Explainer: Key issues as Malaysia gets set to go to the polls

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Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called for an early election on Monday, to win a stronger mandate and stabilize a rocky political landscape that has persisted in the wake of the multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal and COVID crisis.

Here are the key issues that will determine how Malaysians vote:

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Economy & inflation

Rising prices and economic prospects will be voters’ top consideration as the government and the central bank have warned of slowing growth next year.

The economy is expected to expand 4 percent-5 percent next year, following this year’s expected 6.5 percent-7 percent growth.

Prices have been creeping up, especially for food items.

The government has said it will trim back subsidies from 2023 due to fiscal pressures, which could result in further price increases if the new administration proceeds with the plan.

“The top issue (in the election) would be socioeconomic well-being which is rapidly deteriorating,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with Singapore’s Institute of International Affairs.

Most of the country’s ethnic-Malay majority would expect the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party “as being most willing to provide handouts during these harsh times,” he said.

UMNO, as part of the Barisan Nasional alliance, governed Malaysia for more than 60 years since independence until 2018 when it was ousted due to widespread corruption allegations.

The Malay nationalist party has built its support over the years through a strong system of patronage, especially with ethnic Malays.

Political stability

Malaysians have been frustrated with the power struggles and politicking that have rocked the country since the historic election win by the opposition over UMNO.

The win by the Mahathir Mohamad-led alliance was the first by the opposition in Malaysia’s history.

Since its ouster, UMNO has tried to make its way back to power and has been the main source of turmoil, with infighting both within its ranks and with its alliance partners.

The country has had three prime ministers in the last two years, at a time when the economy has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Announcing the dissolution of parliament, Ismail said political instability has had a negative impact on the economy and expressed a need to return the mandate to the people.

Analysts also expect the instability to hurt voter turnout, especially among those who traditionally vote for the opposition, due to political disillusionment.


Graft was a key reason for UMNO’s defeat in 2018, and some critics say a convincing UMNO election win in the upcoming election could worsen corruption and see the return of graft-tainted politicians to power.

Several of the party’s top leaders were charged after the election loss, and they are the ones who urged Ismail to call for early polls.

Ismail last month announced a wide-ranging misconduct probe against a former attorney-general who had brought graft cases against UMNO officials.

Former premier Najib Razak, along with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and several other senior party officials, were slapped with dozens of corruption charges. All have denied wrongdoing, with Najib and Ahmad Zahid describing the charges against them as politically motivated.

In August, Najib started a 12-year jail term after being convicted of corruption and money laundering in a case linked to the multibillion-dollar financial scandal 1MDB. He still faces four other trials.

Race and religion

Race and religion remain divisive issues in Malaysia - a diverse, multi-ethnic country of some 32.7 million people.

Ethnic Malays, who are mainly Muslim, and indigenous groups make up about 70 percent of the population, while the rest are made up of mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Conservative Malays, who make up the bulk of voters, were more likely to return to supporting UMNO after feeling sidelined by Mahathir’s administration, which saw a higher number of non-Malays appointed to high-ranking cabinet positions.

“For most Malays, it’s UMNO or at least the Malay parties being firmly in charge of any future government,” said political analyst Oh.

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