and transparent snap election were called today.

    Hoping for a massive defeat for BN in KT, only for BN to wake up (at last).

  2. Actually for PAS to point out that Umno is becoming extreme seems to me like a pot calling a kettle black.

    However, the KT by-election would reflect whether or not the upcoming change in leadership for Umno is enough for voters to swing BN’s way. While here we look at the March 2008 results, we must also mention the 2004 results as well, when Pak Lah took over from Dr M and won by a landslide.

    Will that happen again? Who knows.

  3. Robert says:

    Hi Chin Huat

    A very incisive article. It lays out the road map whereby opposition sympathisers like me and many others can gauge, in particular, Umno’s weakness, allowing us to go for the jugular.

    I see no hope for Malaysia unless Umno is brought down or it changes and starts sermonising on multi-culturalism, -religiosity and -racialism.

    Many bloggers and activisits are already in, or making their way to KT to hammer in the death knell to the Umno candidate’s campaign.

    Please put me on your list to receive future articles. Thanks and keep up the good work

  4. Franklin Morais says:

    Flawless logic … then again, humans tend to function very subjectively, especially with the tendency to veer to the “dark side”. Humankind proposes, God disposes. May justice, integrity, courage and compassion reign in Malaysia.

  5. Justitia says:

    Frankly, I can’t see Umno learning that it needs to be more inclusive from a defeat in KT.

    After their 8 March feat, I harboured hopes that a more ethno-sensitised Umno would emerge, but no. Umno has painted itself into a corner. The only way it will change to be more inclusive and less “ultra”, is to suffer a defeat in the next general elections.

  6. csyang says:

    Actually, you should not teach or point out these facts to BN or Umno. Let them loose their pants. Then they’ll realise that Malaysia needs only One Bangsa Malaysia.

  7. Sabahan says:

    I hope PAS will take KT. I am a BN supporter for almost 40 years in Sabah but in the next general election, I will vote for Pakatan Rakyat! Insya’ Allah.


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