Photo: Nicky Loh
The most keenly contested general election in Malaysia, on which lay hopes for a more liberal and progressive society, may now result in a hardening of attitudes towards race relations, the most thorny and volatile issue in Malaysian society, as well as a retreat into further discriminatory practices.
A program of greater inclusiveness and openness set out by Najib Razak since taking power four years ago is now in jeopardy after a weak performance by his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. After fending off a sustained campaign by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) to end Barisan Nasional's unbroken 56-year grip on power, it was a solemn and grim-faced Najib who faced television cameras to blame a ''Chinese tsunami'' for his party's weak performance in securing a 133-89 majority in parliament.
Chinese disaffection with decades of discrimination in education, employment and business, and a Malay-first rhetoric from UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), the dominant partner in the Barisan Nasional, led to the near-total rejection of UMNO's two Chinese-based parties, the Malaysian Chinese Association and Gerakan (Movement). It was also a rejection of Najib's limited moves towards liberalisation and to ease discriminatory policies.
Malaysia's Prime Minister and Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman Najib Razak celebrates his victory on election day. Photo: Nicky Loh
However, in placating UMNO conservatives who paint themselves as the victim of Chinese perfidy, a long-time theme, and setting the stage for a return to race-based politics, Najib and UMNO are going against the tide.
Malaysians voted in unprecedented numbers - an 85 per cent turnout across the country - driven by the exciting prospect, or the fear, of a real change in government. They also responded favourably to the inclusiveness projected by the Pakatan Rakyat and its charismatic leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
His partners, the secular and largely Chinese-supported Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the PAS (Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party), had long been at odds out of ideological differences over PAS's ambitions for Islamic rule. But they reached an accommodation to the extent of the DAP being willing at one stage to campaign under the Islamic party's ticket.
Barisan Nasional campaigns to drive a wedge between the two, over fears of Islamic criminal justice, failed to frighten voters, particularly when DAP and PAS supporters made it a point to carry each other's insignia.
Najib's remarks, aimed at the extremists within his party, were quickly disparaged and political analysts and commentators have pointed out the cross-community support shown in large areas of the urban centres and elsewhere.
However, those disappointed by the failure of the opposition to make further gains from the ''political tsunami'' of 2008 face the dreary prospect of seeing UMNO's conservatives taking the upper hand and perhaps rolling back some of the Prime Minister's programs.
His limited moves towards liberalisation had not won over voters in the urban belt, which is home to the bulk of ethnic Chinese, as well as the new bourgeois and working-class ethnic Malays.
The ''Chinese tsunami'' remark was at the same time directly aimed at the DAP, long a voice in the political wilderness but now the strongest of the three Pakatan partners, with 38 seats (Ibrahim's Justice Party has 30 and PAS 21).
It is also an echo of May 13, 1969, when race riots from a previous opposition success set off a series of programs to favour the dominant Malay community. DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, who first used the term ''political tsunami'' in 2008, has long been painted as the villain of the 1969 riots, despite evidence to the contrary.
With the May 13 anniversary only a few days away, the reference to a ''Chinese tsunami'' allows UMNO conservatives such as former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Najib's deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, to write a narrow racial narrative and further justify rolling back liberalisation in the hope of appealing to its traditional rural voting base by assuming the mantle of victimhood and blaming the Chinese community for their own failures.
However, it is UMNO's partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan, which have been rejected by the Chinese community's near-wholesale switch to supporting the DAP and its enthusiastic response to Ibrahim.
More worrying is the apparent rejection of modernisers within the Islamic party, three of whose candidates were not returned.
The opposition coalition lost power in the northern state of Kedah through weak leadership and internal bickering (resulting in Mahathir's son Mukhriz becoming the chief minister) but made solid gains in two other states, especially in Johor and in Terengganu. More importantly, it retained power in Penang and Selangor, both economic powerhouses and both with large ethnic Chinese populations.
Although Najib promised a process of ''national reconciliation'' to deal with the election results, it was not clear if he could reach out with more concessions to the Chinese community without the risk of alienating UMNO conservatives.
The word ''national'' is often used as code for ''Malay'' within UMNO and it remains uncertain whether Najib's plans for reconciliation mean placating UMNO conservatives while reaching out to the Islamic party in order to regain appeal with the Malay masses.
However, time is running out on UMNO and the Barisan Nasional. The conservative rural Malay masses are outnumbered by the new urban Malays and the May 5 election has shown that UMNO and Barisan Nasional's hold on power is largely propped up by three states: Johor, Sabah and Sarawak, which between them provide 83 seats.
The benefits of education and a free flow of information through the internet will erode those advantages. But in the immediate future, Malaysians will look to see if the ruling party will get over its fixation on race as the basis of policy, or if it will take heed of the lesson of the election results, that a new generation of Malaysians will no longer respond to the rhetoric of fear.
Gobind Rudra is a Malaysian political commentator and former newspaper editor.