A DECISIVE triumph for Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Ramli Mohd Nor in the Cameron Highlands by-election brought the winning streak of Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to an abrupt end on Jan 26.
Ramli took the seat by a margin of more than 3,000 votes and secured his place in history by becoming the country’s first Orang Asli (indigenous person) MP.
Until it was “steamrolled” by BN a week ago, PH had been riding high with Malaysia’s electorate.
Since its shock victory in Malaysia’s 14th general election (GE14) last May, which saw veteran politician Dr Mahathir Mohamad return for another term as prime minister, ending decades of BN rule, PH has won four out of four by-elections— including the key vote that returned prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim to parliament.
Although Ramli’s victory didn’t come out of the blue – Cameron Highlands has traditionally leaned pro-BN – BN’s winning margins in the last two general elections were slender, giving PH hope that they could flip the seat.
The loss is a bitter pill for PH to swallow, especially after the coalition’s ‘big guns’—including Mahathir himself— threw their personal weight behind pre-election campaigns in the district.
The Cameron Highlands result has demonstrated how quickly the political mood can change and, though the by-election doesn’t herald an immediate shift in power, there are lessons here which PH, as well as those parties in opposition, would be wise to heed.
Pakatan Harapan is losing ground
Ahead of the by-election, Mahathir administration officials had characterised it as a sort of referendum on former PM Najib Razak and whether he could pose a credible threat in the 15th general election (GE15).
The Cameron Highlands election may have been the proving ground of a new winning strategy for Najib and BN, tactics which they are likely to repeat in the upcoming Semenyih by-election: tapping into Malay discontent and showing a willingness to evolve in response to the Malaysian people’s needs.
One commentator’s assessment of the Cameron Highlands election clearly set out the difference between PH and BN’s current campaigning styles: “While Pakatan Harapan (PH) has been going around the country like a group of headless chickens, former prime minister Najib Razak has been calmly and methodically doing all the things he should have done when he was in charge”.
PH has also handed BN valuable ammunition by its progress—or lack thereof—in the first seven months of its term. PH’s performance has been so poor that Dr Mahathir’s own media advisor, Kadir Jasin, recently appeared to suggest that Najib should be jailed to distract from PH’s shortcomings.
The results of the Cameron Highlands election would suggest that a wiser strategy would be for PH to actually fulfil its pledges, rather than consistently rowing back on them— and that disillusioned voters may hand the coalition further losses in future elections if PH doesn’t step up its game.
Unmet manifesto pledges are damaging coalition credibility
PH has trotted out plenty of excuses why it’s struggling to meet its election pledges –including the claim that PH simply didn’t expect to win the GE14 and so made the mistake of over-promising during its campaign.
Although some promised initiatives have been initiated, PH has notably fallen short on rebalancing the inequalities faced by some ethnic groups.
For instance, no funds have yet been allocated to the promised infrastructure upgrades in Orang Asli villages—an issue which Cameron Highlands voters no doubt had in mind as they went to the polls.
What’s more, some of PH’s particularly dubious policies – particularly scrapping the Goods & Services Tax (GST) and replacing it with a less lucrative Sales & Service Tax (SST) – are already sapping government funds and causing voters to lose faith in the coalition’s ability to rule.
As Malaysia can no longer rely on the balm of rising oil prices, it’s likely that this tax swap will result in the loss of RM17 billion to government coffers this year.
Economists have warned about this shortfall for months, but the scrapping of the GST became a broader campaign issue in the Cameron Highlands when independent candidate Wong Seng Yee underlined the heavy burden farmers are facing now that they cannot apply for refunds for farming equipment under the SST regime like they could under the previous scheme.
Racial tensions remain
Another hope which has failed to materialise after last May’s election stunner is the idea that Malaysia is entering an era of post-racial politics.
Indeed, the recent by-election has underscored that racial issues remain centre-stage, and PH’s Malay problem hasn’t gone away.
In fact, BN attributed its Cameron Highlands victory in part to a resurgence of Malay Muslim activism. BN won on the strength of Malay and Orang Asli votes, while PH support came largely from the Chinese and Indian populations.
It’s a racial divide that doesn’t bode well for future elections: by and large, Chinese voters won’t support Umno, while the Malays reject DAP as anti-Islam. Together Umno and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) can carry a majority, but PH simply can’t win without courting Malay votes.
If Umno and fellow opposition candidates from PAS continue to cooperate in upcoming by-elections, they may well manoeuvre themselves into a position of considerable influence.
The results in the Cameron Highlands have shown increased voter confidence in the ability of parties like Umno and PAS to champion the Malay and Bumiputera agenda without eroding the rights of other ethnicities.
The ruling coalition can’t afford to allow public support to erode further and must take concrete steps to resolve the dissatisfaction that lost them the Cameron Highlands seat and which could open the floodgates to further losses.
PH not only needs to improve its image but its fundamental approach to both managing the economy and addressing the issues faced by Malaysia’s myriad ethnic communities.