Wednesday, 19 June 2019 – One year after their shock victory, the current Malaysian Pakatan Harapan government faces a daunting task ahead of them in delivering on their promise of reform, summarised Mr Ibrahim ‘Ben’ Suffian, co-founder and programs director of Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, in a seminar at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
Dr Francis Hutchinson and Mr Ibrahim Suffian during the seminar on 19 June 2019. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)
Ben’s seminar answered three key questions: first, what is the current level of support for the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, whose approval ratings were at an all-time high of 79 per cent last May? Secondly, what are policy imperatives that the PH government should act on? Lastly, what are the political implications of an UMNO-PAS alliance?
In the last General Elections (GE14) held in May 2018, PH managed to unseat the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) government. However, Ben warned that this was an uneasy victory, with PH’s vote share being slightly less than half of the majority. It was clear from the results that PH’s main electoral base were the non-Malays, who greatly contributed to PH’s numbers. The Malay vote, however, was split in PH’s favour in three-cornered contests between United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Parti Agama Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS) and PH in several key states. Ben pointed out that in these states, PH had a very weak vote share amongst the Malays. Other structural factors, like the rising cost of living and Tun Dr Mahathir’s presence helped push PH ahead of its competitors.
The post-GE14 euphoria that gripped the nation dissipated before the multiple by-elections that followed soon after. UMNO, working together with PAS, managed to snatch back several PH constituencies. These losses were indicative of the declining Malay support for PH, which had decreased over several policy decisions such as the reinstatement of the Sales and Service Tax (SST) as well as unmet expectations that outstanding student loans would be forgiven. Ben shared that over 45 per cent of the Malaysians thought that the government was headed in the wrong direction, with 32 per cent of them thinking that the state’s economic policies were unhelpful in the current economic climate.
Dr Mahathir’s approval ratings also took a dip, but have since crept upwards. The greatest decrease was seen with the PH federal administration, which lost over 36 percentage points in the course of one year to 43 per cent in June 2019. Ben pointed out that it was possible that the early figure was a result of the initial euphoria and current levels of popularity are more reflective of the actual support for PH. However, despite the low approval rating, many Malaysians believed that PH’s campaign promises and its efforts to implement them were sincere, and that the problems were far graver than they previously thought.
Ben also listed the current issues that are facing the current PH government. First, Najib’s unexpected rebound as a social media sensation was a well-orchestrated media campaign that tapped the Malay voter’s dissatisfaction at the perceived lack of effort in addressing cost of living issues by the current government. This also coincided with increasing unhappiness over several other important issues close to the Malay voter, such as Islam and Malay rights. Ben warned that this could be easily exploited by the Malay opposition, who are already organising themselves for the next elections.
The second issue facing the PH government is the question of leadership succession. While the matter is still unfolding, it seems that pro-Anwar factions are becoming increasingly edgy over the lack of a clear timetable for succession. Furthermore, PKR’s internal harmony might be at stake, as members are falling behind either Anwar or Azmin Ali for Prime Minister.
The third issue addressed in the presentation was the potential offered by an alliance between UMNO and PAS. While this could be unpopular among a number of grass-roots PAS members, it could be electorally powerful, yielding a formidable number of seats. Nonetheless, there are also possibilities of Pakatan Harapan to work together with PAS, given ongoing federal-state government financial transfers. Despite their different political affiliations, PH has kept its commitment and provided Kelantan and Terengganu their share of oil royalties.
The floor was then opened for questions. Members of the audience asked several questions regarding the Malaysian political landscape. These ranged from perceptions on China and Chinese investment in Malaysia, to the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle in light of reports talking about poorly performing ministries. Others asked about the volatility of the Malay vote and the current PM’s relationship with members of the royalty.
The seminar was well-attended with members of the audience asked several questions regarding the Malaysian political landscape. (Credit: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute)