Challenges for Malaysia’s new ‘national unity government’

Anwar Ibrahim
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim greets supporters. Photo: @AnwarIbrahim/Twitter

Three major coalitions contested the November 19 snap general election in Malaysia: Barisan Nasional (BN) headed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which ruled the country for six decades after it gained independence from British colonial rule; Pakatan Harapan (PH) which won the previous election in 2018 but was ousted after a split in 2020; and Perikatan Nasional (PN) which was formed after the split in PH.

BN was in government up to the latest election, taking over after withdrawing support for a PN-led minority government in 2021.

In the recent election, PH won more seats than BN or PN, but failed to obtain a simple majority. However, Malaysia's king appointed PH leader Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister on November 24, to head a "government of national unity" comprising PH, BN and some smaller parties.

Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj from the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) spoke to Green Left’s Peter Boyle about the election result and the challenges facing the new government. Jeyakumar won wide respect as the federal MP for the seat of Sungai Siput between 2008 and 2018, during the height of the BERSIH pro-democracy mass movement, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in the face of fierce repression by the BN government.

PH had endorsed Jeyakumar’s candidacy in two previous elections but refused to do so in 2018. When PH refused PSM’s request for an electoral pact this year, to run Jeyakumar in Sungai Siput, the PSM ran successful “reach-out campaigns” in two BN-held seats, receiving a modest vote.

Anwar Ibrahim has finally become prime minister with his “Alliance of Hope” coalition winning significantly fewer seats than it did in the previous election. Why?

What has happened is that PH has lost a lot of Malay support. They had about 25% of Malays supporting them in 2018 but because of policy missteps they lost about half of that.

Anwar’s party in PH, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) lost a number of predominantly Malay seats. For example, even Nurul Izzah, the very well-known daughter of Anwar, lost their family seat.

But at the same time, UMNO imploded and its vote crumbled and I think this is because its current leadership is still rallying around figures, such as former PM Najib Razak who has been jailed for corruption, and others still facing corruption cases before the courts.

But the main beneficiary of this collapse in UMNO support appears to be the Islamic Party (PAS) which is now the party with the most seats in the PN coalition. What is the reason for this?

Malay voters have been fed propaganda by BN and PN that PH is under the control of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and has got nothing but ill intentions towards the Malays and Islam so they voted for PN — and PAS in particular.

Anwar heads a government where PH depends on BN support for a parliamentary majority. What challenges does this pose for his government?

It is on a very shaky footing because you never know when these BN guys will pull the plug on this coalition government especially if PAS and Bersatu, [the main parties in PN] launch a campaign that loses the government more Malay support.

Bersatu split from PH back in 2020 because they noted that their voter base was moving away. That split was also for selfish power reasons but it was also because they were losing their base.

Your analysis points to a deep racialisation of Malaysian politics. Has this gotten worse in the latest general election?

For 13 years following independence in 1957, the main opposition was the Socialist Front, which comprised the People’s Party (PRM) and the Labour Party. While the ruling parties were race-based, the opposition was class-based. Politics was different.

When the Socialist Front collapsed at the end of the 1960s because of massive state repression, the opposition parties became the DAP and PAS. One was mainly Chinese-based and the other Malay-based.

So we have had 50 years of racialised and ethnicised politics.

When the PH won government in 2018, they cut a lot of government subsidies for the Malay poor — Malays are still the largest section of the poorer people in the country — and they were seen to be challenging “Malay rights”. This was seized upon by the opposition.

2018 was an inflection point. Politics have become even more racialised since.

Has religious identity — specifically Islamic identity — become more significant in this election?

Surveys done from three or four years back have a lot of Malays, including the young, saying they identify as Muslim first, then as Malay and only thirdly as Malaysian.

But I wouldn’t assume that all the voters who went to PAS are outright Islamists.

Some 29% of the electors in this general election were under 30 years old. Did this impact significantly on the results?

The preliminary information suggests that young people mostly voted the same way as their parents did. The young also tended to vote along ethnic lines.

The old bourgeois political system has become completely racialised because it is easier for these bourgeois politicians to mobilise people along racial lines. So the struggle for parties like the PSM is to highlight the social-economic issues. We’ve been canvassing things like the old-age pension, healthcare and extending the social safety net, so that workers who get sick will be protected.

These are things that affect people of all ethnic groups and they do get traction.

But it is not just a case of talking about these issues or writing articles about them. We have to get people involved in struggles because it is the struggle that changes consciousness.