As midnight approached, flags waved, music blared, and the crowd chanted. At the back of the election rally in Selangor, Malaysia, a friendly conversation took a turn. A trio of retirees—formerly an oil and gas trader, a lawyer, and a hotelier—had started by complaining to me about the high cost of living, poor public services, and unimpressive federal leadership.
Now Abdul Rahman, the former oil trader, shifted onto another topic. “Tell me, can you ever trust a Chinese person?” The Chinese, he proclaimed, refused to learn to speak Malay, were closed off, and were “grasping,” or taking advantage of Malay generosity.
Malaysian politics have often been underpinned by ethnic tensions, and this Saturday’s elections in six of Malaysia’s 13 states were no exception. While none changed hands, the Malay nationalist opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN) strengthened its position, notably making big inroads in the key state of Selangor.
The Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)—whose leader Abdul Hadi Awang has expressed sympathy for the Taliban and blamed non-Muslims for corruption in Malaysia—led the charge. Some worry that this may herald Malaysia’s future political direction.
“As a positive you have the fact that Malaysia is now much more democratic. Just eight months into power, the PM is facing [an] electoral rebuke that was unthinkable just five years ago,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Malaysia. “But Malaysia is also facing the same sorts of problems as the U.S., like ethno-nationalism; disinformation on social media, especially TikTok; and political polarization.”
In a nation that is 57.3 percent Malay, 22.9 percent Chinese, 6.6 percent Indian, and 12.4 percent other Bumiputra groups (mainly in the Bornean states), politics has long centered on balancing ethnic groups.
Malays and other so-called indigenous groups are classified as Bumiputra, “sons of the soil,” and accorded privileges. The very constitution allows for the establishment of quotas for Malays in the civil service and universities and reserves of land that only Malays can own. Over time, these special rights have swelled to include quotas and better terms for Bumiputras in public share listings, private housing, government procurement, etc. Underpinning this is the idea of the Ketuanan Melayu, or lordship of the Malays—that the Malays have a natural right to dominance, in contrast to supposedly foreign groups such as Chinese and Indians, even if they’ve been in the country for many generations.
Ideas of Malayness and Islam are also closely intertwined. Only Muslims can be counted as Malays. Islamic courts rules on issues of family law, inheritance, etc. Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are not legally valid. In states controlled by PAS, alcohol is banned for Muslims only.
Minorities, particularly the Chinese, are often viewed with suspicion. A tangled history of migration and trade means the community forms a majority in just one state, and they are stereotyped as dominating the Malaysian economy. Aspersions about their national loyalty are common.
From independence in 1957 until 2018, Malaysia was led by a coalition whose key members were the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the Malaysian Indian Congress. For most of its existence, the coalition was called Barisan Nasional, the National Front.
The arrangement collapsed in the 2018 general election. The latter two parties were already seen as UMNO rubber stamps. Ethnic minorities and liberal Malays voted for opposition parties, mainly gathered under the banner of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition. Then the 1MDB scandal, perhaps the largest political corruption scandal ever, peeled off vital Malay support, and the coalition government fell.
Since then, Malaysia has had four different prime ministers in five years. Nearly every major party has allied with and then either betrayed, or been betrayed by, every other major party. Individual politicians are often no more loyal. The first PH government was brought down in February 2020 by a wave of defections.
The post-2022 general election settlement seemed promise some stability, but only tentatively. A three-way election contest that split the Malay vote in key seats benefited PH, which attracted the vast majority of minority voters plus a handful of Malays. But, cobbling together a ruling majority still required PH to ally with the much-reduced UMNO now led by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a man currently facing 47 charges, including criminal breach of trust, corruption, and money laundering.
Underpinning the unlikely alliance was elite panic about PAS. A surge in support, dubbed the green wave, saw them emerge as the single largest party with a serious shot at leading the government.
The regional elections on Saturday were a test of the new national unity government. The PN opposition cast the state elections as a referendum on the federal government. If the PH stronghold of Selangor were to fall, there were rumors that enough UMNO members of parliament might bolt to potentially bring down the government.
As the votes were tallied, it became clear the government had passed the test, but narrowly. While PN didn’t win control of any new states, it won 60 new seats. In Selangor, it went from holding five seats to 22, seven short of a majority.
Fueling the shift was a collapse in Malay support for UMNO. Preliminary estimates suggest 73 percent of Malays voted for the opposition. The party only held up well in the small state of Negeri Sembilan.
While a poor economic environment was partly to blame for Saturday’s result, Malay uneasiness with the government played a big role too. On social media and in speeches, PN politicians claim that the Ketuanan Melayu is under threat. Chinese dominance of the economy is a well-established stereotype. Now PN proclaims they’re on the verge of political dominance too.
On the ground, the strains between PH and UMNO activists, who had spent years campaigning against each other, were also visible. In a district that is 56.8 percent Malay, PH ran a Chinese candidate, who was a member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Ideologically multiracial, in practice the party draws most of its support from Chinese voters and has long been made a boogeyman by UMNO.
A popular Malay minister, Tengku Zafrul Aziz, visited to address activists from the UMNO and PH, urging cooperation. Both he and a local UMNO party official assured me that the two coalitions, mortal enemies less than a year ago, were cooperating well.
Just outside the assembly hall, some members of the DAP were blunter. “It can be a little awkward,” admitted an assemblywoman from another state who traveled to help the campaign. “They [UMNO] find it very embarrassing to sit together or even take photos with us.”
Malay voters were also suspicious, according to Wong May Ing, a DAP representative from Perak, though she played down the racial element. “I think the fact that we’re DAP is [a] bigger challenge than our candidate being Chinese,” she said. But with the DAP attracting the overwhelming majority of Chinese support, its opponents rarely bother to make the distinction.
Meanwhile, in the few seats that UMNO won outside Negeri Sembilan it seems to have relied heavily on non-Malay PH voters to get it over the line. “They consider UMNO a necessary, or at least a lesser, evil,” said Mujibu Abdul Muis, a research fellow at the Ilham Centre, a Malaysian public opinion research firm.
Liberal Malays and minorities fear a PAS takeover. Chinese WhatsApp groups buzzed with rumors that PAS in power would mean bans on alcohol, mahjong, and on owning dogs without the permission of Muslim neighbors. Some worry that PAS might try implement hudud, Islamic criminal law.
Here, Khairy Jamaluddin, a former UMNO health minister who served from 2021 to 2022 in a coalition that included PAS, is skeptical. “In the two years that I was in cabinet, none of the three PAS members who sat alongside me ever raised hudud.” They are careful not to overplay their hand, he suggested.
Now expelled from UMNO by Zahid as a potential rival, Khairy’s main worry is that the growing polarization along lines of race will simply degrade governance. He drew comparisons to the United States and Britain, where, he said, tensions are amplified, compromise is impossible, and difficult reforms are avoided by governments that fear losing power.
Even if it should make further gains at the next election, PAS might remain cautious. Parties backed mainly by minority voters are unlikely to cooperate with it, and even some PN voting Malays view it cautiously. Despite being the largest party in the coalition, it still leaves the leadership to the former prime minister and Bersatu member Muhyiddin Yassin.
Still, long-term trends may favor PAS. Notably, young Malays also seem to be more religiously conservative, partly thanks to PAS’s effective proselytization. “It is very difficult in politics to fight the party of God because their timeline doesn’t match ours,” Khairy said. “They are a social project, and they are in it for the long game.”