#Pre-election Analysis* Playing race, religion card could backfire

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KUALA LUMPUR (Dec 12): Playing the race and religion card to win Malay support may not prove to be the winning hand in the lead up to the next general election, political observers say. This is mostly to do with the more pressing demands of Malay voters and how non-Malay voters could react to politicising race and religion.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Prof Datuk Mohammad Agus Yusoff said religion and race issues are not currently at the forefront of Malay voters’ minds.

“Urban voters are feeling the pinch in terms of cost of living and job opportunities. Religion and racial issues don’t concern them much.

“These issues may work for some rural Malay voters but it is certainly not their main thing anymore,” said Agus, who is an associate professor in political science.

But this certainly does not mean that issues of race and religion will be conspicuously absent from the campaign.

Over the years, Malaysia's political scene has been studded with highly charged racial and religious issues.

These include public discussions over bumiputera special rights, issues surrounding conversions into Islam, apostasy and whether non-Muslims can use the word Allah to describe god. Matters involving faith and race still do matter to some voters.

Two Malay voters who spoke to for this story illustrate the diversity in voter demands and underscores how voter behaviour is influenced by the complex intertwine of ethnicity, class, location, age and socio-economic background.

Mismilimi Sairan is your quintessential rural Malay voter. She is a mother of nine who raised her family in an oil palm settlement set up under the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) in Johor. Mismilimi is probably used to voting for the incumbent since she hails from Johor, the traditional stronghold of Umno.

Asked what her main considerations at the ballot box are, the 59-year old answers: “I don’t know. I never had any criteria for candidates so when I vote, I just vote”.

But when prodded on possible issue choices – bread and butter issues, governance, religion – Mismilimi quickly says that religious issues are important to her.

Contrast Mismilimi’s voting preference with that of Khairil Rizal Ahmad, a 27-year-old first time voter who lives in Kuala Lumpur.

Khairil Rizal said he is more concerned with economic issues and what policies a candidate will support. Khairil Rizal also said he prefers to evaluate a candidate’s merit instead of voting based on a candidate’s party.

“Economic issues are more important to me. As for the status of bumiputeras and religion, it’s all in the constitution and it is unlikely to change whoever comes to power,” he added.

Non-Malay voters watching

Political analyst Ooi Kee Beng maintains that race and religious factors may turn out to be less important as Malaysia's landscape moves toward a battle between Malays of different political persuasions. Malay voters, especially the urban and semi-urban voters, are said to be split as they have been courted by Umno, PAS and PKR.

In this scenario, invoking race and religion could inadvertently spook the non-Malay and non-Muslim voters.

"Hudud and all those religious issues are making some Chinese voters a bit nervous of course. But people do remember that it wasn't PAS that started the Islamisation of the entire country.

"So trying to win points on race and religion may backfire," said Ooi, the deputy director of the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

It is interesting to note that in recent months the issue of hudud law and PAS's governance of Kelantan have been played up instead by the non-Malay component parties of Barisan Nasional (BN).

BN component parties like MCA and Gerakan used issues such as hudud law implementation and Islamic state as a way to discredit DAP for aligning itself with PAS under the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) banner.

In crafting his key messages, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has been careful to balance the delicate issue of bumiputera rights and his message of inclusivity under the 1Malaysia concept. In fact, it was Perkasa, a non-governmental organisation fronted by independent Member of Parliament Datuk Ibrahim Ali, that was the loudest voice championing bumiputera rights after the 2008 general election.

Scrutinising the policies put forth by both BN and PR, it appears that the main battleground will be fought on issues of bread and butter and governance.

PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli said PR has to steer clear of engaging BN when it comes to issues on Malay rights and Islam.

Rafizi said the younger generation of voters generally do not like propaganda and “harsh politicking”, preferring the party that can come up with solutions instead.

“The battle line is quite clear. It is their (BN) game plan to derail us by engaging us on Malay rights and Islam. It is our fault if we fall into that trap,” Rafizi said.

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