Malays strike back as turmoil opens way for return of nationalists

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - “The power of the Malays has returned,” rejoiced street hawker Mohd Nor Afiq in Kuala Lumpur after a new prime minister was sworn in to replace 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Designate and former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin waves to reporters before his inauguration as the 8th prime minister, outside his residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

With the ascendancy of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the Southeast Asian country’s political switchback will accelerate a return to the days of prioritizing a Malay majority that has felt hard done by since the 2018 election, analysts said.

That is likely to mean an administration willing to spend more freely on affirmative action projects and to put more Malays back into key positions - as well as one that is more religiously conservative in the largely Muslim country.

“The coming to power of a coalition largely based on Malay nationalist and Islamic party credentials completely upends the inclusive and multi-racial government that swept to power in 2018,” said Michael Vatikiotis, author of a recent book on Southeast Asian politics.

Disaffection among Malays had already been evident through five by-election defeats for the ruling coalition before Mahathir’s sudden resignation as prime minister a week ago pitched the country of 32 million into turmoil.

Insiders said such anger was also a factor in the political maneuvering in the days before the king - a post that rotates through Malaysia’s nine Malay sultanates - chose Malay nationalist Muhyiddin as the new prime minister.


Although Mahathir’s own rise in past decades was based on prioritizing what Malaysians refer to “bumiputera”, the coalition he formed with more liberal old rival Anwar Ibrahim to win the 2018 election was unprecedented in its diversity.

The finance ministry went to someone of Chinese origin for the first time in four decades, and the attorney general’s job to a man with Indian roots.

More than 40 percent of Mahathir’s ministers were non-Malay Muslims. That compared to only a fifth in the cabinet of his ousted predecessor Najib Razak.

While celebrating its inclusiveness as a badge of modernizing reforms, the fallen government had not done enough to assuage the concerns of Malay Muslims, according to prominent social rights activist Ivy Josiah.

“We were so proud that non-Malays become ministers,” she said. “The government didn’t realize the fragile relationship between the races, the insecurity of the Malay Muslim and how the opposition could use religion and race to divide.”

There had been plenty of warning signs.

The government was forced to drop a promise to ratify a U.N. convention on racial discrimination after protests by groups that feared it would limit privileges for ethnic Malays. The death of a Malay Muslim fireman at a Hindu temple became a rallying cry and brought accusations of a government cover-up.

This year, hardliners were annoyed when the government defended a Chinese school’s right to put up New Year lanterns, complaining it was promoting foreign culture. There was also anger when the finance ministry began to issue statements in Chinese as well as Malay and English.


“It’s not that this government will have no Chinese, but at least it will be more balanced,” said Mohd Nor, echoing sentiment among Malays in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Muhyiddin took office with the support of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which prospered through six decades of putting Malays first, but was felled amid anger over corruption at the 1MDB state fund.

During the election campaign, Mahathir had said his administration would end handouts and that there would be greater transparency in awarding government contracts - which often went to Malays, but there was little sign of action.

“I think Muhyiddin would lead a more overtly pro-ethnic Malay government characterized by social division, economic nationalism, and possibly less fiscal restraint,” said Peter Mumford of the Eurasia consultancy.

There is also a religious dimension to support for the Malay traditionalist camp.

According to the constitution, all Malays are Muslim. They make up more than 60 percent of the population. Most non-Malays are not Muslims.

Alongside UMNO in supporting Muhyiddin is the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has tried for decades to turn the country into an Islamic state and enforce harsher penalties on Muslims for adultery, theft and drinking alcohol.

“Malaysia’s brief dalliance with political reform and social transformation has come crashing down,” said Vatikiotis, saying he believed it resulted from the power struggle that flared between Mahathir and Anwar in the final week of chaos.

“It weakened the governing coalition and gave UMNO, PAS and the Malay right a chance to seize power through the back door.”

Additional reporting by Krishna N. Das, A. Ananthalakshmi, Mei Mei Chu, Liz Lee, Joseph Sipalan; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Mark Heinrich