This weekend, Malaysia will focus on a rural area in the southern state of Johor. The residents of Tanjung Piai will go to the polls in a by-election to decide on their member of parliament following the untimely death of Dr. Md Farid Md Rafik in September.
Ordinarily, in democracies globally a by-election would raise nary a stir, but most democracies are driven by political ideology, from the loony left to the far right or somewhere in between.
Not in Malaysia, where — outwardly at least — politics is driven by race, a hangover from British colonial rule that has changed little since the country became independent in 1957.
Using its time-honored tactic of divide and rule, the British had governed then-Malaya by playing the three major ethnic groups — Malays, Chinese and Indians — off against each other.
As the British relinquished control, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) stepped in to fill the void — a single-race party formed to protect Malay interests.
Similarly, the Chinese and Indians followed suit with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) respectively.
Together, they were the backbone of the Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance, which was to govern ostensibly by a loose form of proportional representation until 2018.
Yet, those at the highest echelons of society quickly decided that to maintain control divide and rule would have to continue.
Alongside which, with no one to rule you, there are an infinite number of ways to make or siphon money from the system when you’re in the driving seat.
All too soon, the ‘Malay elites’ worked together to keep each other’s rice bowls full, while at the same time keeping the majority of their Malay brethren impoverished, for which they would blame the Chinese.
To add insult to injury, the UMNO-driven New Economic Policy (NEP) implemented in the early 1970s would drive a permanent wedge between the Malay majority, and the Chinese and Indian minorities.
The NEP effectively created a two-tier state, guaranteeing rights and privileges for Malays in education, housing and business, while squeezing the Chinese and Indian communities.
In opposition, the multiracial but Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) sprang up as an offshoot of the People’s Action Party, the latter becoming the dominant force in Singaporean politics when it left the federation in 1965.
For many years, the DAP cut a solitary figure, as the Chinese became increasingly marginalized and vilified for all that was wrong with the country.
However, in the late 1990s, the country was rudely awoken to a public and bitter dispute between then prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim, ending with Anwar’s dismissal, expulsion from UMNO and imprisonment.
He formed what is now known as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) taking a small but sizeable chunk of supporters with him from UMNO.
The DAP and PKR formed the core of the opposition, with Islamist party PAS coming and going depending on how much it wanted to inflict Sharia on an unwilling populace.
PAS eventually split, with more progressive former members creating Amanah and returning to the DAP-PKR fold.
However, the turning point in modern Malaysian politics came when Mahathir, an UMNO stalwart and key figure in the party, quit to form Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).
Similar to Anwar, Mahathir took a small but significant chunk of UMNO support with him, including a number of former ministers.
As a public figure, Mahathir commands enormous respect in Malaysia, despite his often controversial and divisive views.
His leaving the party was a blow enough, but to join the opposition was nothing short of catastrophic for UMNO.
Up to that point, the opposition was leaderless with Anwar languishing in prison and the coalition wracked by public infighting, stifling any real progress or indeed providing a cohesive political force.
With Mahathir at the helm of the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, that changed almost overnight. His dynamism and ability to make key decisions quickly galvanized the opposition to trounce BN at the 2018 polls and record Malaysia’s first change of government in its then 61-year history.
Yet, in part, PH shot itself in the foot, making a raft of manifesto pledges it had no hope of achieving, quite simply because its leaders didn’t think they could win.
In the run-up to the election, then-prime minister Najib Razak had launched a series of crackdowns on dissenters, while buying, bribing or coercing those he needed to secure victory.
Meanwhile, rampant gerrymandering had all but lumped the Chinese into bloated super-constituencies, with the intent of nullifying their political clout once and for all.
Yet, the result was a hung-over, bleary-eyed and bewildered PH staggering into government on May 10, 2018.
Since then, a public anxious for the reforms they have been promised for more than 20 years have seen little but the trademark infighting, while a novice government is grappling with a nation teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
Equally significant is that UMNO and PAS have now pledged to work together, penning an alliance in parallel to, but separate from, BN.
Putting this into context, Tanjung Piai is in Johor, the home of UMNO but, unlike many other parliamentary constituencies containing a spread of ethnicities, this is split 57 percent Malay, 42 percent Chinese.
No other demographics count, no social standing, no neo-Marxism, no goose-stepping Fascism or anything in between; just two races, with a deep-seated enmity towards each other.
Up to 2018, the seat had been held by BN. Given the location, you would be right for thinking it was an UMNO safe seat, but BN decided to give it to the MCA to court the significant Chinese minority.
To pull this off UMNO had to reassure, in more ways than one, a disgruntled Malay voting public that the MCA would toe the line.
Wee Jeck Seng served as MP until Farid, standing for Bersatu, took it from him by a slender 500-vote margin.
Wee stands again, this time against Bersatu candidate Karmaine Sardini.
Up to nomination day on Nov. 2, it appeared that it would be a quite a cut-and-dried run.
Rank-and-file UMNO members demanded a Malay candidate at the very least stand for election, a view supported by PAS and by media interviews with random sections of the Tanjung Piai community.
Meanwhile, there was no word from PH as to its candidate, giving rise to the belief that the government was already resigned to losing the seat.
Yet, as so often happens in Malaysia, the form book is torn up and incinerated for good measure. Strangely, UMNO decided that it needed to court the Chinese minority once again, placing its weight behind Wee for a second time.
Bersatu is again targeting the Malay majority with Karmaine, himself a former UMNO member.
Regardless, the old tricks of the trade never change.
At a campaign event recently, PH reps were caught on camera handing out mobile phone SIM cards to voters, while over the past few weeks a raft of government-funded multimillion-dollar improvements to the constituency and cash aid to fishermen have been publicized in the press.
Ministers brush off the improvements as scheduled long ago in the budget, which they may well have been, but the timing of the publicity reeks of attempts to sway voter sentiment.
However, BN cannot take the moral high ground. Shortly before the campaigns began, Chinese voters expressed a preference for Wee as MP, alluding to him giving cash and food to constituents during his parliamentary days.
They said this service stopped with Farid, who had taken the seat on a transparency and anti-corruption pledge. Read into that what you will.
Moreover, during the UMNO-led government, cash was king. It pioneered publicizing those multimillion-dollar improvements, while UMNO reps would brazenly hand out envelopes of cash to people attending its events, including members of the press.
Civil servants would also receive bribes in the form of bonus payments shortly before festivals or crucial polls, ostensibly for “performance” or “to ease their burden,” the tired, clichéd euphemism for a party that wanted you to know where your bread was buttered.
For PH, it may well be trying to tackle corruption at the highest level but fundamentally there are too many people in its ranks used to a certain way of doing things.
So, it’s anyone’s guess who will win Tanjung Piai but one thing is for sure: money politics pervades.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.