By Chin Huat-Wong
On May 13, 1969, the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur was a living hell with vehicles, houses and the national consciousness set ablaze. Clashes between ethnic Malays and Chinese claimed 196 lives according to official police estimates. Independent foreign observers estimated the death toll as ten times higher.
Triggered by the outcome of the 1969 elections, that riot paved way for two years of emergency rule and a fundamental change in politics and society. The then ruling Alliance Party – a coalition of three communal parties representing Malays, Chinese and Indians and their regional allies in Sabah and Sarawak – found itself squeezed by Malay and non-Malay Opposition from both flanks.
In terms of popular votes in Peninsular Malaysia, the Opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) rose from 15% in 1964 to 24% at the 1969 polls, threatening the then ruling United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) claim as ethnic Malays’ sole political representative. In contrast, the popular support for non-Malay opposition parties was constant at 26%.
Thanks to a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system and strategic avoidance of multi-cornered electoral fights, non-Malay opposition parties saw their parliamentary seats rise from six in 1964 to 22 in 1969, while PAS increased its share only marginally from 9 to 12. The non-Malay opposition’s electoral gains were at the time conveniently interpreted as an ethnic Chinese challenge to ethnic Malays’ political dominance.
When UMNO’s junior partner Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which suffered a major setback at the 1969 polls, decided to stay out of the cabinet to respect the popular verdict, this was unfortunately viewed as a Chinese decision to abandon communal power sharing with UMNO. The riot resulted in a transfer of power from Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to his Deputy Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of current Prime Minister Najib Razak.
In the wake of the riot, Abdul Razak implemented a series of pro-Malay policies, most significantly the New Economic Policy (NEP), and co-opted most of the opposition into Barisan Nasional (BN), an expanded version of the previous ruling Alliance. He effectively built an electoral one-party state which remained unassailable until 2008, when opposition parties that later came to form the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition made historic gains at the ballot box.
These historical facts are worth revisiting because history seems to have repeated itself in many ways in the general election held on May 5. Like in 1969, BN lost its majority in popular votes, polling only 47%, despite allegations of widespread irregularities and fraud. Nevertheless, malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies allowed the ruling coalition to maintain 60% of parliament’s total seats.
Najib’s first response to the poor popular showing was that BN’s electoral setback was due to a “Chinese tsunami”. Altogether, the PR opposition coalition won only 40% of parliament’s seats while notching a bare majority of 51% in popular votes.
Individually, popular support for the PR’s Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) rose from 14% to 16%, while PAS’s vote share also rose from 14% to 15%. The Malay-dominated centrist People’s Justice Party (PKR) won 20% of all votes cast, compared to the 19% it garnered five years ago.
Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, DAP emerged as the largest party with 38 parliamentary seats, while PKR and PAS lost respectively one and two seats at 30 and 21 respectively, despite winning more votes than they did in 2008.