Malaysia’s bruising 13th General Election is a game changer.

It has shifted the country’s multiracial trajectory, weakening the political compact that has guided it since 1971.

That arrangement, contested in the 2008 elections, was rebuffed in last Sunday’s polls, with possibly far-reaching consequences.

Following the race riots of 1969, Malaysians embraced a power-sharing agreement for managing ethnic tensions. It consisted of racial communities being represented by political parties – chiefly, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

But these parties collaborated as the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to further the overall economic and political interests of Malaysians.

This formula was predicated on Umno’s dominance, which itself was a reflection of the special position of indigenous Malays.

Although critics faulted the formula for not transcending race, it reflected realities on the ground, ensured the political stability required to pursue economic growth and maintained Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim nation.

Essentially, BN’s compact provided one model for multiracialism in Malaysia.

That was tested five years ago, when the electoral inroads made by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition led to BN losing its two-thirds majority in Parliament and control of five state governments, although one returned to BN after defections.

Voters had begun to see PR as a credible multiracial alternative to BN.

Alarming though that was to BN, it actually attested to the abiding appeal of multiracialism because PR, another multiracial coalition, was challenging BN: It was not as if an ethnic party was questioning Malaysia’s prevailing ideology.

However, because of BN’s exclusive and long association with the political status quo, PR’s ascendancy threatened the 1971 model.

In particular, the assertiveness of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), a PR member, constituted a fundamental challenge to the premise of Malay supremacy that had underwritten BN’s version of multiracialism.

The momentum apparent in 2008 accelerated last weekend. BN’s share of seats fell by seven from 140 in the 222-seat Parliament. Its share of the popular vote was reduced to 47.3 per cent from 51.5 per cent.

Although Umno gained nine seats to win 88 this time, the once-powerful MCA was almost decimated, mustering a measly seven seats. MIC managed just four. By contrast, DAP improved its showing by 10 seats to win a credible 38 seats this time.

It was clear the Chinese had deserted the MCA for the DAP. It prompted Prime Minister Najib Razak to declare that a “Chinese tsunami” had hit the election results.

Of course, Chinese votes were not the only factor in the nationwide move towards PR. While some states with a large proportion of Chinese witnessed big swings, the results in Johor, Umno’s bastion, cannot be read purely as an indication of Chinese voting sentiments.

What made the difference was the lie of the land. More urbanised states such as Johor and Selangor saw a large shift from BN.

This is an important corrective to the idea that race is the first and the last word in Malaysian politics. Urbanisation, education, the proportion of younger workers, and access to politically empowering information – these are factors as well. They are so in any maturing democracy.

However, the agency of race was indisputable. Malays fearful of the DAP’s agenda gravitated towards Umno. To them, voting for the other Malay-based party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), was not an option because it was a part of PR, that included the DAP. They heeded warnings during the election campaign that a DAP/PR victory would lead to the dilution of Malay rights.

The fear-mongering worked among Malays prepared to live with corruption and cronyism rather than risk change that could give the Chinese more political clout.

While Umno – singularly in the figure of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad – stirred the Malay ground, more and more Chinese began gravitating towards the DAP. Resurgence on both sides resulted in the ethnic polarisation that manifested itself in the election results.

Political common sense says that it is dangerous, in any country, for the majority to be represented by the ruling party and the minorities by the opposition. That would be the electoral equivalent of a looming civil war.

Indeed, it could be the forerunner of ethnic tension spilling into the streets when the constitutional process is unable to handle centrifugal pressures. Malaysia is not close to that eventuality. Indeed, its saving grace is that, just as in 2008, a multiracial coalition has challenged another such coalition.

However, coalitions are defined in outline by their most ambitious members. This is why Malay and Chinese assertiveness needs to be moderated on both sides of the political divide in the years ahead.

Otherwise, the receding compact of 1971 would be replaced, not by a viable new arrangement, but by competitive ethnic politics that would subvert the foundations of Malaysian multiracialism.

In the immediate future, the election results pose high risks.

The racial polarisation that has emerged will cast a pall on post-election Malaysia. Datuk Seri Najib, surviving for the time being but wounded, is likely to come under intense pressure from Umno hardliners who would want him to “reward” loyal Malays and “punish” the Chinese for withdrawing support.

The focus of political attention will shift to the Umno elections for the party leadership. Mr Najib is likely to remain Prime Minister but face constant sniping to rob him of strong authority. His hardline detractors will seek to undermine and force him from office if they can.

Compounding this unsettled atmosphere will be the opposition. Already hostile, it is now embittered by the belief that it has been cheated of a victory.

PR, led by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, has rejected the poll results.

This is the first time in Malaysia’s history that the leader of the opposition has flatly refused to accept the results of an election.

In this free-for-all, the economy could pay the price if vital reforms are delayed or fail to materialise.

If Malaysia is to break out of these constricting realities, it needs a new multiracial compact that goes beyond the Umno-DAP impasse.

The country is at a turning point. It could either turn back on what has been achieved since 1971 – a workable nationalism in an ethnically diverse country – or move forward by looking beyond race and religion in politics.

Changed trajectories can be re-aligned – if political leaders have the will.

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