In this webinar, the presenters shared their research findings on the recent Malaysia’s recent 15th General Election. Dr Cassey Lee, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the webinar.
MALAYSIA STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
25 November 2022, Friday – The first speaker was Mr Danesh Prakash, Director of Tindak Malaysia, and his presentation titled “Analysing the Distribution of Seats (GE15)”. Mr Prakash began by emphasising the large swing in Pahang and Perlis where Perikatan Nasional wrestled control of parliamentary seats which historically has been won by Barisan Nasional.
Mr Danesh subsequently shared the general overview of seats including age and ethnic breakdown, and the distribution of seats among coalitions. The bulk of seats are Malay majority (comprising more than 50 per cent of the electorate), but the introduction of Undi18 has increased the share of young voters.
Subsequently, Mr Danesh introduced a scoring system of marginality which measures how likely is a seat to “flip” and be won by a rival coalition. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition has the greatest number of strongholds while Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has the greatest number of vulnerable seats, seats which were won on narrow majorities.
Mr Danesh concluded his presentation by stating that, considering the breakthrough by PN, rural seats are no longer fixed deposits for BN,. PAS has benefited greatly in the PN coalition by cementing its hold in the East Coast while expanding southward in the Peninsula.
The second speaker was Dr Elvin Ong, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore. His presentation was titled “Coalitions and Their Campaign Strategies”. Dr Ong explained that political elites communicate to the voters through symbols and logos, which subsequently construct “imagined communities”. Political parties have a dual goal of reaching out to both their supporters and those who are less inclined to support hem.
Dr Ong shared that party logos were a topic of contestation in the 2018 General Election and the Johor state election, between PH component parties. In the GE 2022 however, PH avoided this issue and agreed nationally to contest under a common logo. Nonetheless, there was variations across constituencies with PH candidates having the freedom to campaign and contest under their desired logo. Dr Ong commented that such practices are not confined to PH, but also applied to PN. PN made the decision to contest under PAS logo in Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah, but adopted the PN logo in other Peninsular states.
Subsequently, the potential Prime Minister candidate offered by each coalition was one of the big factors influencing how Malaysians voted. Dr Ong explained that based on polling surveys, PN is popular amongst the Malay youths. UMNO Present Zahid Hamidi is widely unpopular, while Muhyiddin is more popular due to his perceived stance against corruption. Manifestos, according to Dr Ong, were not big factors in this election except for voters in urban areas. The inability of PH to fulfil its 2018 manifestos during its time in office discredited the credibility of political manifestos in general.
Dr Ong ended his presentation with a cautionary tale that Malaysia could potentially be on the path towards deep polarisation like Taiwan, South Korea, and the United States. He recommended that parties need to compete based on policy platforms instead of race or religious cleavages.
The third speaker was Assistant Professor Dr Gayathry Venkitesawaran, School of Media, Languages, and Cultures, at the University of Nottingham-Malaysia. Dr Gayathry presented on “The Role of the Media” in the recent General Election.
Dr Gayathry began with an overview of the corporate media landscape in Malaysia. One feature of the previous BN era was the dominance of BN-linked mainstream media companies. After GE2018, media spaces were liberalised with fewer government restrictions. Nonetheless, there were no significant structural changes in ownership of media outlets, with mainstream media companies remaining under control of the same patrons. In the lead-up to GE15, social media became a prominent space for political discussions with influencers playing an important role.
Dr Gayathry shared that some had argued that GE15 is a “TikTok election”, with huge investment from PN and PH to create short-form videos. These videos are seen as effective in outreach to younger voters, as they typically shy away from physical rallies. Dr Gayathry countered this point from her survey findings that most people access news and information online with Astro Awani, the Star, and MalaysiaKini as the most cited platforms. Upon closer inspection, TikTok was not the most accessed social media platform compared to YouTube and Instagram.
Dr Gayathry concluded that robust digital spaces have become the main sources of information and sites of mobilisation. She posits that there should be a push for better digital media literacy amongst the youth and initiatives to combat fake news in order for trust levels to be maintained towards online media.
The Question and Answer for the first panel saw questions raised on various issues. One participant raised Nurul Izzah’s losing Permatang Pauh to PAS. The panellists shared that PKR’s winning share in Permatang Pauh has declined in the past few elections and that it became fertile ground for a potential takeover. Some Permatang Pauh voters also felt neglected by the incumbent PKR MP. Other questions raised were the effectiveness of the anti-hopping law in regaining voters’ faith in democracy and the role of outstation voters.
The second panel was kicked off by Mr Adib Zalkapli, director of Bower Group Asia who did his research together with Dr Lee Hwok Aun, a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Their presentation title is “Battle for the Klang Valley”.
Mr Adib began with an overview of the GE2018 results. PH made close to a clean sweep in Klang Valley, comprising of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Mr Adib then shared some of the hotly contested seats including Kuala Selangor contested by Tengku Zafrul against former Health Minister Dzulkefly bin Ahmad.
Sungai Buloh was another hot seat, with Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin contesting under the BN ticket. Khairy is viewed positively in Malaysia due to his role in securing vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another hot seat was Gombak where Azmin Ali, Minister of Trade and Industry, contested against Amiruddin Shari, the current Menteri Besar of Selangor.
Mr Adib explained that after GE15, the Malay heartlands in Selangor are now mostly held by PH with BN failing to win seats in the Klang Valley with the exception of Titiwangsa where Johari Abdul Ghani organised a successful campaign. Mr Adib concluded his presentation that PH would face a major challenge in maintaining its strongholds in Klang Valley in the upcoming state election.
The fourth speaker was Dr Faizal Musa, Visiting Research Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute whose presentation was titled “Islam and the Religious Vote”.
Dr Faizal shared that one reason accounting for PH’s success in 2018 was the promise to jail then Prime Minister Najib Razak for corruption. PH used a similar narrative in the recent general election, with a focus on UMNO President Zahid Hamidi. However, unlike 2018, PN also adopted an anti-corruption narrative while championing for Malay/Islam interests. The rise of PN since 2020 provided an alternative to those wishing for clean governance while maintaining the existing status for Malays.
Dr Faizal shared that his respondents were aware that vote-buying is a corrupt practice of past governments. However, some correspondence in rural constituencies argued that receiving election bribes is not immoral. Dr Faizal claimed that PAS is well-known for giving out hampers and goodie bags to those who attend their programmes. He further posited that transactional vote-buying remains present in rural seats. Other respondents expressed their intention to support PN due to the government’s COVID-19 assistance disbursed when Muhyiddin served as Prime Minister.
Dr Faizal commented that the anti-corruption campaign by PH ironically benefited PN. He explained that PH is perceived by some of his Malay correspondence as liberals, LGBTQ, and Communists. Dr Faizal claimed that disinformation has tainted the reputation of Amanah – one of the component parties in PH – as Amanah is perceived to be involved in the Tabung Haji corruption scandal. The rise of racial and religious sentiments played out to the disadvantage of PH. In addition, young Malaysians were unaware and disinterested about “Reformasi” and the contributions of PKR in the late 1990s.
The last presentation, titled “How it played out in Johor and Perak”, was by Dr Francis Hutchinson and Mr Kevin Zhang. Dr Hutchinson is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysian Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Mr Zhang is Senior Research Officer in the same programme.
Dr Hutchinson opened the presentation with a summary of BN’s performance in 2018 for Johor. BN did well in Johor’s east coast which also incidentally have a high number of FELDA settlements.
Dr Hutchinson shared that in the March’s state elections, BN had increased its state seats from 19 to 40. He however cautioned that the large success was due to a low voters’ turnout, at merely 55 per cent. BN has a core group of supporters which translates into large victories in the event of low turnout. The high turnout in General Election conversely proved to disadvantage for BN, since most of the incremental votes went to either PH or PN.
Dr Hutchinson also explained that BN made efforts in Johor to bring in new (young) faces and technocrats, but none of them succeeded. Conversely, PH fielded familiar faces in its traditional stronghold and they won with a thumping majority.
Mr Zhang provided a deep dive into Johor and Perak, while sharing insights obtained during his fieldwork. In Pagoh, former Prime Minister Muhyiddin has helmed the seat which has had 70 000 eligible voters. Pagoh has a lower median income compared to other constituencies, hence candidates could make use of a better economy as an election promise. Pagoh is the stronghold for Muhyiddin Yassin and has seen various initiatives in the past few years such as the education hubs like Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia Pagoh Campus, though the region still sees limited growth.
Mr Zhang showed pictures taken during his fieldwork, including election posters. One poster showed how Muhyiddin cancelled a lot of their debt for the farmers during his rule as Prime Minister, highlighting how he is popular amongst the rural voters. Furthermore, PN had a large head start as they managed to erect their flags and banners way before other parties did around Johor.
Mr Zhang then shared on Muar which has 69 000 eligible voters. The constituency is largely semi-urban but there are no FELDA settlements. PAS has not yet won a parliamentary seat in Johor, and the closest it managed was in Muar. Here, Syed Saddiq was the incumbent who managed to retain his seat in GE15. PAS also managed to win a seat in the state elections, showing that they are a force to be reckoned with. Mr Zhang shared the predictions made by himself and Dr Hutchinson before the elections. They correctly predicted that urban areas of Johor Bahru will be retained but were unsure of northern Johor, which seemed to be able to swing due to its marginal seat.
Mr Zhang ended by comparing PN in Perak and PN in Johor. The PN in Johor attracted much younger Malay-Muslims at their ceramah however, it was not the same in Perak. The ceramahs in Perak saw more Malay-Muslims men who were dressed in their Muslim headdresses (kopiahs).
The second panel saw various questions, one of which was asked to Dr Faisal. The question asked if Dr Faizal sees the open support for religious celebrities lead to some swing in votes towards PN from fence-sitter voters?” Dr Faizal shared how religious celebrities have been building their support and brand for a long time. He also shared there they are more visible online as compared to during GE14 when they were more present in offline ceramahs. Other questions include questions about why PN supporters in Perak were compared to PN supporters in Johor. Another question asks about the possibility of PAS penetrating Johor which was followed up with a question about what is causing the rise in Islamic religious extremism.
The webinar attracted a bumper turnout of 250 participants from across the globe, including Malaysia and the ASEAN region.