Yet again, the elections saw the United Malays’ National Organisation (Umno), under prime minister Najib Razak, returned to power on 5 May as the biggest party in the governing National Front, or Barisan Nasional (BN), coalition. It won 133 federal seats, giving it a simple majority in the 222-seat national parliament. The opposition alliance, led by Anwar Ibrahim, won 89 seats. Umno has ruled uninterrupted since 1957 in what Time once called ‘Malaysia’s proud experiment in constructing a multiracial society’.

But could it be the beginning of the end for the seemingly impregnable Malay ascendancy that has reigned since independence? The closest election in the country’s history suggests support for the regime is shrinking to its core vote: Malays, the ethnic majority for whom the state has been shaped-in states where Malays are 70% or more of the population, the BN coalition won 67% of seats. In areas with the smallest proportion of Malays, the opposition took 78% of seats. The 13-party BN coalition got less than half of the popular vote for the first time. It was a record turnout of 85%, so voter apathy was not to blame for the slump in support.

The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, cried fraud after his three-party Pakatan Rakyat (PR), or People’s Alliance, won 44 fewer seats than the BN despite winning more votes, according to Election Commission data. Anwar and his ally Lim Kit Siang, founder of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), said they would challenge results in at least 30 seats. The Chinese party of the BN coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association, lost eight seats, its share falling to just seven, whereas the mainly Chinese DAP-the largest of the three parties in Anwar’s alliance-won 38 seats, up 10. Anwar’s own People’s Justice Party (PKR) won 30 seats, one less than in 2008, while the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) took 21, two short of its previous tally.

The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), which had accredited election observers, said the polls were ‘only partially free and not fair’. Although the campaign went ‘without any major glitches’, it said, issues such as media bias and unequal constituency sizes gave an advantage to Najib’s coalition. As the Malaysian Chroniclepointed out, ‘the electoral system is skewed in Barisan’s favour, allowing it to stack up seats in the rural Malay heartlands with far fewer voters than Pakatan needs to win seats in more urban areas.’

‘There is clear evidence of fraud,’ Anwar told Bloomberg Television. ‘We cannot continue with this semi-authoritative government.’ His party claimed it had received reports from the public on vote-rigging including voters prevented from casting their ballots because others had already done so in their name, vote-buying, unidentified voters registered at certain addresses, indelible ink that washed off and foreigners suspected of voting.

An estimated 80,000 opposition supporters protested at a stadium in Selangor, outside Kuala Lumpur, over what they called a stolen election. Despite the local police chief threatening to shut down the protest because it violated the Peaceful Assembly Act, no arrests were made. ‘We will continue this struggle and we will never surrender,’ Anwar told supporters. ‘This is merely the beginning of the battle between the rakyat [people] and an illegitimate, corrupt and arrogant government.’

The International Herald Tribune noted that some Malaysians had staged ‘silent protests‘ in the country’s shopping malls, dressing in black with tape over their mouths, according to photographs posted online and#TheSilentWalk, a Twitter feed.

Before the election, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, of the Ideas thinktank, said: ‘A change of government is something really unthinkable for many Malaysians, and that fear is what the BN is riding on. They argue that if there is change, there will be chaos.’ Najib had told Bloomberg that the fractious opposition could bring ‘catastrophic ruin’ for Malaysia. ‘Change, if not managed, can lead to a disastrous outcome,’ he said.

Along with stoking fear of political change, Umno has played to the Malay gallery with racist remarks about minorities. In one example, cited by William Case, a professor at City University of Hong Kong, on the Freedom House website: ‘Nasir Safar, a special adviser to Najib, reportedly suggested during a seminar in Malacca that the Chinese and Indians were mere immigrants (pendatang) and that Chinese women had originally come to Malaysia for the ‘flesh trade’ (jual tubuh).

It is also important to point out that the constitution itself is heavily skewed in favour of the Malays. Case noted: ‘Article 153 of the constitution enshrines the special rights of the Malays (and of other groups designated as indigenous bumiputra, meaning ‘sons of the soil’). These rights are concretised in the NEP [New Economic Policy of 1971] and its successor programmes. Malay ethnicity has also been privileged through a National Culture Policy. Non-Malays continue to harbour deep resentments over what they perceive as their ‘second-class’ citizenship.’

This formal inequality has been buttressed by inflammatory comments by ministers appealing to growing radical Islamist tendencies. In 2009, a sharia court sentenced a Muslim woman who drank beer to be caned in public. Case lists further examples in the menacing crescendo of chauvinistic Malay rhetoric as the opposition grew in potency: just four months after Najib came to power, Malaysia was rocked by the ‘cow-head incident’. Proposals to build a Hindu temple in Shah Alam, Selangor, prompted Muslim activists to parade the severed head of a cow (holy to Hindus) through the streets, kicking it around as Hindus looked on. ‘Hishammuddin, the home minister, further inflamed the Indian community by appealing to the public to empathise with the frustrations of the Malays.’ Revealingly, Najib’s predecessor as premier, Abdullah Badawi, had warned the Umno congress in 2009 that the party would perishunless it stopped suppressing dissent, jailing opponents and discriminating against the minority Chinese and Indian communities.

When the high court ruled that the Herald, a Catholic magazine, could use the word ‘Allah’ in referring to God, rescinding a ban on use of the term by non-Muslims, Muslim activists were outraged, firebombing churches. An Umno deputy minister, Ahmad Maslan, declared in 2011 that ‘Islam would be ‘lost’ if the opposition gained seats in the next election.’ He declared DAP members to be ‘agents of Christianisation’.

Another element in this combustible mix is the far right-wing Malay supremacist group Perkasa (Indigenous Empowerment Organisation), formed in 2010 in response to setbacks for BN and closely linked to the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed. When in 2010, the deputy education minister, Wee Ka Siong, questioned the policy of awarding of government scholarships to bumiputra since the 1970s. Perkasa demanded that the deputy minister be detained under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial.

Umno and Perkasa were playing a game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ to woo Malay support, Malaysian Insider quoted the DAP deputy leader, Ngeh Koo Ham, as saying. ‘We have always believed that [Perkasa leader] Ibrahim Ali is working hand in hand with Umno. Umno is using Perkasa to stir up Malay fear to force unity and make them support Barisan Nasional.’

In keeping with the ramping up of divisive language before the election, Najib suggested that the vote had become polarised along ethnic lines, calling it a ‘Chinese tsunami‘-a provocative phrase resonating with all the Cold War rhetoric of the Malaya emergency. Utusan Malaysia, an Umno newspaper, went further, screaming in its headline: ‘What else do the Chinese want?’

In fact, the results could be interpreted as signalling that the entire post-independence status quo may be breaking down as long-term grievances, barely suppressed by authoritarian government and rising prosperity, resurface. There is quite a hinterland to the calculatedly racist comments of Umno officials. When the British created the Federation of Malaya in 1948 (which became Malaysia in 1963 with the addition of Singapore and the Borneo territories now called Sabah and Sarawak), they preserved the Malay feudal elites’ political dominance, as well as the privileged political status of the Malays, even while they pushed this ‘indigenous’ community into smallholdings and rice cultivation. There were, however, strict citizenship requirements for the ‘non-Malays’ recruited from China and India into tin mining and plantation agriculture.

Amid growing social unrest and the suppression of trade unions, the British declared a state of emergency in 1948 and the ‘Emergency’ began. A brutal but ineffective attempt to suppress the communists alienated the Chinese population. Frustrated by the difficulties of fighting a guerrilla force and the deaths of planters, British officers, plus the Malay-dominated police and auxiliaries, became increasingly heavy-handed and racist in their attitudes to the Chinese. This led, according to Prof Kumar Ramakrishna of Nanyang Technological University, to the ‘forced resettlement of rural Chinese to near towns, 22-hour curfews, mass detentions and deportations of rural Chinese communities deemed guilty of non-co-operation with the authorities; collective punishment or fines on villages suspected of colluding with insurgents.’ Atrocities ensued-as seen in the notorious picture, published in the Daily Worker of 10 May 1952, of a British soldier posing for the camera holding the decapitated heads of a Chinese man and woman.

The Emergency ended in 1960 but the underlying tensions between Malays and Chinese were never resolved.

Advising the British government of the risks of ‘over-rapid Malayanisation’, a 1959 cabinet memorandum by Alec Douglas-Home, secretary of state for Commonwealth relations and later prime minister, warned that ‘Malayanisation of the government services is now proceeding much more rapidly than is really healthy. An attempt is being made to create a new generation which will be Malayan first and always The new experiment may succeed in blurring the racial division. As long as business is good and the Chinese can make money, they are willing to go along and seem to be quite good if rather superior neighbours to the Malays. But if the economic situation were to deteriorate or the Malays were to abuse their present controlling position, then an inflammable situation could easily arise and the present progress towards racial harmony would be badly disrupted.’

In 1964 there were two riots in Singapore, which led to 36 deaths, hundreds of injuries and the departure of Singapore from the federation. The Australian deputy high commissioner, WB Pritchett, declared: ‘There can be no doubt that Umno was solely responsible for the riots. Its members ran the communal campaign or allowed it to happen.’ In 1969 similar clashes erupted in Kuala Lumpur in what is known as the May 13 incident. After estimates of at least 200 deaths, the Umno-led coalition declared emergency rule for two years. The prime minister’s father, Abdul Razak Hussein, was himself the prime minister then, from 1970 to 1976.

Perhaps recognising this long history of Umno polarising ethnic groups and exploiting Malay sensitivities for political gain, many analysts took issue with Najib’s comment about a ‘Chinese tsunami’.

Robert Phang, a former Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission adviser, said in Free Malaysia Today: ‘When you look at the election results, 51% of the popularity votes went to Pakatan Rakyat and 48% was achieved by BN. So if it is 51% for Pakatan and the Chinese population is only 24%, the balance of 27% of votes must have been from the Malays and Indians.’

Boo Su-Lyn, in Malaysian Insider, noted that although there was an increase in Chinese support for the opposition alliance, it was more ‘a major swing in the urban and middle-class electorate that saw Malaysia’s urban-rural rift widen’.

Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, of the National University of Malaysia, said: ‘They [the opposition] received Malay middle-class support, especially in urban areas. The coalition lost major cities and towns from George Town to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Malacca and big towns in Johor. BN failed to win Selangor and Penang-two of the most industrialised states in Malaysia-although it retook Kedah, the mostly rural rice-bowl state.’

There had been efforts by the government to begin the shift to a more equitable citizenship. For example, Najib had removed the obligation for certain firms to have 30% Malay ownership. As Case noted: ‘Najib’s efforts, even more than Abdullah’s before him, amounted to a bold attempt to promote greater equity across ethnic communities and perhaps social classes. He drew a sharp backlash, however, from elements within the Umno and the broader Malay community.’ Bloomberg said: ‘Anwar failed to woo enough Malay voters after campaigning to end affirmative action programmes that benefited them and that had led Chinese voters to oppose Najib’s administration.’

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister to Mahathir and therefore somewhat suspect to many, is unlikely to be the man who leads the opposition to power: at 65, he may seem too old to rally the young, disaffected urban voters who are the bedrock of their support. Furthermore, many erstwhile supporters question his fealty to many of their principles. He has had associates split from him in the past decade, said Chandra Muzaffar, a former deputy president of his party. Chandra, who knew Anwar when he was imprisoned in the 1970s as a student activist, said he abandoned the opposition leader over his shifting views. ‘He was capable of presenting himself as the most liberal among certain audiences, while at the same time he’s quite comfortable hobnobbing with individuals who are more inclined toward jihadist type of politics,’ said Chandra.

Other issues have also played a part, such as corruption and cronyism, police brutality, the suppression of dissent through draconian internal security laws. According to Case: ‘Persons held in detention have routinely been abused. Questioning frequently involves torture. Deaths in police custody are common.’ The seven million migrant workers and refugees, he said, are ‘regularly abused by the Malaysian People’s Volunteer Association, a poorly trained paramilitary force of some 600,000 people.’ Censorship is entrenched, including even that subversive organ theEconomist only two years ago. There is also a serious brain drain, with Singapore snapping up Malaysia’s brightest graduates.

‘Malaysia has been changed,’ said Clive Kessler, professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. ‘All sorts of new forces have been energised, but … the old forces of Malay ethno-centrism have been given a new lease on life.’

It is hard to see how Najib or a successor can rescue Umno from their bind: having fanned the flames of ethnic tension by playing to Malay fears of losing their grip on the state, they cannot then be seen to dismantle the Malays’ entrenched ‘special rights’. However, if they do not end this inherent state bias then they will definitely lose the most highly educated Chinese and Indian Malaysians, and if they cannot hold on to this young, dynamic demographic-with all its implications for the future of the economy-then they will completely lose the Malay middle classes.

The need for Umno to adapt faster than its grassroots seems prepared to do might make the warning in 1951 ofOliver Lyttelton, secretary of state for the colonies, all too prescient: ‘The hope of building a single Malayan people might never be realised.’