GEORGE TOWN, Feb 15 — DAP was part of the Pakatan Harapan federal administration and has headed the coalition’s state government in Penang for 14 years but has made little progress convincing conservative Malay voters, according to analysts.
While some Malays with urban and professional backgrounds are more receptive towards the party, most in the Malay heartland states still believe the decades-long demonisation of the party by its political opponents, they said.
While DAP has strived to undo this depiction, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) Associate Professor Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani said it will not change without a major shift in the party’s composition.
“The party will still have the ‘Chinese party’ image unless they allow a large influx of Malays, Indians, Sabahan and Sarawakian members who hold higher positions in the party,” he said.
Currently, he said the top leadership roles are still held mostly by ethnic Chinese while those from other races tend to have lower positions in the party.
“It will be difficult for voters to see it as a multiracial party because of this,” he said.
He said the rural Malays remain easily swayed by racial and religious sentiments, leaving DAP with an uphill task of winning them over, especially after decades of it being demonised by Umno.
Senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun was another who saw DAP’s image among the Malays as still unfavourable.
More worrying for the party, he said DAP was also losing its core support among the non-Malays who feared the party was straying from its struggle for equality, in its efforts to win over Malay voters.
“On the other hand, a decidedly conservative Malay majority continues to view DAP negatively, as DAP understandably still does not champion Malay supremacy,” he said.
As for the 22 months when DAP was in federal power, Oh said the stint appeared to have alienated both the Malay and non-Malays.
“The Malays saw DAP as threatening to their special rights and privileges, while the non-Malays were fuming that DAP did not restore their equal rights as Malaysians,” he said.
With the next general election due next year, Azizuddin also said it was insufficient time for DAP to clear its image as a “Chinese party” while Oh suggested that it would be pointless endeavour due to the prevailing political landscape.
As for DAP’s position in Penang, both agreed that it would remain as the party’s stronghold due to support from the sizable non-Malay urban voters.
“Penang is considered an urban area so there are urban Malays who support them as these voters do not vote based on sentiments but based on their performance, service to the people and their manifesto,” Azizuddin said.
Outside of such areas, however, Oh said DAP would find it hard going unless it was prepared to engage in patronage politics favoured by rivals.
In the recent state elections of Melaka and Sarawak, DAP already ceded many of the gains it made during the previous elections.
“Without such a base, they could hardly make inroads into the Malay heartlands,” Oh said.
When contacted, Penang DAP vice-chairman Zairil Khir Johari disagreed and said he believed the Malays’ perception of his party has improved over the last 14 years since it took over the state administration.
“When I first joined back then, it was not easy to even get into a Malay kampung but now, the situation is different, some of them even greeted me from far,” he said.
He said the party now has a number of Malay faces among its leadership and its performance as the Penang government has also helped to get rid of its image as being unfavourable towards Malays and Islam.
Zairil also said the party has garnered support from Malays in the urban areas, which Azizuddin said was true.
They both believed that the urban, middle-class and professional Malays no longer believed in the false image foisted on the party by its political opponents.
However, they both conceded that DAP still does not have a strong support base in the rural areas.
“The rural areas are not our areas,” Zairil, who is also a Penang state exco and Tanjung Bungah assemblyman, said.
Zairil said the 22 months in Putrajaya were insufficient for the party to totally change its image although it did help slightly.
As for the next general election with a large base of young voters and more parties coming in for the voters share, Zairil said it will be a unique situation in which no one could predict the outcome.
“There is no longer a single dominant party that captures the Malay voters, we have Bersatu, PAS, Umno, Pejuang and Muda on the other side and the different parties reflect the different views that the Malay voters have,” he said.
Azizuddin, on the other hand, believed that the Malay voters will stick to the traditional parties that they’ve always voted for, namely Umno, the lynchpin of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in some areas and PAS in its stronghold such as Permatang Pasir in Penang.
He said those in the rural areas who did not support BN or PAS will still go for PKR and Amanah over other parties.