Webinar on “Malay Leadership in Pakatan Harapan”

In this webinar, YB Zairil Khir Johari reflects on the challenges facing Pakatan Harapan’s Malay leadership, and explore whether there are any alternative leaders, should the current crop of Malay leaders remain unable to convince voters.


Friday, 11 June 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Yang Berhormat (YB) Zairil Khir Johari to deliver a webinar titled “Malay Leadership in Pakatan Harapan”. YB Zairil helms the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio in the Penang State Executive Council (EXCO), in addition to his role as the state assemblyman for the Tanjong Bunga state seat. Prior to the 2018 General election, he was the Member of Parliament for the Bukit Bendera constituency in Penang. YB Zairil is the Assistant National Publicity Secretary for the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and has served as the Vice-Chairman of the DAP Penang branch since 2013. In addition to his active involvement in politics, YB Zairil is the former Executive Director of Penang Institute, one of Malaysia’s leading think tanks. A graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies with a Master of Arts, he is an avid writer and in 2017 published Finding Malaysia: Making Sense of an Eccentric Nation.

YB Zairil Khir Johari
YB Zairil Khir Johari provided a typology of the differing understandings of Malay leadership. Dr Francis Hutchinson moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

YB Zairil began the webinar with an overview of Malaysia’s political climate under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration. He commented that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is in a precarious position, as PN survived with only a razor-thin majority during the numerous parliamentary votes prior to the suspension of parliament in February 2021. Despite Muhyiddin’s weak leadership, YB Zairil argued that Malaysia presently lacks credible Malay leaders to serve as an alternative to the current prime minister. All of the potential PM candidates (Anwar Ibrahim, Zahid Hamidi, Mahathir Mohamad, Shafie Apdal) has difficulty in gaining a simple majority in Parliament.

YB Zairil added that although the Malaysian constitution does not require the Prime Minister to be an ethnic Malay, state constitutions in states with hereditary rulers uphold such requirement for Chief Ministers. Political realities also necessitate the need for a Malay leadership as 119 parliamentary constituencies (out of the 222) are Malay majority, in addition to the 38 seats in East Malaysia which have a Bumiputra majority.

YB Zairil provided a typology of the differing understandings of Malay leadership. The first model is the Malay nationalist, which is rooted in the idea of Malay supremacy. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is arguably the epitome of this outlook, and this accepted by the other member parties of Barisan Nasional. Despite being Malaysians, Malays and non-Malays being bounded by a social contract with the former serving as a “big brother” while the latter is seen as “immigrants” or “guests”.  YB Zairil shared that according to the results of the 2018 General Election (GE2018), this conception is supported by ethnic Malays from business circles, retired civil servants and those sharing conservative values. A large segment of ethnic Malays is in favour of this model, as illustrated from GE2018 outcome where UMNO received more Malay votes than Pakatan Harapan in all states save Selangor. UMNO-BN captured is estimated to have captured about 40 per cent of the overall Malay votes in GE2018.

The second model concerns Islamic Malay which emphasises the importance of Islam and Sharia law to influence social norms and daily practices. YB Zairil added that this model is gaining more acceptance among ethnic Malays particularly those under the age of 40, and is championed by the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). In 2018 PAS received about one-third of the overall Malay vote, though the support came primarily from the Peninsular East Coast states. UMNO and PAS combined captured about three quarters of all Malay votes, indicating a strong support among the population for conservative Malay leadership (whether Malay nationalist or Malay Islamic).

The third model concerns universalist Malay leadership, the model championed by Pakatan Harapan (PH). PH is comprised of People’s Justice Party (PKR), National Trust Party (Amanah) and Democratic Action Party (DAP). PKR espouses an inclusive leadership regardless of one’s racial background, though each racial identity remains distinct. Amanah propagates universal Islamic values and seeks governance which brings about blessings to all Malaysians. DAP is respectful of the Malaysian constitution and recognises the inevitability of Malay leadership, as much as it is a social democratic party championing for needs-based policies.

In his conclusion, YB Zairil argued that the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic under the present PN administration has generated widespread resentment among Malaysians from all racial backgrounds, despite its status as a “Malay government” with cabinet positions almost exclusively occupied by Malay (and Bumiputra) politicians. YB Zairil added that in the upcoming general election, PH has to address the socio-cultural anxiety among ethnic Malays while highlighting the economic mismanagement under PN.

In the question-and-answer session, participants posed questions relating to Anwar’s role in shaping Malay leadership, the need for PH to reach out to young Malay voters, leadership succession for a new generation of Malay leaders within PH, and the likelihood of Najib Razak returning as Prime Minister. The webinar attracted 80 participants from Singapore and abroad.