Spotlight - Malaysia: June 20, 2024

Another by-election will be held next month on July 6 in Sungai Bakap following the death of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) incumbent Nor Zamri Latiff on May 24. The polls will pit Joohari Ariffin against Abidin Ismail, respectively the candidates from the de facto ruling party Keadilan of the government coalition and PAS from the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. By-elections are often perceived as a barometer for the government’s popularity. And in this Malay-majority constituency (roughly 60 percent) in the Chinese-majority state of Penang, the opposition has a good chance of keeping its seat. The recent cut of oil subsidies on diesel and the soon-to-come cut on RON95 petrol subsidies continue to upset a majority of voters, and especially the B40, or those among the lowest 40 percent of earners. The recent announcement of a 13 percent increase in civil servants’ wages, the largest increase in the country’s history, has also drawn severe criticism in a climate of economic hardship for most lower- and middle-income households. The head of the anti-corruption agency noted on June 17 that the wage increase will not curb systemic corruption and recommended that the problem be addressed at its core. The ruling coalition, the result of an uneasy alliance between long-term foes Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH), is still struggling to find its pulse, and the two Chinese-based parties—the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP)—in each respective coalition remain fiercely opposed to the other. Though, for this election, the MCA under Barisan Nasional, has vowed that it will support the government’s campaign, unlike in the recent Kuala Kubu Baharu election in April.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the Eid al-Adha celebration, the two opposing coalition leaders, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and PN’s Muhyiddin Yassin, found some peace by jointly declaring the withdrawal of defamation suits against each other, noting that they wish to place the interest of the nation above their own feud. Defamation remains one of the top tricks in the politicians’ toolbox when attempting to discredit opponents; it is also widely used together with anti-sedition measures to control critical voices. The mushrooming of social media platforms has offered unprecedented opportunities for civil society, but also for cybertroopers to spread news and fake news alike; and the government failed in discerning one from the other objectively. The Ministry of Communication has relentlessly used its control to curb opposing voices; and Malaysia has dropped severely in the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) press freedom ranking this year, falling from 73rd place to 107th, with RWB qualifying the government’s “legislative arsenal” as “draconian.”

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.