The verdict of the 15th general elections (GE15) held on November 19, 2022, to the 222 strong Dewan Rakyat or the Lower House of the Parliament of Malaysia, resulted in an unprecedented hung parliament, which further resulted in a brief period of uncertainty as to who would head the next government. After the intervention of King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the Nation’s constitutional monarch, Anwar Ibrahim was appointed as the Prime Minister on November 24, 2022.
Of the three dominant alliances in fray, Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) secured 82 seats; the Perikatan Nasional (PN), led by the former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, won in 74 constituencies; and the Barisan Nasional (BN) with a tally of 30 seats was led into the polls by the then incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. The remaining seats to the Dewan Rakyat have been secured by others. Of these, the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) led Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) alliance has secured victory in 23 constituencies.[i]
Upon being sworn in as the Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim appointed a 27-member strong cabinet known as the Kabinet Kerajaan Perpaduan or Unity Government Cabinet with representation from four political coalitions consisting of 19 political parties and two independent Members of Parliament.[ii] Only PN is not part of this coalition government and is now the official opposition party.
After the formation of the new government, Parliament was reconvened on December 19, 2022. On agenda was not only to elect the new Speaker but also to vote on a Motion of Confidence, which was promised by Anwar Ibrahim upon becoming Prime Minister.[iii] The Confidence Motion was won by the government with a voice vote.[iv] The Treasury bench was able to elect Datuk Johari Abdul as the Speaker with 147 votes or a two-third majority along with Alice Lau and Datuk Ramli Mohd Nor as Deputy Speakers.[v]
Malaysian Politics: A Background
Anwar Ibrahim’s elevation as Prime Minster per se may not be significant, given the nature of electoral politics, but in the case of this Southeast Asian nation, when juxtaposed with the fact that Malaysia has seen Mahathir Mohamad at the helm of nation-building for a cumulative 24 years since the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1957, this development carries with it a number of implications.
Mahathir Mohamad was first elected as Prime Minister in 1981 and served five consecutive terms as the Head of Government till 2003, as the leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led BN alliance. The 22 years of Mahathir’s government was a period of relative political stability and economic progress. It was during this time that the nation’s Human Developmental Index (HDI) witnessed marked progress. As of 2019, the nation is ranked 60th with an HDI score of 0.81.[vi]
In 2003, Mahathir stepped down as the Prime Minister in favour of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was from the UMNO-led BN alliance. However, Mahathir was to make a political comeback in 2018 as the candidate not of the UMNO-led BN alliance but that of PH alliance, that was led by Anwar Ibrahim. The agenda of this alliance was to oppose the Najib Razak from UMNO whose administration had come the lens of corruption.
In 2018 Mahathir was once again elected as the premier of the Federation, with the understanding that the that his onetime Finance Minister and later political foe, Anwar Ibrahim, would succeed the him as the Prime Minister in a couple of years.[vii] The reluctance on the part of Mahathir to hand over the reins of administration over to Anwar Ibrahim and the subsequent collapse of the PH alliance in 2020, paved the way for two unstable governments headed by Muhyiddin Yassin from the PN alliance and Ismail Yaakob from the BN alliance.
The nation’s parliamentary polity was going through a phase of instability, Malaysia has seen five Prime Ministers in as many years and three administrations in quick successions. It was in this backdrop, that the BN government of Ismail Yaakob called for early elections, even when the same was only due in 2023. Ismail Yaakob, the outgoing premier, hoped to capitalise on the favourable outcome of the provincial polls that was held earlier in 2022. However, the final outcome of the polls announced on November 19 has left the “grand old party” of Malaysia in the distant third position and numerically pitted with a much smaller, regional GPS alliance from the eastern province of Sarawak. It is also to be noted that Mahathir Mohamad at 97 contested the 2022 elections as a candidate of the Homeland Fighter’s Party (Parti Pejuang Tanah Air- PEJUANG) that he floated in 2020 but lost his seat by securing just under ten per cent of the votes that were polled.
A New Age: New Generation and New Expectations
One of the significant aspects of this election was that it was conducted after the lowering of the minimum age to exercise political franchise from 21 years to 18 years.[viii] This has resulted in a marked increase of the electorate with 1.4 million young voters between the age group of 18 and 20 years, alone. When the nation had gone to polls in 2018, the total electorate stood at 14.9 million but saw a marked rise of over 6 million first-time voters, thus bringing the total electorate to over 21.1 million[ix] in 2022.
This revision in the age limit will have a long-term implication given the demographics of Malaysia. The nation’s mean age as of 2020 was just above 30 years and is expected not to cross 40 years till 2045.[x] The relatively young age profile of the nation entails with it the hopes and expectations of a larger population, which in turn would go on to shape the contours of the nation’s policies and politics for years to come. It is to be noted that those under 40 years of age constitute about half of the total electorate in the 15th General Elections.[xi]
Thus, a young aspirational electorate, brings with it a set of prerogatives, that has shaped the contours of national politics. What makes such expectations from the masses on the future of Malaysia unique has a lot to do with its economy. Over the last 25 years, the country’s economy has been impacted adversely in the four major global and regional jolts. The first was during the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, followed by the post-9/11 economic slowdown in 2001, global financial crisis of 2007–2008, and currently the combined impact of both the COVID pandemic and the Ukrainian crisis. One of the impacts of this multiplicity of economic challenges can be deduced in the spike in the overall number of educated youth (university graduates) unemployment. In 2010, graduate unemployment was shy of 87,000; however, by 2018, even before the pandemic, this figure was a little over 170,000.[xii]
It was in the context of the current economic slowdown that Anwar Ibrahim, as Prime Minister, said that his primary concerns is the “issue of the welfare of the ordinary ‘rakyat’ (meaning: citizens in the Malay language) which includes the issue of cost of living,”[xiii] as there has been a sharp increase in the prices of essentials, ever since the onset of the pandemic. The new Premier had also stressed that his goal was to “guarantee and safeguard the rights of all Malaysians, especially the marginalised and impoverished, regardless of race or religion” and also said that his government would “never compromise on good governance, the anti-corruption drive, judicial independence and the welfare of ordinary Malaysians.”[xiv]
These words of Anwar Ibrahim are not only aimed at instilling a degree of hope to all citizens but to the contrary is also a reflection of the complexity of the Malaysian society and state.
Of Race, Religion and Region
Malaysia is a nation that is split vertically into three visible vectors, which can be categorised as (i) race, (ii) religion and (iii) region.
Of these three, it was the issue of race that had resulted in redrawing the map of the Federation. In the initial days, after the formation of the Malaysian Federation in 1957, the nation witnessed heightened ethnic tensions. The twin race riots in the then province of Singapore in July and September 1964 between ethnic Malays and Chinese resulted in the map of the Federation being redrawn, as Singapore was expelled from the Federation. This development significant as it was, did not however, eliminate ethnic divisions, as the nation continues to live with the undercurrents of such tensions. As of 2022, the Malay ethnicity constitutes almost 70 per cent of the total population, followed by Chinese at almost 23 per cent, Indians at 6.6 per cent and others making up less than a percentile.[xv] It is this ethnic composition that has been at the core of the national politics.
The second issue of concern has been religious affiliation, which is not drastically different from the ethnic composition of the nation. As of 2020, in the nation with a population of a little more than 32 million, 63.5 per cent identify themselves as adherents of Islam, followed by Buddhist at 18.7 per cent, Christians at 9.1 per cent, Hindus at 6.1 per cent and the remaining 2.7 per cent as followers of other religious beliefs.[xvi] Incidentally, the Article 3 of the Malaysian Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”
Along with this, the distinction on ethnic and religious lines also has to do with the identity of Bumiputera, a term that refers exclusively to Malay, who are mostly Muslims adds another layer of complications. It is this Bumiputera identity that is the dominant feature of the Malaysian politics as it is this identity-based politics, seemingly at the expense of other communities, that in part enabled UMNO-led BN alliance to have been in office for 61 continuous years.[xvii]
Thirdly, since the turn of the century, the electoral pattern that has now beginning to emerge is a vertical split between the western (Peninsular Malaysia) and eastern half (Malaysian Borneo/Borneo States) of the nation. This is most evident in the GE15, wherein the GPS as part of the PBB alliance was able to secure 23 seats of the total 31 seats from the Sarawak province in Borneo, on the plank of representing the aspirations of the people of this province.
The Malaysian electoral system also faces the limitation of “malapportionment,” which refers to unequal political representation arising from large disparities in the size of electoral constituencies.[xviii] By many accounts, it has been claimed that this malapportionment, along with other irregularities, like campaigning restriction,[xix] had ensured in the BN alliance’s uninterrupted tenure of six decades in government as BN “benefited from its dominance over the smaller rural constituencies, winning more seats even if they performed poorly in the larger, under-represented urban constituencies”.[xx]
This, when seen in the context of the electoral profile of the nation, which has seen the rise of new players, could result in making provincial aspirations, along with existing issues or race and religion, coming to play a larger role in shaping the political landscape of the nation in times to come. It was in this context that the police had issued a note of caution of the possibility of communal tensions flaring up after the elections. The authorities had made a specific request to the country’s social media users to refrain from posting provocative content.[xxi]
The appeal by the security agencies was also reflecting the nature of GE15 results. This is so as alliance led by Muhyiddin Yassin’s PN is seen to be largely representing the interests of the conservative Malay Muslim section of the society, whereas the PH is seen to be a multi-religious and multi-ethnic alliance.[xxii]
Thought early in the day, it is not unlikely that the future of Malaysian politics would be a contested space between various players with race, religion, and region as their main political plank. This would result in significant negotiation between the various stakeholders at frequent intervals. If the interests of the stakeholders are not handled with deft, there could be political instability.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i] “Malaysia Election: Full Results,” Straits Times, November 19, 2022. https://www.straitstimes.com/multimedia/graphics/2022/11/malaysia-ge-2022-live-election-results/index.html (Accessed November 22, 2022).
[ii] Sebastian Strangio. “In Forming Malaysia’s New Cabinet, Anwar Strikes a Careful Balance,” The Diplomat, December 5, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/12/in-forming-malaysias-new-cabinet-anwar-strikes-a-careful-balance/ (Accessed December 6, 2022).
[iii] Joseph Sipalan and Hadi Azmi. “What’s at Stake for Malaysia in Anwar Ibrahim’s Confidence Vote, and Can He Survive Test?” South China Morning Post, December 17, 2022. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3203433/whats-stake-malaysia-anwar-ibrahims-confidence-vote-and-can-he-survive-test?module=inline&pgtype=article (Accessed December 17, 2022).
[iv] Joseph Sipalan and Hadi Azmi. “Malaysia’s PM Anwar Ibrahim Set to Begin Reformist Agenda after Winning Confidence Vote,” South China Morning Post, December 19, 2022. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3203857/malaysias-pm-anwar-ibrahim-consolidates-leadership-position-after-confidence-vote-win-parliament (Accessed December 21, 2022).
[v] Ram Anand. “Malaysia PM Anwar Gets Two-Thirds Backing in Confidence Vote,” Strait Times, December 19, 2022. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/malaysia-pm-anwar-gets-two-thirds-backing-in-confidence-vote (Accessed December 19, 2022).
[vi] “Developed Countries List 2022,” World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/developed-countries (Accessed November 21, 2022).
Note: According of the existing scheme, all nations having an HDI score above 0.80 fall under the category of being a developed nation.
[vii] “Can Barisan Nasional Make Political Comeback in Malaysia?” Insight, Channel News Asia, May 18, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihVkZiiPZWA (Accessed November 10, 2020).
[viii] “From a Student Movement to a Constitutional Amendment,” Undi18. https://undi18.org/about-us (Accessed November 22, 2022).
Undi18 is a Malaysian youth movement that successfully advocated for the amendment of Article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age in Malaysia from 21 to 18 years.
[ix]“About 21.1 million Malaysians Eligible to Vote,” The Star, October 21, 2022. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2022/10/21/about-211-million-malaysians-eligible-to-vote (Accessed November 11, 2022).
[x] Aaron O'Neill. “Malaysia: Average Age of the Population from 1950 to 2050,” statista, September 7, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/318690/average-age-of-the-population-in-malaysia/ (Accessed November 29, 2022).
[xi] J. J. Rose. “In Malaysia Election, Newly Enfranchised Teens Could Be the Kingmakers,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 18, 2022. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2022/1118/In-Malaysia-election-newly-enfranchised-teens-could-be-the-kingmakers (Accessed November 18, 2022).
[xii] Diana Abdul Wahab. “Who's to Blame for Graduate Unemployment?” Malaysia Now, September 27, 2022. https://www.malaysianow.com/opinion/2022/09/27/whos-to-blame-for-graduate-unemployment (Accessed November 22, 2022).
[xiii] Su-Lin Tan. “Malaysia’s New Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim Vows to Unify the Country and Fight Corruption,” CNBC, November 25, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/25/malaysias-new-pm-anwar-ibrahim-vows-to-unify-country-fight-corruption.html (Accessed 27, 2022).
[xiv] Kate Mayberry. “Malaysia’s Anwar Gets to Work, Promising Inclusive Government,” Al Jazeera, November 25, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/11/25/malaysias-anwar-starts-work-promising-inclusive-government (Accessed November 25, 2022).
[xv] “Share of Population in Malaysia from 2019 to 2022, by Ethnicity,” statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1017372/malaysia-breakdown-of-population-by-ethnicity/#:~:text=Published%20by%20Statista%20Research%20Department%2C%20Oct%205%2C%202022,three%20main%20ethnic%20groups%20are%20classified%20as%20%E2%80%98Other%E2%80%99 (Accessed November 25, 2022).
[xvi] “Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2022,” https://cloud.stats.gov.my/index.php/s/BG11nZfaBh09RaX#pdfviewer (Accessed November 26, 2022).
[xvii] William Case. “Malaysia’s Uneven but Bounded Electoral Playing Field,” East Asian Forum, November 13, 2022. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2022/11/13/malaysias-uneven-but-bounded-electoral-playing-field/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter2022-11-13 (Accessed December 1, 2022).
[xviii] James Chai. “The Paradox of Malaysia’s Lowering of Voting Age – Expanded Enfranchisement Devalued by More Unequal Representation,” ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, June 15, 2022, https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-63-the-paradox-of-malaysias-lowering-of-voting-age-expanded-enfranchisement-devalued-by-more-unequal-representation-by-james-chai/ (Accessed December 6, 2022).
[xix] “1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices—Malaysia,” US State Department. https://1997-2001.state.gov/global/human_rights/1999_hrp_report/malaysia.html
[xx] James Chai. “The Paradox of Malaysia’s Lowering of Voting Age – Expanded Enfranchisement Devalued by More Unequal Representation,” ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, June 15, 2022, https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-63-the-paradox-of-malaysias-lowering-of-voting-age-expanded-enfranchisement-devalued-by-more-unequal-representation-by-james-chai/ (Accessed December 6, 2022).
[xxi] “Malaysian Police Warn of Ethnic Tensions on Social Media after Divisive Election,” Channel News Asia, November 22, 2022. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/malaysia-ge15-ethnic-race-tensions-social-media-divisive-election-may-13-riot-3092041 (Accessed November 22, 2022).
[xxii] Mohammed Shoaib Raza. “Political Change in Malaysia: A Harbinger of Hope?”, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, December 27, 2022, https://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/Political-change-in-malaysia-msraza-271222#footnote1_x9ipqyi, (Accessed December 28, 2023).