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Voting and race

ORANG Cina Malaysia, apa lagi yang anda mahu? queried the headline of an Utusan Malaysia editorial last week following the 25 April 2010 Hulu Selangor by-election. Indeed, Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians are trying to understand just what it is that will make Chinese Malaysian voters return to the BN’s fold.

Not all Chinese Malaysians voted for Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). For certain, no group is homogenous. There have also been times when BN won handsomely on the back of Chinese Malaysian votes, like in 1999. But since 2008, the trend among Chinese Malaysians in supporting the opposition has been consistent. And today, both Umno and MCA politicians blame each other for this loss of support.

What makes voters think and feel the way they do? Are they really that different according to racial lines?


Still on bread and butter

Unfortunately, that is the way national politics has been conducted. Why voters respond differently by race — not exclusively but going by percentages in vote swings — is due to decades of political socialisation.

Umno and MCA leaders have pointed out the differences between Malay and Chinese Malaysian voters. Malay Malaysians are still concerned with bread-and-butter issues, while Chinese Malaysians have moved beyond and are more concerned with national issues.

What accounts for this difference? The quick answers would be economic status and the popular reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. While true, the deeper question is, what perpetuates the situation?

“When you say that Malay [Malaysians] are still marginalised, then one should really ask, who is responsible for that? If Umno has been in power for so long, and they claim to champion Malay rights, then why has this situation persisted?” asks political observer and former academic Dr Mavis Puthucheary.

Don’t underestimate either the “dominance and deep impact of Umno’s political culture”, adds political sociologist Prof Dr Norani Othman of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

“It’s what two generations of Malay [Malaysians] have been exposed to for the last 30 years — a political culture which emphasises special privileges and a sense of entitlement, protected by Umno and perpetuated by the Malay press,” says Norani in a phone interview.

Indeed, race rhetoric has become entrenched enough so that many Malay Malaysians “are not convinced that the poor of other races should have the same right to assistance as they do,” Puthucheary tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

For Puthucheary, this political culture explains why a sizeable number of Malay Malaysians appear to respond positively to BN’s by-election incentives, and why they are less concerned with democratic issues. For one, the government is seen as a benefactor. Secondly, their rights are less impinged on compared to other communities. Democratisation and a larger Malaysian identity thus take a backseat to Malay nationalistic sentiments.


Abdul Rahman

Umno is tapping into this psychology to its advantage, notes Prof Datuk Dr Abdul Rahman Embong, also of UKM’s Ikmas. Malay Malaysian support for Umno and PAS is traditionally split down the middle with Umno having the edge. But in the Hulu Selangor by-election, Umno got 60% of the Malay Malaysian vote compared to 55% in 2008.

But Umno may have failed to appreciate how the Chinese Malaysian psyche has developed differently. This community’s political awareness is shaped by vernacular newspapers which are more critical, by clan guilds and associations. It is also honed by neglect experienced at the personal and localised level, Abdul Rahman says in an interview.

“Chinese new villages have had problems with basic amenities for a long time. These local problems become meshed with national concerns and they want long-term solutions instead of piecemeal assistance. Many [too] feel hurt by insensitive remarks made by top Malay [Malaysian] politicians, despite the prime minister’s espousal of 1Malaysia,” he adds.

For example, right-wing Malay Malaysian diatribes against Chinese-language education is felt in the lack of government funding for vernacular schools. It is also felt in the scarcity of government scholarships for non-Malay Malaysians which then drives Chinese Malaysians to slog to fund their children’s overseas or private education.


Hence, when the BN does give assistance, it’s not necessarily reciprocated with votes because “Chinese [Malaysians] see it as something they should have received before”, observes Puthucheary. Contrary to Umno‘s thinking that voters should be grateful, Chinese Malaysians feel that their success or survival was because they worked for it.

“A big part of the political socialisation of rural and working-class Chinese Malaysians is that if you’re not self-reliant, there’s no one else to help you. Life is hard and the government doesn’t help, so they help themselves. After two generations of this, [it] affects their sense of personal justice,” says Norani.

Party realpolitik

There are Umno leaders who understand such sentiments and know that dishing out election goodies is unsustainable.

Nur Jazlan
“The last two generations since Merdeka could see and feel the tangible benefits of government development. But now for the young, development is a given,” says Umno Pulai Member of Parliament Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

He feels that instead of making promises to non-Malay Malaysians, like giving money to vernacular schools, the government needs to assist based on meritocracy. For example, ensuring top-scoring non-bumiputera students receive scholarships. “We need to give young voters hope that they do have a future here. Youth without hope will kill the nation by abandoning the country.”

Indeed, that is already happening. But retaining young non-Malay Malaysians without touching bumiputra quotas remains problematic.

Nur Jazlan agrees that Umno’s culture has been one of creating dependency by being “a benevolent party and government” that throws money instead of addressing an issue. “This has to stop,” he says.

And yet, without this culture, can BN contest confidently in coming elections? Nur Jazlan expects that the current political reality is that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak will continue to use what he can to win big to obtain the mandate for another term.

“After that, I hope he will be more aggressive in changing political culture,” Nur Jazlan adds.

Can PKR, on the other hand, be a force strong enough to educate voters? Is it even interested in challenging Umno’s political culture of dependency with one that empowers citizens economically and politically?

Despite its multiracial message, recent defections suggest that PKR is still struggling to change its own political culture of patronage and personality-based politics among its Malay Malaysian constituency.

What hope then can there be for a more mature political landscape if neither political parties nor voters are willing to look beyond hand-outs and political benevolence? favicon

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7 Responses to “Voting and race”

  1. Tan says:

    Whatever the case, Malaysia can only move forwards if government policies are formulated base on needs or meritocracy rather than quotas, unless our national leaders would like to compare our economy growth with third world countries.

  2. Orang Malaysia says:

    Somebody made a comment a while ago, that Malaysian politicians should not insult the intelligence of Malaysians (with their racial talk), but as rightfully pointed out, do Malaysians have the intelligence in the first place?

    If we have, we would have voted out the government a long, long time ago, but come every election, most would have voted for BN and that is why they have stayed in power for 50 over years.

    We would not have tolerated all the stupid things that is happening to our country at all!

    To be fair, it’s true that the “rot” had set in maybe 30 over years ago, but the point is that, if we “know” what is happening to our beloved country, why don’t we vote for change?

    It is easier said than done because most of us are complacent and indifferent to what is happening to Malaysia. Some don’t even care to vote or register as voters. Yet we know that the ones who make the most “noise” in this country (i.e. Perkasa, cow head protesters) always get the attention of the government, though they are the always the minority who claim to speak for the majority!

    Malaysia, it’s time to wake up! We have remained silent for too long!

    I see potential in this country and so do my fellow friends who have chosen to remain in Malaysia to make a difference. We must be the change for things to happen. And as cliched as it may sound (Sorry Obama!) YES WE CAN!

  3. thokiat says:

    Pengundian sepatutnya rahsia. System pengendalian dan pengiraan undi kini sengaja diubah supaya pati pemerintah tahu corak pembuangan undi dan seterusnya mengeksploitasikan pembahagian kawasan undi utk menguntungkan parti pemerintah. Ini sistem demokrasi berparlimen yang serong.

  4. phang says:

    “What hope then can there be for a more mature political landscape if neither political parties nor voters are willing to look beyond hand-outs and political benevolence?”

    None whatsoever.

  5. Merah Silu says:

    Well, I think the rot of the political landscape in this country started several years before the British left in 1957. A few Umno leaders were so eager to get independence and gave away their most valued asset, the right to be citizens in the country. Almost everybody at that time was aware that the British had to surrender the country to the rightful ruler of the country, that is the Malays and their sultans.

    However, the British could not leave the country in chaos and their assets exposed to be nationalised by the new rulers. Through Umno they managed to persuade and influence their leader to work with the immigrants, mainly Indians and Chinese, to form a group to govern the country after they left. Umno’s Malays, who were too generous and too shortsighted, agreed, thinking that the non-Malays were only looking after their economic survival and were not interested in political expediency.

    Well, it was true for the older generations when they express gratitude to Malays for giving them the chance to live in this country. As immigrants, they worked very hard and grabbed every opportunity to survive. When they are now stronger, they start to demand and question the special treatment given to Malay [Malaysians]. They started questioning the constitution by giving their own favoured interpretations. They question the unwritten ‘social contract’ and demand that it is no longer applicable 50 years after the British left.

    Do they think that the new and educated Malay [Malaysians] are also happy with this unwritten ‘social contract’? We are also very unhappy! It has never happened new countries, even in Europe, to give citizenship to the collaborators of the colonial powers that could change the demographic balance. We are educated and effective enough to manage this country into the highest prosperity. These new adopted citizens bribed the the leaders of Malay [Malaysians] for their benefit and left the majority of Malay [Malaysians] in the zone where they can not be competitive anymore.

    I wish the Malay [Malaysians] could be the only rightful citizens of this country after the British left so that they could take their time to adjust and excel. They do not need to share the wealth of this country with the immigrants brought in by the British. The non-Malay [Malaysians] could be absorbed gradually based on merit. 1Malaysia could be the answer. The Malay [Malaysians are] the rightful citizens in Semenanjung, and the rest could be absorbed slowly to reach the oneness. In Sabah and Sarawak, they could have their own formula. So, we do not need to vote based on race anymore, but for a one Malay-sia. My grandfathers in the grave will smile.

  6. Kenny says:

    Puerile racial politics is the reason why I have left Malaysia, perhaps for good. I am sorry but I really don’t have the will and patience to tolerate or try to change our political landscape. Without change, Malaysia will go the way of the dodo. When we ask a Malaysian to share their views about the country, we often get replies revolving around food and racial harmony. Both are true, but the latter only in a superficial sense. I guess Malaysia’s racial harmony goes only as deep as a Malay [Malaysian] selling char kway teow. It’s a tasty treat, but having that as your staple diet leads to an early grave.

  7. Alibaba Mahathir says:

    Chinese [Malaysians] are solidly behind Pakatan because the Chinese are against corruption by Barisan [Nasional]. Let’s vote for Pakatan. Sibu has spoken. Barisan [Nasional] withheld development to Sibu and just before elections [Najib] dangled the RM5 million of the RM50 million funds that he withheld from Sibu. He thinks Sibu Chinese [Malaysians] are beggars. He [forgot] the Chinese treat his RM5 million as an insult. Listen to the responses when he made the promise, I help you, you help me.

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