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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's rural voters see more China and less Mahathir

Removal of campaign billboards stirs anger but Najib's coalition unfazed

To the minority ethnic Chinese, a closer bilateral tie with China brings confidence to the community. (Photo by Democratic Action Party)

KUALA LUMPUR -- The removal of campaign billboards promoting the opposition alliance in Malaysia's May 9 election has triggered nationalist sentiments against Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which already faces declining support among its ethnic Malay base.

Authorities snipped away billboards for Pakatan Harapan -- the Alliance of Hope -- featuring its leader, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The opposition protested the removal, noting that billboards from the ruling coalition that carry photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Alibaba Group Holding Chairman Jack Ma were allowed.

The Democratic Action Party, a member of the opposition alliance, charges that the Election Commission has sided with the ruling coalition.

The commission ruled April 24 that campaign material may include photos only of a party's president or deputy president. This excludes Mahathir, who is chairman of the Alliance of Hope as well as his own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or the United Indigenous Party of Malaysia.

The billboards are on display in Ayer Hitam, one of the rural constituencies where Mahathir still enjoys a wide following, partly due to his 22 years as leader of the country.

The Malaysian Chinese Association, a member of the ruling coalition and owner of the billboards highlighting Xi and Ma, said the signs represent the party's good relationship with China and Malaysia's involvement in the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative for international infrastructure projects.

The party touts the warmer bilateral relationship, amplified by frequent visits from Beijing's leaders as well as Chinese investments in Malaysia, including an e-commerce facility being built by Alibaba. These investments offer prospects that please Malaysia's business community.

Closer bilateral ties bring confidence to the minority ethnic Chinese community, offsetting decades of prejudice fueled by policies favoring the majority Malay population.

But some Malaysians do not see it that way.

"What have we become, Malaysia -- 'no' to Mahathir's pictures but 'yes' to the Communist president of China?" Rais Yatim, a former government minister, tweeted in Malay with photos of the billboards.

Other social media users questioned the Chinese language appearing in the billboards.

"Isn't Malay our national language?" said one Twitter posting, also in Malay, with a username Siapa.

The billboard dispute highlights disenchantment among Malays toward the ruling coalition, whom they blame for the rising cost of living.

A recent poll shows an 8 percentage-point drop in support by Malays for Barisan Nasional -- or National Front -- compared with five years ago. But the decline is not enough to defeat the National Front, pollster Merdeka Center for Opinion Research said Thursday.

Both election groups are targeting the Malay majority in rural constituencies, which account for about 56.3% of the 222 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Najib criticized Mahathir on Monday for vowing to review allegedly lopsided business contracts signed with China if the opposition wins the election.

"The cancellation of contracts will sour relations with the Chinese government and may result in economic retaliation by them," Najib told supporters in Sandakan.

Sandakan is a rural town in Sabah, one of the two states in Malaysia's portion of the island of Borneo. Along with Sarawak, both states are known as the ruling coalition's "fixed deposit" for delivering one-quarter of the seats won in the 2013 election.

But the Sabah opposition, led by Shafie Apdal, a government minister sacked by Najib for questioning the mismanagement of state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, has gained momentum.

Shafie, a Bajau native in a multiethnic state, is campaigning on the slogan "Sabah Ubah," or Change Sabah. He promises local voters more autonomy by replacing a federal-controlled chief minister.

"I hope whoever wins will continue to distribute BR1M," said Sumpa Bada, referring to a cash handout program started by Najib for the lower income group. The 45-year-old golf club worker said goods have grown more expensive, causing him to work as a ride-hailing driver to supplement his income.

Such resentment is common across the country, but it may not translate into a victory for the opposition. The ruling coalition holds the upper hand, buying loyalty with largesse and populist policies, observed Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at John Cabot University in Italy, who is following the election in Malaysia.

"Money is now the expectation, not the reward," she said.

The growing momentum for the opposition has prompted risk adviser Eurasia Group to predict only a modest victory for the ruling coalition, pressuring Najib to hand over power to a successor in time for the next election.

Researcher Ying Xian Wong contributed to this article from Sandakan, Sabah.

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