Webinar on “The Outlook for Malaysia’s 15th General Election”

In this webinar, two panels of experts and researchers dissected the different aspects of the Malaysian GE15 and their implications.


4 November 2022, Friday – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute convened a webinar on “Outlook for the 15th Malaysian General Election” with guest speakers Mr Adib Zalkapli (Director at BowerGroupAsia), Dr Tricia Yeoh (CEO of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), and ISEAS researchers Dr Cassey Lee (Senior Fellow), Mr James Chai (Visiting Fellow), Dr Francis Hutchinson (Senior Fellow), and Mr Kevin Zhang (Senior Research Officer). Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow of the ISEAS Malaysia Studies Programme moderated the webinar.

The first panel featured Mr Adib Zalkapli, Dr Cassey Lee and Mr James Chai. The second panel featured Dr Tricia Yeoh, Dr Francis E. Hutchinson and Mr Kevin Zhang. Dr Lee Hwok Aun moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Adib Zalkapli began the webinar with a historical overview on the rise of the two-party system in Malaysia. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) – predecessor of Pakatan Harapan (PH) – first came to prominence in the 2008 General Election as it denied the then ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government of its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority. Despite a change in premiership and reform attempts within BN, its electoral fortunes did not improve in the 2013 General Election and even lost the popular vote. Nonetheless, BN retained a simple parliamentary majority with an almost clean sweep of rural and Malay heartlands. On the other hand, the opposition PR suffered a serious blow after the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) departed from the coalition in 2015.

The reconciliation between Dr Mahathir Mohamad and PH Chairman Anwar Ibrahim in 2016 fuelled opposition momentum as Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) was brought into the PH coalition. Riding on a wave of dissatisfaction amidst numerous corruption scandals, PH defeated BN in the 2018 General Election and ushered in Malaysia’s first ever federal government regime change. In the aftermath of BN’s defeat, it entered an informal alliance with PAS leading to the rise of a Malay Opposition (Muafakat Nasional) against PH. Nonetheless, since the Sheraton Move, PAS has allied more closely with PPBM instead of UMNO under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) banner.

Mr Adib subsequently highlighted the internal dynamics within each coalition leading up to the upcoming General Election. He argued that with PPBM’s departure in 2020 and the two years’ experience as ruling government, PH is ideologically cohesive while also more realistic in its election manifesto. Since its defeat in 2018, BN has lost the bulk of its component members and largely returned to its pre-1971 structure. UMNO, the linchpin of BN, is expected to experience fierce leadership contest after the General Election amidst intense calls for party rejuvenation. PN, comprising predominantly of PAS and Bersatu, portrays itself as an alternative Malay-based coalition to BN. Mr Adib concluded his presentation that the upcoming General Election would illustrate whether Malaysia would head towards a multi-party system or return to the two-party system.

Dr Cassey Lee started his presentation with a breakdown of the economic and non-economic factors which influence voting patterns. He commented that economic performance – from economic growth rate, inflation to unemployment and income inequality – is crucial, but not the sole factor to predict how an incumbent administration would fair in polls. Dr Lee illustrated through a chart which plotted BN’s share of parliamentary seats in each general election against Malaysia’s GDP growth rate. BN secured a higher share of seats when economic growth was high. Since the 2018 General Election, Malaysia has experienced severe economic contraction during the initial outbreak of COVID-19, followed by a sharp rebound in late 2020 with GDP growth hovering just under 5 per cent in 2022. Unemployment rates broadly reflected the downturn and recovery, with unemployment rate spiking from 3 to 5 per cent in early 2020 followed by a gradual decline to 3.6 per cent in May 2022. Despite the commendable economic recovery, Dr Lee cautioned that inflation has surged from 2 to 5 per cent in 2022 and cost of living is one of the top concerns among Malaysian voters. Meanwhile, median salaries remained low for age groups which are below 29, with a significant drop in income during COVID-19.

Dr Lee subsequently provided an overview of BN and PH’s election manifesto (PN’s manifesto was unavailable). BN’s manifesto centred around social safety net to provide financial assistance for low-income households while eradicating poverty. Even though PH also raised the need to reduce cost of living, it proposed alternative solutions including the dismantling of cartels. Both coalitions promised to provide entrepreneurship opportunities for youths and employment support. In addition, Dr Lee highlighted the importance to look beyond nationwide economic indicators, due to the substantial variations across states and individual seats. Dr Lee cautioned that the electoral outcomes in individual seats would determine the eventual winner, since coalitions are expected to perform neck-to-neck in terms of seats won.  Dr Lee ended his presentation with a caution on the heterogenous nature of Malaysian youths, together with uncertainly of voting preferences among first-time voters.

Mr James Chai began his presentation on the importance of youth vote, since the passing of Undi-18 bill and reduction in eligible voting age from 21 to 18 has led to an influx of 1.2 million young voters. Mr Chai shared the findings of a nationwide survey on Gen Z’s voting inclinations (youths between 18 to 24 years old), which is divided into three segments. The first segment comprised of youth’s inclinations to vote. A large share of survey respondents was dissatisfied with politicians, the government, and political parties. 64 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that politicians are dishonest and would lie “just to win an election”, while only 30 per cent thought politicians were honest. Despite the disappointments, about 80 per cent of respondents expressed that they would vote.

The second segment concerned the voting preferences among Z. Just under half of the respondents (43 per cent) chose the options “Unsure”, “Refused”, “Don’t Know”. Mr Chai commented that It is not possible to sort out respondents who are genuinely uncertain from those who preferred to keep their choice a secret. Among respondents who did indicate a preference, BN commands the highest share at 19 per cent, followed by PH (11 per cent), PN (11 per cent) and lastly MUDA (9 per cent). Nonetheless, Mr Chai cautioned that party loyalty is low with a significant share of respondents being persuadable to switch their choice. The last segment concerned the salient issues among Gen Z. Economic concerns, in particular job opportunities and cost of living, is ranked as the highest concern among Gen Z. Education and healthcare are the second and third most pressing concerns.

Dr Tricia Yeoh began her presentation with an overview of the timeline for state elections. She commented that Malaysia historically had held parliamentary elections concurrently with state elections, with the upcoming general election being an anomaly since only three states namely Perak, Perlis and Pahang – all BN governed – have opted to hold simultaneous elections. The six states ruled by PAS and PH have decided to dissolve their respective state assembly only in 2023, while the remaining states are not due for state elections until 2025. Dr Yeoh subsequently provided an in-depth analysis of the three upcoming state elections. In Perak, BN’s vote share has declined significantly from 47 to 33 per cent in the past decade. Consequently, PAS made inroads in the 2018 General Election while support for PH has plateaued. Dr Yeoh expects the Perak to be fierce battleground with multi-cornered fights rendering the outcome unpredictable. In contrast, BN is likely to retain its hold in Perlis since the coalition won 10 out of the 15 state seats in the previous election. Nonetheless, support for BN has declined precipitously by more than 20 per cent over the past decade. Similar to Perlis, BN is expected to retain Pahang though with a narrower margin than in 2018 when it won 25 out of 42 state seats. However, PAS may turn up to be a formidable challenger and continue its 2018 momentum where it gained a credible 30 per cent vote share.

Dr Yeoh subsequently provided an update on the six state elections due in 2023, namely Penang, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. She commented that despite PH and PAS both opting not to hold concurrent state and federal elections, the two coalitions were driven by different motivations. She commented that PH’s decision was a gesture in showing displeasure at Prime Minister Ismail Sabri for going ahead with the snap general election despite the risk of monsoon flooding. In addition, the rulers of Selangor and Negri Sembilan also did not consent to dissolving the state assemblies for fresh polls. In contrast, the decision of PAS to delay state polls stemmed from a strategic wait-and-see approach, depending on the general election outcome. Dr Yeoh explained that PAS may remain in the PN coalition or realign itself to maximise its gains leading up to the state elections.

Dr Francis Hutchinson and Mr Kevin Zhang presented on the Johor state election in March and implications for the upcoming General Election. Dr Hutchinson highlighted the importance of Johor, as it holds the second highest number of parliamentary seats apart from Sarawak. Historically, Johor was a fixed deposit for BN though PH made significant inroads in the past decade. In the recent Johor state election, BN secured a landslide victory and won in 40 out of the 56 state seats, reversing their defeat in 2018. Dr Hutchinson provided a deep dive into the polling districts, illustrating that BN failed to improve their median vote share despite the landslide victory. Conversely, PH suffered a sharp decline in its median vote share due to its supporters either abstaining from the election or switching to PN. PN secured a credible median vote share and almost matched PH, though it only won three seats due to Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system which disadvantages parties whose voters are geographically spread out across many seats.

Mr Zhang discussed how the urban-rural divide and ethnicity affected voting behaviours. Based on the median values at polling districts, BN secured more than half of the rural votes but only around a third of semi-urban and urban votes. On the other hand, PH secured about half of the urban votes but performed miserably among semi-urban and rural electorates. PN obtained around one-quarter of the votes regardless of urban-rural status. In terms of ethnicity, BN remained generally popular in Malay dominant polling districts, but performed poorly in mixed polling districts. PH on the other hand is somewhat popular in mixed polling districts but highly unpopular in Malay dominant and large majority polling districts. PN performed somewhat better in Malay dominant polling districts compared to mixed polling districts, but remained a distant second from BN.

In the question-and-answer session, participants inquired on Najib’s role in politics, the influence of PAS, youth (dis)engagement, economic impacts of political uncertainty, among others. The webinar drew a large audience of 162 from Singapore, Malaysia and the region.