Over the weekend, Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government suffered a major loss in the latest by-election in Tanjung Piai. While the outcome was not that surprising and it is just one of several such election contests in the country, the results nonetheless are notable within the context of how the PH government will respond following this loss and what this may mean for its position relative to the opposition out to Malaysia’s next general election.
Ever since the PH government took office in a historic election in May 2018 — the first time Malaysia’s opposition had ousted the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition since independence — the central question has been how long it would get to govern, in particular whether it would last beyond a single term in its current form (with an oft-cited analogy in Asia being the Democratic Party of Japan which lasted just from 2009 to 2012 before the Liberal Democratic Party regained power). While the answer to that question has been contingent on several broader variables, including the extent of satisfaction with the pace of reform and how the BN was itself able to recover and refashion itself, as with the state of such developments in other Southeast Asian states, the spotlight has unsurprisingly been on a series of litmus tests where they have been at play.
Over the weekend, we saw another worrying result in a much-anticipated litmus test for the PH government with its loss at the by-election Tanjung Piai, with BN’s Wee Jeck Seng defeating PH’s Karmaine Sardini by over 15,000 votes. The PH loss itself was widely expected given the nature of the constituency and early indications. But the nature of it is unquestionably a cause of concern for the PH government: the loss margin represents one of the largest by-election defeats in modern Malaysian history, and it saw a significant number of ethnic Chinese voters switching to BN, indicating their discontent with the current government and some of its policies.
What this means for the bigger question of the future of the PH government and Malaysian politics, however, is less clear. As noted before, given the unique features of this by-election and the already predicted outcome, one should be cautious about extrapolating this to map on to broader nationwide sentiment. There is also still some time before Malaysia’s next election for the PH government to get its act together and make inroads on some aspects of reform, and uncertainties about wider political realignments, whether it be the Anwar-Mahathir transition or the new UMNO-PAS coalition.
In that sense, the PH government’s loss in the Tanjung Piai by-election is less important than how it responds to this wake-up call. While the post-mortem of the recent by-election has already begun, whether or not this will lead to broader soul-searching and substantive change remains to be seen – whether it be in terms of changes in policies, personnel, or approach. How this shapes up in the coming months will continue to be important to watch, along with other trends and developments in Malaysian politics more generally.