2019/25, 7 March 2019
The by-election in Semenyih, Selangor, was a jarring wake-up call for Pakatan Harapan. Having lost to Barisan Nasional in a 4-cornered battle by 1,914 votes, coalition members now oscillate between conceding that they need to do more to alleviate costs of living and declaring that the ‘Malay agenda’ must be fulfilled. With UMNO and PAS now openly declaring a “marriage” to “unite the Malays and Bumiputeras”, it is very clear that racial and religious political discourse is even more entrenched than it was prior to GE14.
My conversations with those in the rural outskirts and interviews in the media, however, reveal that cost of living issues are still the key factors that make a difference. While many are quick to point out that racist rhetoric resonates with the rural Malay majority, the bottom line still lies in the ability of the current government to meet the needs of the distant electorate.
The disgruntled grumbling on rural grounds is that of regret that Pakatan Harapan was voted into power. Every complaint about the current regime is couched in economic terms; that there is no financial assistance, that there are more stringent rules and regulations, that it is more difficult to do business and that costs of living have not gone down. The next comments that emerge cover dissatisfaction with the new government’s inability to connect with the rural electorate; there is no-one meeting with them to find out their problems, there is no-one taking action to improve conditions, there is no-one that asks what they need. Thereafter, the ever-present UMNO-PAS chatter takes over the conversation and reminds voters that these inadequacies are connected to insufficient Malay presence in government and that a loss of Malay identity and rights is clearly demonstrated by the economic difficulties they suffer.
While that argument is clearly disconnected and illogical, to a populace that is suffering from financial difficulties, any explanation for their misfortune is accepted as truth. After all, during the BN regime, no matter how bad it was at the top, they always received their financial assistance. The PH government needs to demonstrate that it is on the ground with its people. It needs to stop the waffling about flying cars and 5G connectivity in the city because people on the fringes sometimes do not have a stable phone line and can hardly afford a regular car – let alone new innovations such as these, that only serve to demonstrate the government's irrelevance to the people. If there have been action and initiatives to help the poor, these need to be broadcast and up-scaled to other areas. Amanah’s version of Islam needs to be communicated to those who need to be reassured that they are on the right religious track. Communication means speaking to the people in language and terms that they understand; without jargon and pompous prose.
PH can move away from the racial and religious rhetoric to make the new Malaysia a reality, but far more authentic action needs to be taken on rural grounds to prove that it is listening and making a real difference to people’s lives. Only then will the incessant UMNO-PAS diatribe become ineffective and unheeded.
Dr Serina Rahman is Visiting Fellow under the Malaysia Program at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.