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Tackling the Chinese vote

Soong drawing diagrams to illustrate situation
Fui K Soong

THERE is consensus among political analysts that one year on after the 2008 general election, Chinese Malaysians by and large remain “entrenched” in their support for the opposition. Despite problems within Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and conflicting stands on issues like hudud law among its parties, some analysts think that the trenches of Chinese Malaysian support have been dug even deeper.

How can Barisan Nasional (BN) win back the trust of Chinese Malaysians? For one, what Umno, as the lead party in BN, must learn is not to see demands by non-Malay Malaysians as attacks on Malay Malaysian privileges. To do so, a deeper understanding of the Chinese Malaysian community’s thinking and dynamics is required.

The community is complex and non-homogenous, notes the MCA-backed Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap) director and chief executive officer Fui K Soong.

No common ground

One flaw in the Umno-led BN approach to Chinese Malaysians is to assume that all Chinese must think alike. Hence, the reasoning that a single act of allocating funds to Chinese schools would be sufficient to win votes. There’s also the assumption that MCA, MIC and Gerakan can adequately cater to the non-Malay Malaysian communities.

Umno is likely reacting out of a Malay Malaysian worldview, where a common religion and shared customs are held by all Malay Malaysians. In contrast, Chinese Malaysians are a more disparate group. Soong categorises them broadly into the G1 and G2 Chinese.

G1 Chinese Malaysians include the older generation and those who adhere strongly to the three pillars of the Chinese community. The three pillars are: Chinese schools, Chinese media, and Chinese-based non-governmental groups like the clans, associations, trade guilds and chambers of commerce.

For many in this group, Mandarin is their sole language of communication. They hold an almost total-Chinese worldview, and are more likely to be interested in news about China and Taiwan than about Malaysia.

The importance of Chinese schools is paramount, as it directly ensures survival of the Chinese media. Language becomes the definer of cultural identity as there is no unifying religion for Chinese Malaysians, unlike Islam for Malay Malayisans.

Soong pic and pullquote

“Taking away Chinese schools is like taking Islam away as a pillar of Malay [Malaysian] community,” Soong says in an interview with The Nut Graph.

Comprising about 80% of Chinese Malaysians, the politics of this group is affected by economic and delivery system policies, such as licensing, permits and quotas. When it comes to Chinese schools, they want a policy of equal treatment from the government, and not allocations as “rewards” when a by-election is around the corner.

Making up 20% of Chinese Malaysians is the G2 group, the bulk of whom are aged 35 to 55. They are the professional class, English-speaking, and western-educated. Their political ideology is influenced by human rights concerns, democratic values and civil society issues.

“G2 may be smaller than G1, but they are influential because they have the resources and infrastructure to mobilise through blogs, mobile phone technology, and cell groups or social networks,” observes Soong.

This is the group of Chinese Malaysians BN needs to re-capture in the next election, she notes. This is the group that shook the ground in 2008.

Insap’s analysis shows that 40% of G2 were pro-BN in elections prior to 2008. About 25% were pro-opposition, leaving an ample middle ground of fence sitters. In 2008, support for the opposition grew, reaching 40% to 50%.

Soong pic and pullquote

“BN has very little middle ground left with the Chinese [Malaysians],” she notes.

Two other analysts interviewed, Chinese educationist Dr Kua Kia Soong and Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research director Ibrahim Suffian, concurred on the hardening Chinese Malaysian support for Pakatan Rakyat.

No unifying role for MCA

Against the diversity within the Chinese Malaysian community, MCA is unable to play a unifying role. Soong notes that while there are many Chinese leaders, there is no individual or organisation prominent enough to lead a mass of Chinese Malaysians, like the role Umno or PAS plays within Malay Malaysian society.

“Parties like MCA and DAP are only one or two of the 5,000 Chinese-based associations. MCA is not a pillar of the community and will always be competing with the other associations to gain a following.”

Insap projects that Chinese Malaysians will comprise 20% of the national population by 2020, from the present 24%. Yet, as their numbers shrink, it does not mean the community will abandon its three pillars.

Ibrahim believes Chinese schools, newspapers and associations will continue to be stabilisers of the community, though as time goes by, arguments in support of them may have less to do with the issue of cultural identity.

“The current generation identifies their culture through the three pillars. The next generation will see the pillars more as platforms to negotiate democratic space. In those institutions they see their democratic right to freedom of expression, or right to education,” he says.

This shift from cultural identity to democratic right must be grasped by Umno and BN, especially amidst voices from Umno calling for a stop to vernacular education as a way to forge national integration. If Umno fails to distinguish the right to vernacular education as provided for under the Federal Constitution, and conflates it with nationalistic fervour, racial rhetoric can only worsen in years to come.

Kua says choosing vernacular education is not a sign of being less Malaysian. He adds that mother-tongue education should be separated from the issue of racial polarisation.

Kua pic and pullquote

“It is more of a problem when a national institution like Universiti Teknologi Mara discriminates against non-Malay [Malaysians], whereas Chinese schools to begin with, are private institutions which are open to students of all races,” he says.

Overcoming inertia

There is little concern among the three analysts that smaller Chinese Malaysian numbers will mean less political clout in demanding their rights to language, vernacular education and economic equity. While this is not expected to lessen the use of the race card by some politicians, it will hopefully drive government reforms for fair treatment and good governance.

But overcoming inertia in the civil service will be an uphill task. Ibrahim notes that Najib’s best intentions may end up being stymied by bureaucracy.

Ibrahim Suffian picture and quote

“Forging a unified Malaysian identity must be felt on the ground. The general impression is that senior leaders understand and can mouth these words, but it’s another story in the middle and lower levels of government,” he says.

Yet, it must be done if all Malaysia’s minorities are to genuinely feel accepted and treated as Malaysians. Kua feels the government is left with little choice but to reform or face minorities’ power as kingmakers.

Hindraf has shown that the Indian [Malaysian] community though small, is a substantial minority and can have an impact on elections,” he says.

Recent by-elections in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau have shown the electoral strength of minority communities, especially when the Malay Malaysian vote is split between Umno and PAS.

Soong also notes the high political awareness among the Chinese Malaysian community, where roughly 90% of the group’s population are registered voters. Among Indian Malaysians, it is 68% and among Malay Malaysians, it is 75%.

The realistic scenario is that with the Malay Malaysian vote split albeit their growing numbers, and with minorities growing more vocal in pressing for democratic reforms, politically-charged race rhetoric will continue to be heard.

The only hope is that in balancing this delicate situation the government will leave racism to the politicians and take it out of the administration. Implementation, not slogans, is the key to making Malaysians of all races feel Malaysian. 

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11 Responses to “Tackling the Chinese vote”

  1. minority says:

    Yeah, it’s time the govt listened more to the minorities, do away with the majority. Nowadays, it’s the minorities making a lot of noises, because the majority allows them to do so.

  2. Andrew I says:

    G2 Chinese could be further subdivided into old school and new school. Take Kuan Yew for example: British educated but Chinaman wise.

    He knows all too well about our “dark” side and still isn’t convinced that people can change.

    In the land where openly displaying a pack of cigarettes in public can seriously jeopardise your bank balance and liberty (that’s health to most people), we can put to rest the notion that people can change, in Singapore at any rate.

    A double first from Cambridge (University) is no mean feat. The concept of home ownership had to be re-imported back to Britain by Thatcher in the 80s, for example.

    Western educated Chinese might have their hearts in the right places, but as in music, everything is rooted in old school.

  3. Jack Black says:

    This commentary does not make arithmetic sense. If the G2 comprise only 20% of the Chinese population and they are a Western-educated English-speaking group distinct from the Chinese-educated Mandarin-speaking group, why would they have any influence and power over the G1 group? True, they may have better use of technology, but that will only serve to increase their influence within their own group and not to the other groups since as you say the Chinese are not homogenous and not a monolithic group.

    Indians make up only 7.1% of the population and you can’t really say that they’ve made a significant electoral impact. Most of the Indians that lost their seats stood in Malay dominated areas, and it was the shifting of the Malay vote that caused MIC and PPP to lose electoral power, not Hindraf. Similarly DAP Indians won seats because of Chinese votes, not Indian votes. Hindraf may have had some influence in the Indian vote for some mixed areas, but the shifting of the Malay vote is the more substantial reason for Indians losing their seats.

  4. durianguy says:

    I must say that Ms Soong correctly categorised the 2 primary groups of Chinese today. I’m in the G2 category. I have the hunch that MCA and other political parties would already have this demographic analysis all along. I mean, how can you run the country without knowing your people. My perception is that country is run by a single component party i.e. Umno. The “other components” in the BN party have little influence. This is the sorry state of the matter!

    I am a Malaysian and as a tax payer, I would like to see my beloved country managed professionally and be able to compete with the rest of the world.

    I agree with Mr Kua that having a vernacular education is not a sign of being less Malaysian. No more racism! The word “demi bangsa, negara and agama” has to be change to just “demi negara”. Regardless of any race or religion, we are all Malaysians!

  5. Kam says:

    Soong got it wrong. There is probably about 25% G1 and 40% G2. There’s approximately 35% G3 who are simply Malaysian Malaysians. They have gone through the national school system, speak perfect (good) Malay and English … possibly have good higher education. And as Jack Black pointed out, his/her analysis doesn’t make sense either. The Chinese vote swing is probably about 20-30% with Chinese voting approximately 70% for the opposition. MCA? Balik lah!

  6. asian economies says:

    The key reason why the Chinese are rejecting BN is the agenda of the NEP and corruption in the government. Ironically, the NEP has benefited the Chinese more than the Malays because it made them work harder over the years.

    The press continues to be ignorant about who is the most disadvantaged group of the NEP, not the non-bumis but the Malays themselves. Both the Malay elites who benefited and those who did not benefit directly from NEP have suffered one big cost: the cost of not knowing that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Giving people crutches when they do not need them makes their legs weak.

    Morally, economically, politically, culturally and socially, the country has suffered from the NEP agenda.

    The problem is made more acute by the fact that the invisible costs to the nation (the opportunity costs of years of lagging in labour productivity and the poor morale among the different races) is much more in RM terms than the visible costs, which is probably 20% of GDP since 1970s.

    Najib knows the political significance of dismantling the NEP and he will try do this to take the thunder out of Anwar’s strategic weapon.

    And the longer the economy remains in recession, the better for reforms in Malaysia as the economic pressures from outside and inside the country will ensure that Najib’s government discard the controversial affirmative action policies.

  7. jc says:

    G1 and G2 is nonsense. The only different is between R1 and P1 (rich ones and poor ones).

  8. Kenny says:

    Th G1 group as typified by Ms Soong may best be described as grandfathers. Is she saying that 80% of Chinese Malaysians are grandfathers?

    As for the G2 group who are concerned about human rights concerns, democratic values and civil society issues, I’m puzzled that only 20% of Chinese Malaysians fall into this group. She means that 80% of Chinese Malaysians couldn’t care less about injustice as long as they can fill their stomachs and read Chinese newspapers?

    In any case the traits of the G2 group as described should see an overwhelming support for the opposition as human and democratic rights have never been BN’s strong points. Yet I’m mystified that only “25% of G2 support opposition prior to 2008, reaching 40%-50% in 2008.”

    Chinese Malaysians are just too diversified to be categorized into a mere 2 groups. Ms Soong should go out and experience the real world.

  9. Has any one at The Nut Graph or indeed anywhere else actually noticed this

  10. tkwah says:

    I will believe it when it happens. It is hard to wean a drug addict off drugs. It is also not easy to wean a lame person off his [or her] crutches. In the meantime, the NEP has nudged the Chinese [Malaysian] to be more competitive to thrive in the global market place.

  11. Fikri Roslan says:

    I think the Chinese (Malaysians) will continue [to agitate] against Malay (Malaysian)-led government. You can give them anything, but they will remain with the opposition. They will only support “the government” if the government is led by DAP and the Malay Malaysian CEO is their puppet.

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