Hybrid Seminar on “The Loss of the Malay Centre Ground”

In this hybrid seminar, Mr Khairy Jamaluddin discussed the results of Malaysia’s recent six state elections and what they mean for Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity Government.


Friday, 8 September 2023 – In Malaysia’s recently concluded state elections, for the first time in a while, the results aligned perfectly with expectations. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Unity Government – composed of Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN) – managed to retain control of Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Penang, while the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) prevailed in Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu.

Speaker Mr Khairy Jamaluddin with moderator Dr Lee Hwok Aun. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

However, despite winning non-Malay majority seats, PH lost ground in its relatively limited number of Malay-majority seats. Likewise, its new electoral partner, UMNO, was largely ineffective in securing new seats outside its bastion of Negri Sembilan. In other words, Malaysia appears more divided politically with the Malay centre ground melting away.

Against this backdrop, the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a hybrid seminar featuring Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, former Minister at Malaysia’s ministries of Youth and Sports, Science and Technology, and Health, and Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS, to analyse the implications of these political developments for the Unity Government.

Following a brief introduction by Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow at ISEAS, Mr Khairy began his presentation by broadly mapping out the position of Malaysia’s different parties on the political spectrum. Since independence, the country’s Malay voters have mainly chosen among three party clusters: the centrists, the progressives, and the Islamists. 

Taking about the centrists, Mr Khairy described them as the ‘Razak nationalists’ and the ‘authors of Malaysia’s history’. Although they were primarily composed of elite members of society, with time, the centrists manged to coopt non-aristocratic groups such as teachers, farmers and students. The most significant achievement of the centrists remains their successful promotion of Malaysia’s most progressive socio-economic framework in the form of the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Drawing the audience’s attention to the progressives, Mr Khairy said that the group surfaced as a mainstream alternative to the Razak nationalists after the 1998 Reformasi movement. The key issues priorities of the group included: improving governance; strengthening human rights; eliminating corruption; and protecting the dignity of the citizenry. The progressives rallied behind needs-based rather than ethnicity-based affirmative action policies. 

The Islamist group was established pre-Merdeka. Mr Khairy opined that the political parties adhering to Islamist policies have slid up and down the political spectrum, from left-wing Islamism during the formative years, to Malay nationalism in the intermediate period, to cleric-led governance in recent years.

Mr Khairy then touched upon the topic of Malay political unity. Shedding light on the ‘first rupture’, he highlighted the formation of PAS out of UMNO in the 1950s, which was based on division along religious considerations. The 1980s, in particular, saw the deepest ideological cleavages between the political parties, ultimately leading to geographical division of Malay political spheres of influence.

The ‘second rupture’ took place in 1988 following a domestic centrist contest between Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, which was seen as a challenge against perceived excesses and authoritarianism. This was also the first coalition challenge to Barisan Nasional.

The third and the most notable rupture was the Reformasi in 1998, which marked the introduction of new politics and a more progressive platform for Malay voters. This permitted new generation of these voters to look beyond the core ideas of nationalism and Islamism. However, the Reformasi also led to a prolonged bitter personal feud between Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr Khairy concluded his presentation by connecting the three ruptures to the loss of the centre ground. Here, the first key event was the 2008 Tsunami, after which Pakatan Rakyat emerged with PKR and PAS as Malay components parties. This, however, could also be attributed to the 1998 rupture, Mr Khairy added. While UMNO was damaged, it managed to retain the highest popular vote and Parliamentary seats among all parties. The ‘point of no return’, however, was the coup de grace under Najib Razak, whose conviction led to major loss of trust among the Malay voters. This ‘final rupture’ of 2018 marked not only UMNO’s decline but also its loss of the Malay centre ground. Who will eventually occupy this space – PH, BN or PN – remains to be seen.

The 90-minute hybrid event was attended by an audience composed of research scholars, students, policymakers and the general public. Mr Khairy answered their questions on an array of topics, including: the practicality of using a multi-axis system of classifying Malaysia’s diverse political parties; the viability of former Prime Minister Najib Razak returning to mainstream politics and regaining voters’ trust; whether UMNO can be reformed appreciably in the near future; the difficulty of commanding the Malay centre ground given the rise of multi-ethnic parties; and the broad impact of the country’s changing economic landscape on political stance of the different parties.