In the run-up to what is widely expected to be the tightest election race in the country's history, issues regarding the economy are going under the radar. Long aggrieved by institutionalised racism in the form of wide-reaching affirmative action policies and widespread corruption, a large amount of public sentiment continues to be defined by these topics. A good overview of these sentiments can be seen in this special reportage by Al Jazeera's 101 East programme. The themes in debate were race, media censorship, corruption, electoral fraud, and Islamic hudud law – sentiments widely reflected in the blogosphere and general public opinion. Many are old themes, much batted about since the 2008 elections.
At the same time, Malaysia has enjoyed relative economic success, with low unemployment and stable growth since bouncing back from the Asian financial crisis. This economic stability has sidelined various structural issues, barely registering on the political radar. For example, little is being said in this election about how wages are failing to keep pace with rising price levels. One theory points the finger at the influx of cheap labour in the country. As Asia's top net importer of low-skilled migrants, Malaysia's wages are thought be be depressed by migrants from poorer regions of South and South-east Asia, since they are willing to work for lower wages. This could explain how the rising cost of living is happening at the same time as stagnating wages, leading many Malaysians to seek jobs in OECD countries and neighbouring Singapore. Indeed, compensation is cited as one of the main reasons why as many as two out of ten high-skilled Malaysians choose to work abroad.
These are interlocking issues that play a potentially huge role in the future economic well-being of the country. But they are not featuring heavily in the election debate and not enough research has been produced for us to accurately understand the dynamics at work.
Is Malaysia trapped within a certain recyclage of grievances? The usual suspects – race and corruption – problematic as they are, could be distracting from what could be a wider debate over the country's structural weaknesses. In fact, in its heated attempt to undo identity politics in Malaysia, these mediatised debates could very well be fuelling it.