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.
“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%.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.