May 20, 2013 | 14:29 GMT

8 mins read

The Politics of Malaysian Demographics


Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the leader of the country's ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, formed his Cabinet on May 15. Though its lineup is subject to change, especially after intraparty elections later this year, the new Cabinet highlights the most significant and potentially destabilizing trend in Malaysian politics: the weakening political relevance of the ethnic Chinese party within the ruling coalition.

Barisan Nasional had its worst electoral performance to date during Malaysia's May 5 national elections. The coalition secured only a simple majority vote and lost the popular vote, so though it did not lose national power as some within the opposition had hoped, it still saw its support continue to erode in line with the trend that began with the country's 2008 elections. When Najib put together his Cabinet, he had hoped to create a lineup that would bolster the coalition's flagging support and demonstrate national reconciliation after five years of virtually nonstop political campaigning and allegations of electoral fraud. However, of the 57-member Cabinet, Najib was unable to get a single representative from the main Chinese party, the Malaysian Chinese Association. This is the first time since Barisan Nasional was formed that the Malaysian Chinese Association has not been a part of the Cabinet.
Barisan Nasional has grounded its legitimacy (along with that of its predecessor, the Alliance) as the sole ruling coalition since Malaysia gained its independence in 1957 by claiming to represent the whole country; it consists of three major parties that represent the country's three major ethnic groups — Malay and other indigenous groups (known as Bumiputera), Chinese and Indian. However, soon after the coalition's formation, the Malaysian Chinese Association came under heavy criticism from the Chinese community, which blamed the party for failing to promote Chinese social and political equality as a complement to their economic power. The party was also blamed for being subordinate to the United Malays National Organization, rooted in the Malay majority. Barisan Nasional's Alliance predecessor suffered a setback in the 1969 elections, in large part due to Chinese opposition, which led to racial riots between Chinese and Malay citizens and the imposition of emergency rule. The ruling alliance reformed itself into Barisan Nasional to prevent such communal violence and political breakdown from recurring. 
In an effort to reconstitute the interethnic economic and political disparities, the government implemented the New Economic Policy and a series of policies on culture and education in the 1970s. These officially reinstated the pre-eminence of the Malays in political and economic life. Despite the dominance of the ethnic Malay majority, Barisan Nasional gained Chinese support by granting key Cabinet positions — including finance, trade and industrial portfolios — to members of the Malaysian Chinese Association. The coalition thus assimilated Chinese interests and ensured its continued rule. The Chinese community also benefited from the resulting stability, which over decades allowed the Malaysian economy to boom. However, the Malaysian Chinese Association gradually found its position within the ruling coalition threatened as the latter's pro-Malay policies and pursuit of diversified partners sidelined the Chinese party. Against this backdrop, the Malaysian Chinese Association has struggled over years to win back Chinese voters, who are critical to the ruling coalition, but instead has become further distanced from the Chinese community, which became especially clear in the 2008 elections.
The Malaysian Chinese Association's further losses in the 2013 polls could therefore pose a long-term challenge to the current political status quo in Malaysia, since ethnic Chinese make up roughly one-fourth of the population. The Malaysian Chinese Association's leaders are absent from the Cabinet because they promised the public that they would not accept any government posts if the party performed worse in the 2013 elections than it did in the 2008 elections. In the 2013 elections, the party only secured seven of the 37 seats it contested in the 222-member Parliament, compared to 15 seats in 2008 and 31 seats in 2004. In state governments, the party's number of seats also dropped to 11 from the 31 seats held in 2008. These steady losses have further exacerbated ongoing factional infighting, with furious spats occurring among the party's top leadership. Inside the organization, members have suggested transforming the party into a multi-ethnic party or even completely withdrawing from Barisan Nasional.
The decline of the Malaysian Chinese Association comes at a time of rising discontent among Chinese minorities, who have grown increasingly resentful of the party's subjugation to the United Malays National Organization. This party has long maintained a policy direction that gives institutional privileges to the Malay majority at the expense of minorities in an effort to prop up the Malay community economically. The Chinese have become increasingly incensed with the ruling coalition's racial preferences, which deprive them of business and educational opportunities — by having, for instance, racial quotas for corporate ownership and college admission — as well as opportunities for social and political advancement.
The Malaysian Chinese Association's dwindling relevance to the Chinese community has driven Chinese voters to support the rising opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, in an effort to gain greater representation in state and national politics. While the Malaysian Chinese Association lost many seats in the 2008 and 2013 elections, the Democratic Action Party (the opposition Chinese party) gained voters. In the latest elections it won 38 parliamentary seats and became the biggest party within the opposition coalition.
Reeling from the 2013 electoral losses, Najib blamed the ruling coalition's diminishing support on a "Chinese tsunami." While the opposition draws support from reformist Malays, Indians and others, the huge growth in Chinese support for the opposition illustrates a perplexing situation for the Chinese community. Though the Democratic Action Party has made great gains, it remains in the opposition, far from capitalizing on the growing discontent within its constituency. The Chinese have shifted to the opposition not for its own merits, but in response to their dissatisfaction with the ruling party and its pro-Malay policies. In fact, the opposition coalition — which consists of an alliance with reformist and fundamentalist Islamic Malays — presents a risky option for the Chinese. Thus, while Chinese support for the opposition shows growing Chinese assertiveness in seeking to redress political inequalities, the degradation of the Malaysian Chinese Association's influence in the ruling coalition amounts to a virtual loss of representation in the short term.


Malaysian Population

Malaysian Population

The fading representation of the ruling coalition's Chinese party comes with the shifting socio-political status of the Chinese community in Malaysia. The past decades have seen a dramatic drop in the Chinese population as a share of the total population (from 32.8 percent in 1983 to less than 25 percent in 2013), and this figure is projected to decline further in the coming years. Meanwhile, the Malay and Bumiputera demographic is growing at a faster rate than all of the other demographics, and when all of the demographics' growth rates begin to decrease in 2030-2035, the Malay and Bumiputera growth rate will not decline as steeply as the Chinese growth rate. These demographic trends, along with an increasingly apolitical Chinese community, have in part driven the ruling coalition to become more focused on winning the Malay majority vote by preventing the loss of Malay votes to the two opposition Malay parties.

Malaysian Population Growth Rates

Malaysian Population Growth Rates

In the aftermath of the 2013 elections, all of Malaysia's parties will ask troubling questions about their future strategies. They will undergo serious internal reshufflings and negotiations with coalition partners. The question for Barisan Nasional is whether to adopt reforms to the pro-Malay policies in order to try to win back the Chinese (and to a lesser extent, the Indians), which would in turn cut into its Malay base, or to continue pursuing Malay voters at the expense of eviscerating what little Chinese support remains. This debate could widen rifts within the coalition.

Malaysian Population Distribution by Ethnic Group

Malaysian Population Distribution by Ethnic Group

The rise in the Malay portion of the population, along with the simultaneous fall in the Chinese portion, will have an impact by 2018. It will be increasingly difficult for the ruling coalition to risk alienating its base by cutting back on Malay nationalism. The Malay opposition did not perform as well as the Chinese opposition, and Barisan Nasional wants to keep it this way. Yet the Chinese community remains economically prosperous, which will drive a faction of the ruling coalition to insist on winning back Chinese support. As these internal struggles over the coalition's strategy play out, the opposition will also face the question of how to make inroads among the growing Malay majority.
For now, Malaysia faces rising ethnic polarization — the Chinese are increasingly mustering behind the opposition, while the support of the Malay majority is keeping Barisan Nasional in power. This is perhaps the greatest long-term challenge to the oft-told narrative of imperturbable stability within Malaysia. Though the country remains far more stable than many of its neighbors, the ethnic divisions within its domestic politics show signs of intensifying.

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