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?
Puthucheary“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.
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.
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?