GE14: Did a Malaysian tsunami occur?

It is often said that a “Malaysian tsunami”, a wave of discontented voters across ethnic lines, led to the defeat of the ruling party, Barisan Nasional (BN) in Malaysia’s 14th General Election.

But so far, this conclusion is largely based on GE14 results, with no reference for comparison. Also, statistical analyses on GE14 have been mainly bivariate (examining only two variables), and have not considered other factors for BN’s electoral outcomes.

Researchers from the School of Business at Monash University Malaysia, sought to define a Malaysian tsunami, and determine empirically if one occurred in West Malaysia during GE14. In doing so, they also draw a distinction between a Malaysian tsunami and a national swing.

The 2018 statistical study – Malaysia’s 14th general election: Did a Malaysian tsunami happen? Measuring the impacts of ethnicity and urban development on electoral outcomes – was authored by Dr Jason Ng Wei Jian and Phung Yet Chin, together with Dr Gary John Rangel, a senior Lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Defining a Malaysian tsunami

The study by Ng, Phung, and Rangel makes two contributions towards understanding Malaysian politics.

It takes into account factors which include gerrymandering (i.e. the government redefining electoral boundaries to disadvantage the opposition party), dissatisfaction over poor governance (e.g. FELDA scandals), and the emergence of a three-way competition between BN, Pakatan Harapan, and PAS.

Comparing data from GE13 and GE14, they looked at the change in BN’s proportion of votes arising from ethnicity and urbanisation factors. The authors asserted that GE14’s outcome can only be considered a Malaysian tsunami, if in addition to the national swing against the BN, there was also a fundamental change in the voting behavior of Malay voters between GE13 and GE14.

One of the reasons why they chose to focus on Malay voters was because in Ng’s 2015 study, it showed that Pakatan Harapan did not win GE13, despite growing voter support, because there were insufficient Malay voters and rural voters. In addition, leading up to GE14, political analysts speculated that PH could only win the election if there was a “Malay tsunami”.

Was there a Malay tsunami?

The study’s results showed “compelling evidence of an urban tsunami” in GE14. However, despite an overall swing of Malay voters against BN in GE14, the lack of a statistically significant change in Malay voting behavior between GE13 and GE14 does not warrant calling it a “Malay tsunami”.

It is speculated that some Malays voted against BN with a “this time only” mindset, hoping to rid themselves of the GST and former PM Najib Razak. Quoting a CNN opinion piece by ISEAS fellow Serina Rahman, “…a common statement reflected amongst the rural Malays was that ‘there is nothing wrong with UMNO. The problem was Najib. If he had stepped down, none of this would have happened. BN wouldn’t have lost.’”

Predicting BN’s wins and losses

Out of seven variables considered in the study, there were only two which proved significant in predicting BN voting outcomes in a given constituency: ethnicity and urbanisation.

Ethnicity - Constituencies with a large proportion of Malays increased BN’s chances of winning in those areas. On the other hand, BN had lower chances of winning in more urbanised constituencies.

Urbanisation is the shift of rural populations to urban areas. In Malaysia, this can be seen in the migration of rural Malays into towns and cities, leading to the growth of a Malay middle class. This class of Malays is less reliant on affirmative action, more informed by alternative media, more vocal about national issues, and more at ease with cross-ethnic relationships. Sociological research has shown that urbanisation can decrease ethnic considerations in election voting.

As for other factors: Gerrymandering did not benefit BN in GE14. This reflects studies in which gerrymandering shows limited impact on electoral outcomes in mature democracies like the U.S. Likewise, FELDA scandals and PAS’ emergence as a third political force did not have a significant impact on BN’s probability of winning.

Malay support for BN remains significant

There was no evidence to say that a true Malay or Malaysian tsunami happened in GE14. While Malay support for BN weakened in GE14, it does remain considerable, especially in constituencies where Malays form a significant majority.

A key factor in BN’s defeat was its failure to command the majority vote in the ethnically mixed constituencies, identified as key battleground areas. For BN to regain lost ground, UMNO would have to restructure and widen its appeal, and shed its elitist and patronage politics.

For Pakatan Harapan, the authors recommend that they seek to implement measures, to ensure that the economic ethnic divide is narrowed. This is to allay fears of Malays that they will be marginalised.