Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) met last week in the last assembly before the general election next year. While Prime Minister Najib Razak did not use the moment to call the election, which must be held before August amid swirling rumors it will occur in the early months of 2018, he did secure his position as the candidate and highlight the importance of engaging minority voters. But the real challenge for Najib will be balancing his “Malay First” strategy with this minority outreach in a way that is credible enough for him to secure victory at the polls.
The conference saw Najib and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi confirmed as the pair to take UMNO to the election, with permanent Chairman Badruddin Amiruldin throwing the full uncontested weight of the party behind the two.
“In the spirit of togetherness and mutuality it is decided at this assembly that the post of president held by Datuk Seri Najib Razak and the post of deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, will not be contested in the coming elections,” Badruddin said, as reported by local media.
The fact that this occurred uncontested was expected but nonetheless testament to Najib’s capacity for survival against the odds. Just a few years ago, some were calling for Najib’s head after the full extent of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption case was revealed in 2015. The party seemed to be in turmoil, but Najib hit back by banishing detractors and displaying a ruthlessness even some party insiders doubted that he could summon.
Meanwhile, Najib’s leadership period, beginning in 2009, has also overseen a remarkable fall in UMNO’s influence with the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, losing the popular vote for the first time ever in 2013 and losing seats. In an effort to quell discontent among, Najib rebranded his leadership as less liberal and moderate and spearheaded a party shift toward conservative Islam – a move which may have saved his leadership then, but is coming back to haunt him now ahead of the general election.
Racial demographics have long been one of the most vital indicators of electoral success in Malaysia. The perception of UMNO moving closer to hardline Islamic politics and a rigid interpretation of Islam has led to increasing criticisms of racism and a renewed focus on minority voting blocs.
As the campaign heats up, UMNO leaders have launched a concerted effort to reach out to ethnic Chinese voters who once supported the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Barisan Nasional’s second-largest party in the coalition of race-based parties, before turning to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in droves since 2008.
This campaign has largely consisted of downplaying commentary pieces and opposition talking points, rather than dedicated policy to combat discrimination and improve minority representation in the country.
Longtime UMNO lawmaker Annuar Musa warned voters that support for DAP had only entrenched Chinese discrimination. “We want the Chinese to be leaders and rulers, that is why we have an alliance. We want the Malays and Chinese to be leaders. But by supporting the opposition, they have become the opposition,” he said late November.
It is a point UMNO seems keen to reiterate, with Najib using his address at the assembly to reach out to minority voters, although he couldn’t resist the opportunity to throw some mud at the opposition.
“UMNO is not a racist party. If we were, how could we accept and work with component parties of other races in harmony for decades?” he said, as reported by Singapore newspaper TODAY, referring to the ethnic parties in the Barisan coalition.
“I must also stress that UMNO is not anti-Chinese. But it is obvious that the Chinese and some of the Indians were also dragged, trapped, and victimized by the opposition’s [‘war on perception’] and lies.”
The address demonstrated both the difficulties UMNO will face in balancing the various needs of each voting bloc and Najib’s inability to hit that balance with the required sensitivity. After reaching out to the Chinese community, he followed up with the reassertion of talking points heavily criticized as exclusionary and racially tinged.
“If the opposition wins … the special rights of Malays, as the original forbearers of this land, from a noble and free race, will have its pride stepped on and its [position] in the center sold. Are we willing to allow Islam to be belittled and insulted on this soil? Secondly, do we want to see the institution of Malay Rulers desecrated or even betrayed?” he said.
Notably, the needs and wants of the ethnic Indian voting bloc have been so far largely ignored. This population makes up 7 percent of Malaysia, with the community numbering 2 million. Much like the MCA, the Malaysian Indian Congress in the Barisan coalition was once the most widely supported party among the community, but since 2008 it has lost much of the vote to the opposition. Unlike Chinese voters however, UMNO appears far less concerned about this bloc.
During the 2013 election, Najib had promised to improve the lot of the Indian minority in Malaysia through employment and education opportunities. Those promises are yet to eventuate and in some indicators have actually gone backwards. That hasn’t stopped Najib from claiming credit anyway, telling a MIC meeting in September that he is the “the father of the development of the Indian community.”
Figures from the Malaysian Indian Blueprint, a report on which the current government has based development goals for the Indian community, revealed the startling disparity between Malaysian Indians and the wider country. The ethnic group represent 11 percent of youths in prison and scores below national averages in graduation rates and reported high rates of workplace discrimination. But, with Indian issues typically siloed off to MIC representatives rather than relevant ministries, little action has been forthcoming.
As the election season progresses, Najib will have to engage further with minorities, with many pollsters expecting these ethnic blocs to swing the results. But given the ease with which he pushes a “Malay first” policy, how many will fall for it?