Malaysia State Polls: Millions Set to Vote Today, With Politicians ‘Throwing the Kitchen Sink’ in Last-Ditch Attempts

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Up to 9.7 million Malaysians across six states will cast their ballots on Saturday (Aug 12) for 245 local legislators, with rival coalitions hoping to reap rewards from last-ditch attempts to woo support by unveiling policies, making promises and even issuing warnings.

Among the list of moves was Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s announcement on Friday that his unity government would try to raise government salaries, while opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) leader Muhyiddin Yassin has also vowed to utilise Selangor’s state reserves for the benefit of the people. 

Observers say these are efforts to persuade fence-sitters, with varied tactics deployed to maximise chances of appealing to different voter groups. One analyst even describes Mr Anwar as “throwing the kitchen sink” with last-minute promises.

They add that even though the state polls do not directly affect Malaysia’s federal policies, stakes are high with poor results potentially weakening Mr Anwar’s political credibility, his reform plans, and the stability of the unity government, while Mr Muhyiddin’s position in PN may be under threat.

Analysts, however, generally don’t think these late moves by the ruling Pakatan PH-Barisan Nasional (PH-BN) alliance and the opposition PN coalition will have any bearing on voters.

“Most of the voters have already made up their minds during the campaign trail, and the last-minute announcements are unlikely to make them change who they will vote for,” BowerGroup Asia director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani told CNA.

RULING COALITION’S MOVES

Capping its list of 11th-hour attempts, Mr Anwar made an impassioned speech in wrapping up PH-BN’s campaign at the coalition’s rally in Sungai Petani, Kedah on Friday night.

In front of thousands of supporters, the prime minister pledged to “implement financial incentives” for paddy farmers, rubber tappers and lower income Malaysians across the country after the polls. 

“Give us the chance to work hard for you. God willing we will carry all the states in Malaysia to be economic giants,” said Mr Anwar. 

“God willing, this unity government will continue for the remainder of its 5 year-term,” he added.

Mr Anwar, who is also the finance minister, had announced earlier on Friday that the government is trying to slightly raise the salaries of civil servants through the second Madani Budget that will be tabled in Parliament in October.

He was quoted as saying by Bernama that this is a temporary measure until a comprehensive study on the salary and retirement scheme for civil servants is expected to be completed next year.

On Thursday night, he also unveiled a plan to raise workers’ salaries, saying that his government plans to provide RM1 billion (US$218m) to RM2 billion for this goal, in an effort to ease the burden faced by the people. 

“We have made a proposal and are in the final stages of the study, because (while) we cannot force the companies to raise the workers’ wages, (we) can use mechanisms such as the minimum wage,” he reportedly said.

The matter had been discussed at the Cabinet after taking into account the fact that workers’ wages were not increased despite companies making profits of up to RM1 billion, said Mr Anwar, adding that the proposal would help raise wages from RM2,000 to RM2,200. 

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at a unity government rally in Hulu Kelang, Selangor on Aug 10, 2023. (Photo: Facebook/Anwar Ibrahim)

Mr Anwar also issued a warning on Thursday to politicians and their supporters in ridiculing and taking advantage of Islam, saying that a proposal has been submitted to King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah to impose strict action against those who mock Islam.

Earlier on Friday, caretaker Selangor chief minister Amirudin Shari declared that next Monday would be a public holiday if PH-BN wins the polls in the state.

During a live broadcast, Mr Amirudin, who’s the Selangor PH chairman, also promised to enforce five measures introduced in the unity government’s “Kita Selangor” manifesto within 100 days of taking office. 

The five measures include providing RM1,000 in aid to 5,000 women to reduce their childcare costs, waiving the assessment tax for low-cost houses and village homes, and gifting RM200 book vouchers to 1,000 university students in Selangor. 

An increase in allowance will also be provided for mosque leaders and administrators, as well as an incentive of RM1,000 for 500 farmers and fishermen in Selangor.

OPPOSITION’S EFFORTS

Mr Muhyiddin also spoke on Friday night at PN’s rally in Taman Melawati, Selangor, in an effort to swing support in the bellwether state.  

He claimed that the current government led by Mr Anwar was “hopeless” and had not done anything for the people since assuming power last year.   

He said that the people were suffering because of the economic situation and the rising cost of living.

“We have a vision for the state. Selangor will become a supersmart state with planning of at least 15 years ahead…Selangor must look ahead so that it doesn’t just be the most developed state in Malaysia but can match places in other countries,” he said.  

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Muhyiddin had reaffirmed PN’s promise to invest over RM2 billion in initiatives outlined in its Selangor manifesto, according to the New Straits Times (NST). 

He noted the coalition would utilise the state’s financial resources to fulfill their campaign promises. 

“What is the point of keeping so much money in the reserves when times are tough? That is why we will use a part of the state’s reserves to fulfil the PN’s manifesto,” he reportedly said. 

He added that should PN assume leadership in Selangor, a re-evaluation of the Selangor Maritime Gateway (SMG) initiative – an RM700 million river-widening project – would be undertaken. 

The project gained attention after PN election director Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor alleged that the project, which engaged a firm owned by Menteri Besar Selangor (Incorporated), would result in Selangor incurring an approximate loss of RM180 million, according to NST. 

Selangor is Malaysia’s biggest economic contributor, contributing 25.5 per cent of the national GDP last year.

PROJECTED OUTCOMES

According to Malaysia’s constitution, state legislators are responsible for enacting policies for their respective states in issues of land matters, Islamic law and the local government. 

Authority is mostly concentrated in the hands of the federal government, with state governments having access to fewer resources. 

Traditionally, state elections in Peninsular Malaysia are held at the same time as the general election. 

However, the six states controlled by PH-BN and PN decided not to hold state polls at the same time as the November national polls as they said they needed to prepare for the annual monsoon floods from November to March.

PH is for the first time working with former rivals BN in the polls, which comes about eight months after federal elections resulted in a hung parliament.   

Analysts have earlier projected that the status quo will remain after the Aug 12 polls, but with PN gaining more support in their strongholds. 

While analysts expect the unity government coalitions of PH and BN to retain control of Penang, Negeri Sembilan and Selangor, they predict that the opposition PN will emerge from the polls with more seats in these states than it currently has.

PN is also expected to win comfortably in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah – where it is the incumbent – and may also win more seats which will pressure the government to “move to the right”. 

LAST-MINUTE EFFORTS UNLIKELY TO CONVINCE VOTERS: ANALYSTS

Analysts that CNA spoke to say that the last-minute attempts at earning the favour of voters may not have a large impact as most would have already made up their minds. 

Political analyst Professor James Chin of the University of Tasmania tells CNA that Mr Anwar is campaigning hard and “throwing the kitchen sink” with last-minute promises as he is trying to persuade fence-sitters. 

“It also shows that perhaps Anwar is not confident of a positive result and needs this last push to garner any support they can,” said Prof Chin. “Anwar is a strong orator, so … if he can win over the fence sitters then PH-BN might have an edge going into Saturday.”

Political analyst Dr Sivamurugan Pandian from Universiti Sains of Malaysia (USM) has observed that both coalitions are playing it safe and seem to be still moving slowly during the last stretch of campaigning.

He believes that the offers being made were not really new and that they were mostly reiterations of the manifestos that have been previously announced.   

Besides being too late to sway voters, he says another main issue is a possible poor turnout at the polling stations.

“We are looking at voter fatigue because some feel there is too much character assassination among other things. The turnout will determine the outcome,” he added. 

“If the turnout of the non-Malays was low, this could be in favour of PN for Selangor in example,” he said, adding that historically, state polls that were not held concurrently with federal polls saw lower voter turnouts.  

Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) supporters outside a nomination centre in Sungai Pusu, Selangor, on Jul 29, 2023, ahead of the state election. (Photo: CNA/Fadza Ishak)

Meanwhile, BowerGroup Asia director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani notes that the unity government’s last-minute moves, including Mr Anwar’s warning against ridiculing Islam, are targeted at wooing the conservative Malay voters, though it is unlikely to change the minds for a bulk of them. 

Mr Asrul adds that this is because Mr Muhyiddin and his coalition have been running an effective campaign on mobilising the Malay votes and encouraging them to vote, with a focus on disgruntled party members and UMNO supporters.  

Adding that the ruling coalition’s moves are only likely to win over fence-sitters, Mr Asrul adds: “Most of the (Malay) voters have already made up their minds during the campaign trail, and the last-minute announcements are unlikely to make them change who they will vote for.”