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Following the disastrous performance of Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the Melaka state election, Anwar Ibrahim ruminated that his multiracial coalition had been unable to counter the narrative that the Chinese would dominate the country if PH returned to power. “We know that it is not true and we have denied this in the 22 months that we were in government but we have not been able to convince the people,” he said. Continuing, he added that “racial issues against the coalition had been too ingrained and difficult to shake off”. 

Amanah president Mohamad Sabu echoed these remarks.  He suggested that there was an urgent need to evaluate “the true climate of Malaysian politics” where the electorate is “still easily swayed by racial rhetoric”.

What they are hinting, in not so many words, is that the DAP has become a liability in the political struggle being waged between Malay parties for the Malay vote. In Melaka, Malay voters who were unhappy with UMNO opted to vote for the equally tainted PPBM rather than Anwar’s PKR. While Anwar’s own lacklustre leadership was largely to blame for the debacle, the DAP issue was certainly a factor.

Thanks to Tun Dr Mahathir and other Malay nationalists, the DAP has been so badly demonised that it cannot shake off the unfounded perception among Malay voters that the party is anti-Malay and anti-Islam. Malays will generally not vote for the DAP or any Malay party that is seen as too close to the DAP. 

In an effort to overcome Malay fears, the DAP pushed for close cooperation with Tun Dr Mahathir, an old and long-time archfoe of the party. It surely cannot be coincidence that the only time the DAP got into the cabinet was when it aligned itself with a strong ultra-Malay leader like Mahathir in GE14. But even Mahathir had to face constant accusations that his government was under the thumb of the DAP. 

It is an ugly truth, a reflection of the deep-seated racist attitudes that have taken root in Malaysia, but it is also a reality that must be factored into any political calculus. Decades of racial politics appear to have convinced wide swathes of the Malay electorate that they face such an existential threat from the DAP (read Chinese) that no amount of assurance will appease their anxiety. They are comfortable with the BN formula where non-Malay representation is kept at a bare minimum, window dressing essentially; but genuine power-sharing across racial lines is still a bridge too far for many.

The task of managing a multiracial coalition in a country that has become intolerably polarised is also huge. The divergent interests of Pakatan Harapan’s Malay and non-Malay base make it difficult to hammer out common positions. The very lopsided 2022 budget – RM11.4 billion allocated for Bumiputera programmes, RM345 million for programmes for non-Bumiputera projects – was a case in point. DAP leaders, mindful of how it would play out among non-Malays, wanted a stronger response; PKR and Amanah leaders, worried about further alienating their Malay base, took a more low-key approach. In the end, the budget (first reading) passed with a voice vote.

Similarly, the controversy regarding curbs on alcohol sales and the ban on 4D lotteries in Kedah created divisions within PH. Muslim Pakatan Harapan MPs, for example, declined to support a joint statement issued by their non-Muslim counterparts calling on city hall to repeal the curbs on alcohol sales. 

PAS and UMNO, of course, know how easy it is to divide PH by playing up such divisive issues. Invariably, PH is going to find it harder and harder to hammer out a common agenda, one that can win both Malay and non-Malay support. 

Given the highly polarised political situation, PKR-Amanah might have to distance themselves from the DAP if they are to successfully compete against UMNO and PPBM-PAS.  It may not be what Anwar or Mohamad Sabu might want but it is a reality they may now have to accept.

Anwar’s remarks that PKR might want to contest the general election under its own banner and the calls for Amanah and PKR to merge into a single Malay-dominated party are signs that they are perhaps leaning in this direction. Discussing the merger proposal, Anwar said (according to media reports) that a merger would “give PKR a stronger hand to withstand pressure from DAP”. It was a quite an amazing admission that tensions are building up within the coalition.

A departure of the DAP from the PH coalition would, of course, disappoint many but it might not presage the end of multiracial political cooperation. Assuming it continues to be the party of choice of non-Malay voters, and if the Malay vote is split amongst three broad coalitions – UMNO-BN, PPBM-PAS and PKR-Amanah – a stand-alone DAP might well play the role of kingmaker in exchange for key concessions of importance to all Malaysians. 

Malaysia is a nation in transition, a nation in search of new ways to tackle old problems. A genuinely multiracial government founded upon an equal partnership is the ideal; getting there is going to take much longer than anticipated. In the meantime, if the DAP can better influence policy from outside the government for the good of all Malaysians, then all is not lost. As the ever-pragmatic Deng Xiaoping once remarked, “Black cat, white cat doesn’t matter for so long as it catches the rat”.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 3rd December 2021]