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Winning the next elections

THERE are three ways to understand the stunning outcome of the Bagan Pinang by-election: Najib, Isa and the Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

If you believe that the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s victory is really about Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia, then you would have to accept that Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad and the money politics he represents is the face of 1Malaysia in Bagan Pinang. You would also have to believe that the voters do not see any discrepancy between the ideals of 1Malaysia and money politics, and perhaps see political corruption as a technical error, rather than a moral issue.

If you believe that the victory is actually about Isa, then there is not much credit that Najib, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin or Parti Makkal Sakthi Malaysia can claim. Isa is just the locals’ favourite son who could walk around to “cari-cari undi” and win handsomely. What does that tell us about the next elections? Umno should just field more well-liked local warlords, at least in semi-rural and rural seats.

But how many more like Isa can the BN and Umno find? And how many votes will they lose among the urban electorate who do care about integrity and accountability?

The third way to understand the Bagan Pinang poll results is this: notwithstanding the Isa factor, the PR has itself to blame for the widening majority, from 2,333 votes in 2008 to 5,435 votes in 2009.

You could attribute it to the relatively weak candidate fielded by PAS, who was not even a good public speaker. You could blame it on the poor service record of Datuk Kamarul Baharin Abbas, the PKR parliamentarian for Teluk Kemang where the Bagan Pinang state seat is located. You can point fingers at the complacent PAS electoral machinery, or the last-minute campaigning by PR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

But apart from these conventional explanations, what else do the results portend for political parties, especially in the PR?

Deserting PR?

Do the Bagan Pinang poll results perhaps tell us that the non-Malay Malaysian voters — especially the Indian Malaysians — are deserting the PR?

The BN’s lead or majority over PAS among postal voters — about 85% are Malay Malaysians — increased only by 26.54%, from 44.30% in 2008 to 70.84% in 2009. In contrast, the increase in BN’s majority among ordinary voters is greater, from a mere 7.06% to 38.88%. About 49% of ordinary voters in Bagan Pinang are non-Malay Malaysians, out of which 31% are Indian Malaysians.

Could this be explained by the Isa factor? Partly, yes. Isa is indeed popular among the locals of all backgrounds. An MCA branch chairperson who put up BN banners and flags told me: “Umno comes, it will lose. MCA comes, it will lose even more. It’s Isa that we are working for. Not political parties.”

Why? Because Isa will listen to anyone who goes to seek help, will drop by at wedding and funerals no matter how busy his schedule is, and will wave at you while driving by as if you were old friends. He does not discriminate against other races. That’s Isa, said the MCA politician.

If that is the entire story about the shift in non-Malay Malaysian votes, specifically the Indian Malaysian vote, towards the BN, then the PR can dismiss the threat. After all, most Umno leaders are not like Isa.

But what if the shift is also indicating a national trend that Indian Malaysians are returning to the BN’s fold?

In the 2008 general election, polling districts in Bagan Pinang with a high percentage of Indian Malaysians almost meant defeat for the BN. Both Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and PAS did almost equally well in the non-Malay- Malaysian-majority areas, although as a whole, PKR secured a majority in the Teluk Kemang parliamentary seat while PAS lost the battle within the Bagan Pinang state constituency.

Merely 19 months later, however, this strength has evaporated almost completely. If the general election were called tomorrow, it is unlikely that PKR would keep the Teluk Kemang seat.

Indian Malaysians rule

Many people see Bagan Pinang as a Malay-Malaysian-majority seat. But if you take away the postal voters, which constitute one-third of total registered voters, it is a completely different picture.

With about 49% of non-Malay Malaysian voters that includes 31% Indian Malaysian voters, Bagan Pinang is almost like the Kota Raja parliamentary constituency, where PAS candidate Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud won by a landslide against the MIC in the March 2008 general election.

The possible reasons for the return of the Indian Malaysian votes in Bagan Pinang to the BN’s fold could be Najib’s careful cultivation of the Indian Malaysian community, Parti Makkal Sakthi, or simply bread and butter concerns. Whatever the case, if this voting pattern is not arrested, the PR can bid farewell to its Putrajaya dream. Worse, it could follow the footsteps of Gagasan Rakyat-Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah and Barisan Alternatif, which disintegrated after the prospect of victory faded away.

And while the PR-run Penang government may not care too much about the Indian Malaysian support for its survival, the picture is very different nationally. If the PR can garner 40% of Malay Malaysian support and 75% of non-Malay Malaysian support, in a broad-brush estimate, it would sweep 103 out of 165 parliamentary seats in the peninsula. Then it would only need nine more seats from East Malaysia for a simple majority in the next general election.

Indian Malaysians in Bagan Pinang on nomination day

However, if the Indian Malaysian support for the PR falls to 50%, while others remain unchanged, the coalition’s gains would drop to only 90 seats, and it would require 22 seats from East Malaysia to form the next government.

If the Indian Malaysian support falls further to 40%, the PR can only hope to win 80 seats in the peninsula, meaning it would merely be retaining the status quo from the 2008 elections. Furthermore, the reality is that the number of seats that the PR may actually win would be smaller, perhaps by 10%. This means that the PR needs to maintain Indian Malaysian support at between 75% and 80% to win a comfortable majority in the peninsula, unless they can significantly increase Malay Malaysian support.

This, of course, leads us to the fundamental question the PR needs to answer: what if it simply cannot win a bare majority among Malay Malaysians in the peninsula? This is likely to be the case looking at the Bukit Gantang and Bagan Pinang by-elections. Would it feel worried, even illegitimate, about forming the next government even if it enjoyed the support of a vast majority of all Malaysians?

Feeling thus insecure, the PR — especially PAS and PKR — will always be vulnerable to Umno’s ethno-religious antics, and some would even be tempted to outdo Umno by playing religious heroes. This would prevent the coalition from boldly offering a concrete road map for a new Malaysia, which perhaps explains the fading euphoria 19 months after the March 2008 victory celebration. This, then, is perhaps the bigger lesson to be learnt from Bagan Pinang beyond Isa.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes inclusiveness is the best policy in electoral politics.

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15 Responses to “Winning the next elections”

  1. Karcy says:

    This analysis almost completely ignores the most important division: economic differences.

    In Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, the middle classes tend to be more concerned with issues of political accountability, ideology, and corruption and transparency. The lower classes tend to like the establishment. Seems like Malaysia is going in that direction.

    When the 2008 political tsunami happened, most of the votes that went to the opposition were from urban areas. PAS nearly lost in its own stronghold because it was a rural area; the bridge was important to them.

  2. Azizi Khan says:

    The problem for the Pakatan Rakyat is that 19 months after March 2008, they are still behaving like a bunch of amateurs.

    No matter how corrupt the BN was, it made sure of two things :

    1) Unity. All the component parties were united. Never mind that in unison they plundered the nation’s coffers. When the MCA says something, Umno stands by it. The MIC was never anything important to Umno, but yet, at BN-level, it was still integral to the coalition.

    2) Delivery. As much as they plundered, they also delivered to keep people happy. People who are happy are less likely to complain […]

    Now compare it with Pakatan. PAS wants different things to PKR. PAS behaves as if it could run the country by itself. It is hell-bent on its Islamic policies. The DAP is hell-bent on opposing it. PKR is the sticky paper glue that is holding them together.

    PAS’s morality policing and archaic Islamic demands go against democratic principles. But DAP-led politicians still seem to spend their time blaming the BN’s wrongdoing.

    Yes, we know BN is crap. That’s why we voted Pakatan in. Now they have to harden up and behave like proper politicians and actually start delivering! If civil servants aren’t coorperating, sack them. Put people in the place who can actually deliver. Don’t waste our time telling us how corrupt the previous government was. We already know that!

    Remove dangerous extemists like Hasan Ali (PAS) and Zulkifli Noordin (PKR) who actually create more harm than good. Their views have no place in a moderate coalition that is supposed to benefit a multireligious, multiethnic society.

    Pakatan came up with a “shadow government” like Australia has. What have they done since its inception?

    The bottom line? We want results. We want delivery. What we don’t want is excuses.

  3. Trigem says:

    Hi Chin Huat,

    I am not sure I can take your words as truth … I am not convinced that the increased Indian [Malaysian] votes for the BN in Bagan Pinang are protest votes, which justified your fear of losing their votes in the next general election. If that really were the case, we could focus on fixing this problem. But we might be betting on the wrong horse.

    Those Indian [Malaysian] voters there were rejoicing on the street after Isa was declared the winner. Why would a protest voter celebrate for the person he [or she] does not [truly support], but whom [he or she] voted for out of dislike towards the other candidate?

    If I were a protest voter, I would vote for Isa as a protest towards the PR, but I would never celebrate his win. Therefore, I can’t really accept the verdict of any analysis that this election loss was due to the Kampung Buah Pala issue.

    I sincerely believe that the popularity of Isa Samad is the main cause of the BN’s victory, if not the only cause.

  4. racist says:

    Again and again, articles [such as this one] still bring about racism. Why must we all, especially the author, keep on emphasising on race […]. Please do not be racist – to the author, I appeal.

  5. Jamal says:

    I wonder why everyone that reads this immediately feels that they have to respond or retort as if this article demands us to agree.

    One reason: It is because like it or not, this article holds water, and they just can’t take it.

    Isa IS famous but that could not solely contribute to his victory, other issues matter too, like how disorganised the PKR [editor’s note: it was the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) that fielded its candidate from PAS] were and their lacking of consistency. One can’t help but to worry, with the kind of inconsistency of beliefs within PR, how could they manage this nation?

    Albeit, I’m definitely NOT saying that the Barisan is consistent.

  6. chinhuatw says:


    What changed in Bagan Pinang in 2009 compared to 2008?
    1. A new candidate
    2. A new Prime Minister and a new slogan
    3. New political scenarios – the Kampung Buah Pala issue, the break-up of Hindraf, the infighting within Pakatan Rakyat, etc.

    But has Bagan Pinang became more rural since 2008 (if the theory is that BN merely wins more rural/lower class votes)?

    The answer is NO.

    There may be some “interaction effect” between urbanisation/class and the recent political developments (ethnic or otherwise) – namely, different blocs of voters react differently to post-308 changes.

    But if we want to use that explain everything, we will lose sight of the big picture.


    The Indian [Malaysian] votes for BN may not be protest votes against Pakatan Rakyat. Remember in 2008, many non-Malay Malaysians did not vote **for** the opposition. They merely vote **against** BN.

    Hence, [it could be] that Pakatan Rakyat may have lost the Indian [Malaysian] “protest votes” against BN because they could not do better. Is Kampung Buah Pala a factor then? You judge. Clearly it does not help to sustain the 308 euphoric mood.

  7. chinhuatw says:


    Are we sexist if we talk about gender discrimination or gender voting?

    Sorry, just as I won’t pretend that gender is no issue in politics to spare myself a “sexist” label, I would have to disappoint you by remaining “racist”.

    If you can only live in a simple world of oneness, consider this as a good training opportunity for you to tolerate “extremists” –

  8. racist says:

    @ Chin Huat,

    I guess it’s not a big deal if Umno is a racist party, or perhaps MCA or MIC. Perhaps we will never get past racism, because sub-consciously it is deep-rooted in our minds. So next time someone talks about political racism, we would just allow them to flourish.

  9. racist says:

    @ Chin Huat,

    FYI , this article never ever mentioned anything on or about gender, so twisting facts here and there will save you from blushes, or perhaps you have run out of decent topics to talked about? Perhaps you are born extremist, always wishing to compare between races, otherwise there is nothing to talk about.

  10. chinhuatw says:


    I am surprised that you do not understand analogy. I am even more surprised that you would attribute my thinking to my birth (genetics?) (“born extremist”) – you are supposedly a “non-racist”, right?

    But I must thank you for opening up the debate.

    In brief, there are three ways to look at the issue of ethnicity (“race” is unscientific):
    1. Privilege ethnicity in both the normative and analytical sense.
    2..Reject ethnicity in both the normative and analytical sense.
    3. Reject ethnicity on normative grounds but acknowledge ethnicity (as only one of the many principles of human organisation and interest aggregation) in analysis.

    Umno, MCA, MIC and other monoethnic parties fall into the same category but you fall into the second category. And you have an issue with my writing because you either (a) do not realise there can be a third way of thinking; or (b) insist [on calling] everyone who don’t think like you a racist.

    To put it in another way, the first position is based on the notion of reinforcing cleavages (eg Malay = Muslim = economically backward = Bumiputeraism; Chinese = non-Muslim = economically advanced = meritocracy).

    In contrast, the second position is based on the elimination of ethnic cleavage (eg no Malay, no Chinese, no Indian, no Iban, no Kadazan, only Malaysians). One common argument is that ethnic identity is a false consciousness. Now, is “Penan people” a falsehood? Are people who call themselves Penan and want to preserve the Penan way of life racist? If not, why should other ethnic identities be faulted?

    The third position – mine – is based on cross-cutting cleavages. In other words, your Penan/Orang Hulu/Murut/Bajau/Telugu/Jawa/Teochew identity may be true, but such identity does not mean homogenous interests within the ethnic groups. Within every ethnic group, you have the rich and the poor, the male and female, the heterosexual and homosexual, the economically active and the retired, etc. These other principles of interest articulation (say, class across ethno-religious boundaries) may be more relevant than ethnicity, hence ethnic politics (which acknowleges only ethnic interests) is flawed even though ethnic identity may not be.

    Is this third position racist? If yes, then “non-racism” has become the new hegemonic religion. And I am proud to be the heretic here. To be further politically incorrect, I do wish such heretic genes can be passed on – but unfortunately I believe the ability to think independently actually comes from education, not birth.

  11. Pratamad says:

    @racist, errr… perhaps you are the one who is twisting facts? Find a corner, sit down, and reflect […] a bit.

    And [by not] touching on [issues of] racism does not mean the issues do not exist in Malaysia. It is basically the same effect as those lots in Umno/Utusan shouting racist rhetoric while still promoting 1Malaysia, just the method being reversed.

  12. racist says:


    Now you can see how smart the BN are. Racism reversal. You have to give due credit to Najib. Even me or you yourself can’t pull one this through.

  13. racist says:

    @chin huat

    You are wrong, there is also another way to look at eliminating race issues, [it’s if] someone is born from mixed parentage. This is not by education, this is by birth.

  14. chinhuatw says:


    Are people from mixed parentage less racist?

    Empirically, many Malaysians can point to you some famous politicians to tell you why this is wrong.

    Normatively, are you implying that some Malaysians are racist because of “non-mixed” (instead of “pure”) heritage? Well, I think you are indeed ideologically a racist. That puts you in a different league from Umno, which is more opportunist than racist.

    By the way, you seems quite excited when you find an opportunity to “give due credit” to Najib or you believe someone else (like me in last week’s column) has done so.

    Does “racist” in your dictionary actually mean “anti-Najib” or “anti-Umno” or “anti-BN”?

  15. racist says:

    Chin Huat,

    People of mixed parentage are at least 50% less racist. I don’t think I am racist, when I have had many intimate partners from different countries and of different religions.

    I not totally excited at all for Najib. And I feel sad that 1BlackMalaysia has gone nowhere despite all the hype.

    “Racist” in my dictionary is just psuedo. Nothing more, nothing less.

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