The Semenyih Rebuke

March 5, 2019

The Semenyih Rebuke

By Dr.Bridget Welsh

 COMMENT | Explanations abound regarding Pakatan Harapan’s loss. They range from simplistic explanations of ‘identity politics’ and the candidate(s), to failures in messaging/machinery and government performance. In fact, as with all elections, the explanations of voting behaviour usually reflect a combination of factors.

Image result for dr.mahathir mohamad

Ultimately, they all point to one thing: a growing public deficit in the performance of the Harapan government. Harapan has received a serious rebuke – one it needs to take seriously as it moves forward in public engagement and governance.

It is worth remembering that by-elections are opportunities to send signals of dissatisfaction; the message was sent loud and clear. The government has been perceived to inadequately improve the quality of life for ordinary Malaysians, nor offer a substantive integrative programme on how it will do so.

Harapan has been so focused on its own positions and politicking that it lost track of the reasons it was put into office. Jockeying and infighting continued to be on display in the by-election and served to erode public confidence. Reform measures have slowed. In fact, increasingly the trend has been to replicate the practices of UMNO with patronage and racial politics, rather than adopt a programme for all Malaysians.

Much of the damage has been self-inflicted. Harapan continues to think of itself as the opposition, using opposition mode attacks in unnecessary multiple battlefronts (including itself), rather than differentiate itself from BN”.– Dr. Bridget Welsh

Harapan, ironically, has become the target of voter anger and increasing expectations in governance that they, as the previous opposition, had stoked for over a decade. Given growing dissatisfaction, it is no wonder it lost the by-election.

The challenge now is not to adopt a siege mentality, engage in further damaging internal self-recriminations or to continue a divisive, defensive response. A by-election result should not be equated with a potential loss of national government in the future, nor should it be seen as an endorsement of the alternative.

BN won the seat as the opposition. Voters did not vote to return UMNO to power. To view the result as support for the return of Najib to power, or a rejection by the electorate of concerns with kleptocracy of the previous administration, or even an embrace of a pan-Malay agenda, is a deeply flawed over-stretch.

Growing voter disengagement

To understand the Semenyih election and lessons it suggests, this article looks at voting over time in this constituency, drawing from an analysis of polling stations results from the 2008 election onwards, and ties the discussion to the trends developing over the last six post-GE14 contests.

The first finding is that voter turnout has dropped across races (and notably among younger people). This is normal is most by-elections, as these contests are not seen as important.

Yet, what is interesting is that voter turnout has dropped across all the communities. From an ethnic perspective (as shown in Figure 1), there was a 22 percent drop among the Chinese electorate in Semenyih, followed by a 16 percent drop among Indians, and nine percent among Malays. the parties are not mobilising like they used to, but Harapan in particular, which used issue-based mobilization in the past, has not been able to develop a message to attract voters to come to the polls compared to the past.

Not only has Harapan not been able to move its campaigning into a different mode, it is losing its own base. This is especially true among non-Malays. Many Chinese and Indians, in particular, are unhappy with Harapan and opted to stay home. Lower voter turnout suggests a more worrying trend overall, disappointment in parties and growing cynicism in the electorate.

Disaggregating identity politics

The second finding is that support did swing to BN, especially among Malays (shown in Figure 2) and among younger voters. There was a large estimated gain of 27 percent among Malay voters. closer look at this pattern (shown in Figure 3), examining Malay support for Harapan, is a loss of eight percent of Malays who voted for it in GE14. Most of the gain in support for BN in the by-election, thus apparently, has come from previous PAS voters in GE14.

Harapan attacks and outreach efforts to PAS failed, and the beneficiary has been Umno, which incidentally has won the most electorally with the PAS-Umno alliance. BN support has apparently returned to the levels of the past when there was no three-cornered fight. It would seem that PAS was decisive in the election.

This analysis, crediting the Islamist party, is premature. PAS, as part of Pakatan Rakyat in the 2013 election, only yielded essentially the same level of support among Malays as occurred in the by-election, 28-29 percent. The Islamist party has much less leverage among voters than it thinks.

What is primarily going on is not about a religious agenda – it is about a protest against poor governance and, to a lesser extent, about racial identity, which was a factor in GE13 and in the recent polls.

Further study will be needed to access the extent governance and/or race was important as opposed to religion, but the results suggest a need to disaggregate these factors and not equate support for Malay rights and representation with that of a conservative religious agenda. Identity politics needs to be carefully assessed, especially given that the priority of voters is the economy, not identity.

Harapan core base remains (for now)

Finally, the data (Figure 3) shows Chinese and Indian support for Harapan among voters who do go to the polls remained the same at GE14. Harapan still has an important core base. These voters have not (yet) changed their political loyalties, opting to stay home rather than change camps. savvy MCA campaigns, which dominated Chinese social media, have not translated to more support for BN at the voting booth. BN remains a non-functioning multi-ethnic coalition and, in fact, its increasingly ethnically narrow campaigning has alienated non-Malays, with a marginal loss of support for BN among Chinese. The BN, as a coalition, will continue to face difficulty winning multi-ethnic seats.

Harapan has significant support despite the loss, including among Malays. Its support in Semenyih from Malays is still higher than the national average in GE14 of 23.5 percent. To say that Harapan does not have Malay support is not correct. It does have a critical core – many of whom voted for change.

The challenge ahead for Harapan is to keep its promises of what got it into office – better governance, reform and truly national leadership. Semenyih offers an opportunity to make changes, to learn that Harapan can only be successful working together as a coalition, prioritizing government performance and putting its focus on Malaysians. The Semenyih rebuke is an opportunity to get back on track toward a better Malaysia.


Dr.BRIDGET WELSH is an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a senior associate research fellow at the National Taiwan University’s Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Centre, as well as a university fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book is the post-election edition of ‘The end of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s former dominant party.’ She can be reached at

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

10 thoughts on “The Semenyih Rebuke

  1. I congratulate Dr. Welsh on her critical look at the Seminyih by-elections.It is time to start focusing on governing. A Cabinet reshuffle is urgently required. — Din Merican,

  2. Perhaps the time is ripe for TunM to take a hard look at the coalition and make amends where possible. Pakatan’s candidate was outfoxed and outsmart by his challenger from BN. The choice of candidate, to my mind, was PH’s undoing. Of course, the party’s lacklustre performance thus far was the underpinning reason. The Malays are easiy swayed by racial and religious sentiments. And this is not going to change for a long time to come. Sad, so sad.

    • //The Malays are easiy swayed by racial and religious sentiments. And this is not going to change for a long time to come. Sad, so sad.

      Racial and religious sentiments at times are not bad. At its’ core, it is the foundation of economy. Malaysia ought to remain Malay and Muslim in foreseeable future. Not sad, but worrying, is the nation’st educated elite is not willing the see past the sustainability of current model of easy and comfortable living that privatized wealth and nationalized risk. It is a sure way to layu. Without going into discussion of denationalized, which many nations in recent past has done and failed to help re-energized the nation, the Malays ought to see a new to create a placed-based community building. In some places where no extra help is needed, just take it out. In other places, just increase it. The non-Muslim community is only going to get smaller in size and importance. But, harvesting their talent is helpful. Malays living around them (usually in urban area) really need no extra government assistance. Continue to do so will only hamper such Malay community to be self-reliant. It too is a waste, economically speaking. On the other hand, community building in the rural helps provide stability.

      Tun Dr is not going to get younger. As much as today’s science can rejuvenate, it is not still not good for a Malay community that cherishes Tuhan, rather than individual. After all, not depending on goodness of individuals is foundation of faith community not agreeing to liberal ideals. Tun Dr should know better, and start building a more sustainable society. A matured society (given the age of Malaysia) has nothing to gain from making a small minority a public enemy worthy for discrimination. Seriously, the nonMalays have been nothing but an asset for Malaysia. They gave, and asked for nothing in return.
      Discriminating against such people … what would a just Tuhan say?
      If being dhimmi is justified in eye of the Muslim faith, so be it. But, a spade ought to be called a spade. There is little difference in today’s practice than what was described. If there are, share it with all how that is not the case? Where are you, Amanah leaders?

  3. Yes, the small swing back is about PH underperformance BUT what about the rest? Welsh just writes it off that PAS voters is to be ignored? Then what happened to those Malay voters who supposedly voted incumbent for development in the past when it was BN but does not vote incumbent when its PH?

    Anwar says that not all Malay voters will go to UMNO-PAS. The problem exist if MOST Malay voters still vote for UMNO-PAS even if they are proven corrupt and liars. Those voters does not share basic universal value with everyone else, here or elsewhere.THAT IS A HUGE PROBLEM..

  4. Ha ha finally confirmed, the marriage between UMNOk and PASembur with the “Aku nikah kan dikau dengan PAS dengan MAS kahwin RM 90 juta Tunai……” and the response of “aku terima nya nikah dengan Mas kahwin RM90 juta tunai…….
    Suddenly bride Hadi Awang is tongue tied after accepting the akad from Mat Hassan.
    All these while they have ben denying that they are in a relationship. Bride Hadi also gone to consult Che Det and even wrote a love letter to Che Det promising undivided love and support. Now Che Det is left in the lurch. What the heck Muslims dont lie.

  5. Despite how critically correct analysts are ,expecially after the statistics and results of races are known, ULTIMATELY, Accountability, Competency , Good Governance and Transparency (ACGT) Matter most.

    PH, under Mahathir had, to a substantial extent, destroyed or deminished the level of high(compared to Umnob/Bn) standard of PH governance ( set by Penang , Selangor) since May 9.

    His competence and accountability in appointing ministers (Syed Sadiq, education minister and the deputy Foreign Ministers ) are most inappropriate and questionable. These include the 3 rd national car and revival of the crooked bridge projects and unilaterally cancelling contracts with China without mutual consultation and respects. Then the many promises broken made in its 14ge election manifesto. He still used race and religion as cover political gain(may have backfired. PH had also getting increasingly arrogant.

    Of course, unless these inappropriate actions were taken, to protect Mahathir and cronies personal interest and political agendas, without the intention of finding a worthy and quality successor(s)– not necessarily Azmin.

    Do the bottom line is
    If you want to win election , earning the trust of people as much as the numbers counts.

    PH or any political leaders / should take note!

  6. In terms of winning Malay support :

    1) Waste of time for PH to try to chase the Far Right (race supremacist) and religious extremist vote. These will always go to UMNO Baru and PAS. I keep warning that the greatest threat to stability and social harmony is the emerging clerico-fascism of the UMNO Baru-PAS alliance.

    2) The challenge is to win the moderate Malay vote (middle class who abhor MO1-type corruption, the decent working class who are struggling to get by every day but faced by low earnings coupled often with low producitivity e.g. streetside food sellers, educated females who are threatened by the male chauvinism of the religious extremists, those who believe in rule of law and opportunity for all ethnic groups, those who cherish a tolerant and harmonious society), and other Malay votes (e.g. conservative veterans and military and police fed up with MO1 selling out the country to a big foreign power in return for money to bail him out, and fed up with the close ties between UMNO Baru and neo-Communist Chinese Communist Party which represses Muslims in Xinjiang province and is expansionist in the South China Sea), civil servants with a conscience turned off by the massive corruption of previous 1Malaysia regime and the stealing of public funds).

    The overall aim should be to assemble and maintain a “winning coalition” that can continue to win federal elections. The winning coalition need not be ideologically coherent i.e. it can consist of moderate Malay nationalists, moderate Islamists like those of AMANAH, Chinese and Indians seeking an end to semi-semi apartheid, East Malaysians seeking greater devolution and autonomy, leftists (except for the Hard Left types), enlightened members of the capitalist class, feminists, the poor and the elderly who are the ones who will benefit most from the creation of a social democratic Welfare State).

    P.S. One example of a successful winning coalition from a foreign country is the
    Republican Party under Ronald Reagan during the 1980s in the USA. Very successful in terms of winning and maintaining power, and passing bills and getting these turned into law.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.