Two major opposition parties form alliance in Malaysia

Making it official . . .

On Saturday, Malaysia’s two main opposition parties, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), formally announced they were forming an alliance to win support from the country’s Malay-Muslim majority. The announcement prompted concerns from critics who worry the partnership will pull the country’s politics in a more exclusivist, pro-Malay-Muslim direction. Malays make up just over half of the country’s non-Indigenous population, while the Chinese minority accounts for 22 per cent, and the Indian minority about seven per cent. The new coalition will challenge the ruling Pakatan Harapan (‘Alliance of Hope’), which won a shocking victory in May 2018 with the support of multiple ethnic groups.

Signs of a populist drift?

At the time of Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) win, observers commented that Malaysia was bucking the global trend of democracies succumbing to populist tendencies. Since then, however, there have been signs that racial and religious divides in Malaysia may be sharpening, and that opposition parties like UMNO and PAS are acting quickly to capitalize on these divides. For example, in August, an adviser to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested ending the decades-long affirmative action policy that favoured Malays based on ethnicity rather than need. UMNO and PAS used the event to appeal to Malay fears of losing their privileged position. In addition, a recent government decision to include an Islamic writing script in the school curriculum provoked anger from within the PH, signalling that ethnic tensions are brewing not just between coalitions, but also within them.

Watching the political winds . . .

Canada has been looking to several countries in Southeast Asia as potential partners as Ottawa pushes toward greater trade diversification. Malaysia, as a member of the CPTPP trade agreement alongside Canada, is certainly among that basket of promising trade partners. The nature of such a partnership may be impacted by which way the political winds blow, and whether these winds spread to other key regional players, such as Indonesia.